The Fox at Dawn


Froggyland: September 8 2021
September 7, 2021, 9:16 pm
Filed under: Teaching, Theater Making, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

Sometimes we chase that rabbit right down its hole. We did it today in my second period drama class, my smallest high school class of two students and myself. We went over Cassie’s assignment from last week- “Ripped From the Headlines”- one of several generative writing prompts for our ten minute play project. The assignment was to find three headlines that caught their attention for dramatic possibilities. They were to write about how it might be explored on stage, including the link for reference. Like most of our drama assignments, I give them time to work on them in class and then we share them and talk about them. I offer all sorts of news outlets for them to explore, but they are more than capable of finding their own. We are all inundated with news headlines wherever we go and whatever we do, most of it click bait, designed to make us want to click on it so that we see their particular ads ads and more ads. But I love these juicy headlines, and so do the kids. Florida Man headlines alone could fuel our whole play festival. Well, Cassie found this one on NPR: Welcome to Froggyland, the Croatian Museum that may soon come the US. 

I clicked on it there in class and a rabbit hole opened up that was, and continues to be, irresistible. We were fascinated, delighted, repelled and awestruck all at the same time. It is a museum dedicated to the work of Hungarian taxidermist Ferenc Mere who created it sometime between 1910 and 1920.  Over 500 frogs in 21 dioramas depicting a wide variety of human activities, life in the early 20th century. Beautifully preserved, no incisions, he used a laborious process of removing the insides of the frogs through their mouths and then stuffing them with sawdust and cork. He then posed them in a circus, a schoolroom, a pool hall, an orchestra, a dentist office, on and on and on. Really you can’t take your eyes off them. 

The whole collection was found in a Serbian attic 50 years ago and then sold to the grandmother of the current owner, Ivan Medvesek, whose parents started the museum years ago first as a traveling exhibit. Now it’s in a building outside the walls of an ancient palace built for the 4th century Roman Emperor Diocletian in the Baltic resort town of Split in Croatia. Its brochure says “Froggyland and first love will never be forgotten.”

I haven’t stopped thinking about Froggyland all day. I abhor taxidermy, it makes my skin crawl, and yet…and yet- why can’t I stop looking?

I guess it’s because of the questions. How did Ferenc Mere start this? Why frogs? And most importantly to me, I can’t stop wondering about how he accomplished this work in the midst of the Great War. Was it made as a sort of response to the war? That war was the end of a way of life as it was known in Europe, it ushered in the century of violence that followed. Did Ferenc labor on preserving his small world as his larger world was blown to bits?

And I wonder how the collection came to be in a Serbian attic. What journey did it make, how did it survive. Was it stowed there for safe keeping during the Second World War and then forgotten? I am imagining a new homeowner making a shocking discovery as they come into possession of their new home. 

Attendance at the museum has been down during the Pandemic. And the current owner is a little weary of the frogs, a family inheritance he never asked for. He says that he is selling it to US investors. I find myself hoping it might go on display somewhere nearby.

It is a morbid fascination I admit, but look at the artistry! The skill! The humor!  And it doesn’t hurt that I have my own love of frogs, though I prefer them alive or fictional. There are quite a lot of them in the middle grade novel I have almost finished writing. And there is the prettiest young frog currently residing in my little fish pond. I spy on her with my binoculars any chance I get. 

Froggyland makes me happy because it makes me wonder. Humans are often terribly disappointing, but then they are also endlessly interesting. In such an horrific time, Ferenc Mere made a harmonious and timeless little world, literally out of death. I want to learn more about him. I want to see his work. And I hope Cassie writes her play.



Land of Oz: six

The K-12 Musical is an impossible event that happens every year at the school where I teach theater. Impossible and yet we do it. This year could have been the year we didn’t do one, and no one would have taken it amiss. But I wanted my seniors to have their last show. I wanted the school to have something we could all do that was three dimensional, something that engaged not just our minds, but our bodies and voices as well. And so I devised a version of The Wizard of Oz that took place outdoors before a limited audience that travelled with Dorothy through the Land of Oz. Over a hundred children aged 6-18 took part. Even more added their voices to the music recorded in music class, some even composed the spooky music I added to the sound design. These blog entries are a brief chronicle of the production, the following pieces were born just before before the last great week of rehearsal known as Tech Week.

Cue the despair

I’ve hit that inevitable stage
Where I’m certain
There’s no way in Hell
Heaven or Earth
I can pull it off.
The tasks are insurmountable
The kids don’t know what they are doing,
And what’s more, they never will.
No matter how hard I pull,
It’s not going to cross the finish line.

Time to get a big haircut.
It’s my only hope.

Sunday morning at Cave Hill

I am pretending for a little while that the world of Oz is not barreling down on me, that I have all the time in the world to sit here on this stone bench, content in the knowledge that there is a fox family safely cuddled in its den, just to the right of the azalea hedge. A glimpse of them would be more than I could stand. The gates just opened, I’ve not seen anyone else except for a grounds crew whacking the grasses around the graves near the great gingko tree-  FOX!

Look at what the Korte Family made! Glory!
All the things 
still to be done
Jostle for center stage,
Twist into a familiar headache
And wake me hours before dawn-
What about me? Me! I was here first,
You haven’t forgotten about me, have you? Me!
Puzzle pieces clamor
To be put in their place.
Breathing at the meditation window,
The sky is full of helicopters
Hovering over some disaster 
Unfolding across the river.

There’s a brawl inside my head,
I cannot hear the birds who sing before first light.
Their faith in the dawn does not forsake them.


Dorothy’s House under construction.
Careening into Tech Week

Fatigue makes it harder to keep my footing
In the stream of special requests
To miss rehearsals
To miss performances
dance recitals, horse shows, 
track meets, college visits, 
haircuts, doctor’s appointments
so sorry couldn’t be helped 
hope it’s not too much trouble
too much trouble
too much
my brain is spinning 
like Dorothy’s house-
How do I make that work?
Steal ten minutes here, fifteen there,
lunch, recess, practice, prepare.
I’m supposed to be able to pull
Whatever I need out of my little blue bag,
Voila, I’m supposed to say,
Here is your solution
Here is how we will make this work
But today I don’t think
I’m a good enough wizard to manage it.


Land of Oz: five
This is part five of an experiment chronicling my production of the All-School outdoor CDC compliant production of Wizard of Oz with 104 students aged 6-19, an utterly insane thing to do. But golly we are having fun actually doing something instead of just talking about it. Using our bodies and hearts and hands and voices instead of just our wheel spinning minds.
How large everything seems to the small.

I walk a long line of winged monkeys
From the first and second grades 
Down the hall of possibilities
Through paint and peppermint
Past yarn flowers and poetry,
Around Basquiat pastels and revolutionaries, 
Across habitats and treasure maps,
On the way to rehearse our wicked monkey ways.
Little Ava walks beside me in the lead,
Telling me proudly this is her third show,
How first she was a squirrel and then a frog.
I remember, I say, with a smile behind my mask.
She whispers as we turn the corner to middle school-

I heard some of the monkeys will capture Dorothy.
Yes, I say, it’s true. Two monkeys will fly her away to the witch’s castle.
Will they get to touch Dorothy?
Her reverence brings me to a stop.
Why yes, they will. 

Oh I hope it’s me, she says softly with all the longing in the world,
I just want to do something important.



Land of Oz: four
The Wizard
Is no wizard.
He’s a sixth grade boy 
Named Anthony.
An earnest boy
New to the school
Who spent the year 
perched on the edge 
of a homeroom 
full of rock stars 
and little generals.

Before it all began outside of my own head, I held a Zoom meeting, 
and told everyone that the leads would most likely come from the high school. 
Then I got this email:

	Dear Mrs. Crawford (because everyone my age is a Mrs.)

I don't know if you remember me 
but I shadowed for the 6th grade class
December 4th in 2019 
I am also the kid who asked 
if he could be 
the Wizard of Oz. 

I just wanted to give a reason why-

In the movie they are trying to find 
the Wizard  
and they think of him 
as the strongest man in the world. 
When they pull back the curtain 
they are disappointed. 
Well, I am not very threatening 
and I am not all big and bad, 
So, when they pull back the curtain 
They’ll be disappointed to find 
that a 12 year old boy 
is the Wizard of Oz.

Sorry about the long email,
Sincerely Anthony

One good thing about me- 
I know a good idea when I hear one. 
Reader, I cast him.
And he already knows his lines.


Land of Oz: three
Toto


Teachers aren’t supposed
To have favorites.
But to hell with it,
My favorite is Toto.


Progress


Over a year-
Speaking to screens
And tiny boxed faces
Pushing words around 
The vertical page,
Flattening the world
Into a screen share,
Sending my voice
Into the void------

I spend the sun bright morning
Unpacking a recent costume donation
A Christmas morning of airing out
Someone else’s dreams
Sixty year old handsewn sequined
Razzle dazzle let’s put on a show
Heart and soul for all to see
One show stopper after another
And there it is-
A shimmering pearlescent
Ivory beaded flapper dress
That makes its own light
Just the right size
Just what was needed.

I hang it on the rack 
next to Glinda’s name
and say to myself-
now we’re getting somewhere.
_______

Ask just ask
The lesson I cannot seem to learn

I put out a list of things
Needed for the show
Items I don’t have or can’t find
Tasks that need other hands.
I tack it on to the
Weekly rehearsal reminder 
Sent out on Sunday afternoon
As it occurs to everyone at once
That a Monday morning looms.

Within minutes offers land like
Cards laid down by a Vegas dealer-
I can help paint
I can help sew if it’s by hand
I found these masks for you
What about these Fez hats for the flying monkeys?
Ordered and on their way, you should have them in two days.
Dizzying, the generosity of our little world.

So I’m giving it a shot
Since I may be on a roll.
World- can you send me a companion
For this my third act?
Kind and funny
Wicked when it suits us
Able to read my handwriting
Prospering and generous,
Good with all things money, 
Good with all the things I hate,
Open hearted as an old explorer,
Odysseus after he’s planted his oar.
Maybe throw in a home in New Zealand
Or Prince Edward Island?
Oh, and let him be patient,
Eternally patient,
With my blistered heart
As it gets used to safety,
Gets used to the feeling of home.


Land of Oz: two

Rehearsals continue for the biggest show I’ve ever directed in the shortest amount of time I’ve ever attempted. 104 young actors, k-12 in a great big outdoor play that moves from place to place. These are some snapshots. My first pass at trying to get at what compels me so about making theater with the young.

April 7th

Today was music day

At the piano like old times
In Tucker Hall
Our post war cafetorium
dark all this last year. 
People have trouble remembering
How to turn on the lights.

	A sudden wind blows
	In the smell of rain
	Coming soon.
	The trees dance.

It felt so good to us to be back again
Where we’ve all rehearsed so many things

        Rehearse
        Go over 
        again and again
        Conjure the story
        Up out of the page.

Dorothy sings like an angel,
Everyone in school knows this.
No one could imagine a different Dorothy.

Tin Man’s voice has dropped so low
It needs a rescue party
To haul it to the note.

The Lion is afraid to sing.
Bold and hilarious in our small class,
Today she is hiding behind her mask.

The Scarecrow is in quarantine.
He visited a college over break
And now must bide his time.

One step at a time we go,
Trusting the path.

	Raining now
	Lightning and thunder
        Spring’s first.
        Resurrection rushes in.



I did an inventory of what I had stashed behind the stage from the last couple of productions, mostly pieces of the rigid foam insulation which is the best thing that has ever happened to school theater design. I congratulate myself that I found room to save all those large scrap pieces from when I cut out the giant cattails last year and the London skyline the year before that. These will do nicely for the Emerald City, painted green and made sparkly. The playground transformed. And I’ve got plenty of stone wall flats for the witch’s castle, I won’t have to buy any new sheets of insulation. Which is good because I’ve blown the budget on that revolving house.

April 8th

Emerald City.
Middle Schoolers.
So much to prove.
Bravado and bluster,
Bruising like peaches.

Playing on the playground
Explaining how the play
Moves from place to place
The audience must follow.
There are different ways to tell a story.

(God I hate directing through the mask. The wind the traffic the lawn mowers- my voice can’t cut through to their ears. I hate that I can’t see their whole faces. I hate that they can’t see mine.)

Movement is set
Direction is given
Music 
We play the scene
Seems simple, it’s not.
Seems easy, I’m glad.
It’s not.

The sky to the West is suddenly dark
The Witch seems to be making an entrance.
A few droplets and we make the call 
To evacuate Emerald City. 
We pack it up, 
Make sure everyone 
Has everything,
enter the Lower School doors 
and trek to the gym
From kindergarten to high school,
An entire childhood traversed in minutes.

The sky bursts 
Thunders down on the roof.
We giggle, we made it
Just in time.





2.25.2021 Snowdrops

They have done exactly what we asked them to do, the children. Last March, almost a whole year now, we asked them to retreat down into the safety of their screens as we closed the schools down. Of course it had to be done. Down down down they went into their respective burrows. Their lives became very small, smaller still through the winter that has kept us mostly indoors. Being with anyone other than family is a rarity. Going to the grocery is an occasion.

            The school where I teach has offered in person classes since the middle of fall. Not everyone chose to come back, but the ones who did, came back to a wildly different school. It’s a pod-based world where they sit in one room safely (it is hoped) distanced from the desk next to them. All day they sit there, unless the weather allows for breaks outside. The teachers of the various subjects come to them, lunch is brought to them.  They sit. A lot of us teachers try to get them moving as much as possible, but it is getting harder and harder to get them to do it. At least the middle school classes I am teaching. I go into their pods to teach them, but I am also simultaneously teaching the other pods down the hall and the kids at home who have chosen to simulcast their classes. So I am teaching the kids in the pod face to face, only I am tethered to the tiny computer camera through which I try to reach all the other students. It’s schizoid. I teach theater. Normally this is an on-your-feet class full of games, team building, improvisations and rehearsals all working toward an end of semester production. All of this has been shot to hell this last year, though my high schoolers and I have created original plays written for and about Zoom that I am very proud of.  Zoom plays don’t work in the hybrid middle school world though.

            The year has dragged on and on. Often I feel myself floating above my life feeling that I have dreamt it. I have to remind myself at times that I am actually a teacher, that I have a job at a school that is real and that I am teaching real classes. And if I feel that way, I know the kids do too. School may not feel real at all to them, the assignments, the online lectures, the tests. There is so little you can actually touch. The body is not involved at all. It’s all blah blah blah, a tiny head in a box. 

            The winter has been hard on us all. I’ve become invisible to kids I have known for years, kids I’ve directed, laughed with, applauded for. The first day back from winter break, I walked into a classroom and said ‘hello, I’m so happy to see you’ and no one raised their head. They are sunk down into their chromebooks, some have earphones on. They don’t see me, they don’t hear me. I am not real to them. Their bubbly banter is gone. If they are communicating with each other, it is through subterranean tunnels connecting their burrows that we cannot see. Last March we asked them to live inside their screens and they complied. They are down there now, in their cozy tunnels or their snide dens (if they are seventh graders). I stand at the entrance and call down to them- Can you hear me? Is anybody home? Ollie Ollie in come free!

            The sun is returning, there are warmer days ahead. I’ll do my best to lure them out again, create a safe place for us all to play.  I pray that they are like the snowdrops now blooming all over my hillside. Once the weight of winter has melted away and the danger has lifted even a little, I pray that there they all are- blooming, undamaged, undiscouraged.

Spring. All is resurrected, you might as well be too.



4.13.20 Young God
April 13, 2020, 9:02 pm
Filed under: Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing | Tags: , , ,
Spent a little too much time in front of a screen today.

I wrote the piece below some time ago, a few years ago in fact. I came across it a few days ago and it made me think again about how much I’ve been longing for a change in the way time is spent, about how hard it is to step outside time’s current. I’m sorry, deeply sorry for the pandemic and the loss and suffering it is causing. I’m also relieved to sit on the bank for a time and watch the river rush on, online teaching aside…

Young god
 
Just try getting to the heart of anything
in the divided day,
patchworked with tasks
driven by calendar alerts,
servant to the god of Newton.
 
·      don’t forget you have to
·      make sure there is enough to
·      pick up so and so at such and such a time
·      you must remember to
·      do you have time for
·      make sure that so and so knows
·      how long will it take to
 
(plan teach assess grade sweep clean weed water 
feed clear wash dry fold put away pay collect 
calculate estimate gather cook serve take away 
pick up drop off control keep safe compose send
 flag mark as unread trash)
 
The gods of Jung sow seeds of revolution 
in my sleep,
where strange long halls in my house open 
to unknown rooms whose ceilings 
are nothing but stars,
where icy seas lap the curbs of my city
and navigation requires a true horizon.
 
The ancient ones are roused,
the gods of breath and pulse,
of water, wind, leaf and stone.
They are shouting now,
Clamoring between my daylight steps,
I must stop or be tripped-
 
    Smash all the clocks!
    Tear the leaves from the calendar
    and let them fly through the windows!
    Throw them all on the tracks,
     the train you scheduled is barreling through!
 
You foolish young god, you,
Time is your own invention.
 






April 12th, 2020 Easter

I heard the owl at 3am , softly calling somewhere outside my window- ‘Rise love, the world is here.’ I sat for a long time, leaning on the windowsill listening.

Like everyone, my little world has been upended. The carefully constructed fortresses of daily life were just castles made of sand after all. The lesson plans, the plays in rehearsal, the assessments, meetings, celebrations have all melted away. And I’m fine with that, more than fine, my heart swells with relief. There are concerns, there are hazards- worries over exposure, each decision to engage with the world outside my garden is fraught with dire consequences. How do I protect my daughter and my mother from both exposure and the depression of isolation? My daughter’s mental health balances on the edge of a dinner fork even on good days. Her eating disorder has been rallying strength, as has the urge to self harm. Some of these days have been hard indeed. I too must be careful not to fall down my own rabbit hole as I stare too long at the computer screen on some days, as all my teaching and work has moved to the virtual world.

But there is joy too, such joy! Time uninterrupted to meditate on beauty, earth’s unfailing dedication to life on full display as spring pushes up through the nurturing dark and blooms all around me. My heart sings with my good luck to live here in Her garden. Along with flower and leaf, the frogs have made it through the winter and now sun themselves on the rocks at the edge of the little pond. Bats have returned to the sky. Birds of every kind are busy courting and building their nests. I hear the owl every night now, calling me back to myself. I am being given both courage and time to tend to my own work, the secret work of my heart made manifest in the stories I am writing and the art I make.

I tend the garden yes, but the garden also tends me.



2/16/20 In Defense of Jesus: Letter to a Reverend
February 16, 2020, 10:38 pm
Filed under: Faith, memory memorabilia re-membering, Teaching | Tags: , , ,
Morning Sadhana

Dear Reverend,

Not for the first time have I come out of a worship planning meeting troubled and puzzled. I’ve been thinking about it for days now and need to put some thoughts down on paper so I can look at them and share them with you, if you don’t mind. What I am troubled by is the dismissive and even belittling tone of the comments made by worship ministry members about the Christian tradition, specifically Easter and Christmas Eve Vespers. I have heard these remarks before, in other meetings and in the halls, often accompanied by a knowing laugh as if to say ‘Yes, well, we know better than to believe in all that’ and I have to say it hurts my heart and makes me sad. I don’t believe those remarks are consciously made to make anyone feel bad, but that’s just it, isn’t it? Isn’t this an inclusive community, isn’t the Unitarian church consciously welcoming everyone? All faiths and beliefs and lack of beliefs are welcome here, except those who follow the teachings of Jesus? I am puzzled. Remarks made by the Worship Ministry on Wednesday seemed to suggest that the inclusion of the Gospel stories at Vespers is done only to placate those who ought to know better and that’s plenty of Jesus for the whole year. It is an attitude of superiority that makes me very uncomfortable.

No room at the Inn or the manger.

At the same time, I am grateful for the discomfort because it leads me to reflect on my own beliefs and I am surprised at my own warmth of feeling for Jesus and his teachings. I have been a spiritual seeker since I was a child, first embracing the teachings of Jesus in an almost progressive Presbyterian church. I went on to absorb lots of teachings from varying faith traditions, making it a point to attend different services whenever I could- from Pentcostal revivals in Eastern Kentucky to Sikh Gurdwaras in New Mexico. I’ve studied Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and Sikhism academically as well as spiritually. In my mid-fifties now, I suppose I’m more of a Sikh than anything (the word even means ‘seeker’), I embrace Guru Nanak’s teaching that all rivers lead to the ocean. Every morning before dawn, I practice my sadhana with Kundalini yoga and meditations with Sikh prayers. But I also observe Christian liturgical holidays and have found the richness of biblical scripture to be an endless source of reflection and inspiration. 

 I also understand the frustration many people feel with the seeming nonsense of a lot of Christian churches- the holding on to the ancient patriarchal language and dogma, the outrageously ornate and cryptic masses, the ‘my way or the highway’ road to salvation, the unforgivable use of cherry-picked scripture to judge and condemn others. Every time I attend a Catholic mass and the priest, all decked out in gilded glory, ponces over to the golden garage to get out the host to share exclusively with Catholics in good standing, it takes everything I’ve got not to stand and shout with my finger in the air “I protest!” I feel so very angry. And I cannot help imagining the dismay of Jesus if he were to walk into such a spectacle. I imagine him saying ‘This isn’t what I meant at all’. But see, maybe I’m guilty of fashioning Jesus in my own image just as others do. I could be totally wrong about what he meant when he broke bread with his friends the night before his betrayal. Whatever he may have meant, the communion I shared with my church in Chicago, the small but mighty Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, was so powerful, so dear, so transformative that I crave it still and judge other communions by its standard. 

My fireplace hearth.

I understand having opinions about the way the image and the words of Jesus have been used and abused over the centuries. I certainly have my own. I also have my own relationship to his image and words. To me, he was one of the ultimate teachers, a powerful yogi, so connected to the source of spirit that others were healed simply by being in his presence. He was a rebel. He embraced those who were outcast and considered unclean, not just with his words but with his body. He was a person of action, he made his words manifest. Love one another. Don’t judge each other. Don’t tolerate hypocrites and those who profit off the needs of others. Like a great work of art, his life and death raise far more questions than they answer. That’s why I like observing the liturgical year, taking time to ponder these things over and over, holding them up in the light to look at them from a new stage in my life. Take Easter Sunday. I never could reconcile the Easter bunny with the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It’s an awkward fit, this trying to piggyback the ancient church’s idea of what Jesus’s death meant on top of the even more ancient pagan rites of spring. Frankly, I like thinking about them both. It’s easy to embrace the pagan rites- thank you Earth! Not so easy to stomach the insistence of certain Christian churches that ‘Jesus died for your sins, so either you’re scott-free or you owe Him, depending on how we feel about you’. Of course, it’s not so simplistic, it’s a huge question to ponder. What did he die for? One way I have thought about it is that he died because of the sins of those around him. He allowed it to happen, did not run away from it, He used his own suffering, his own life, to expose those sins for what they were. Jesus, the ultimate performance artist. For me the greatest miracle is that at the peak of his suffering, he forgave everyone, he asked God to forgive them. And in doing so, freed his own spirit. It is hard, so hard, to truly forgive injury and wrong. Am I capable of that kind of forgiveness? I don’t know.  It’s why I celebrate Easter, so I can think about it.

A postcard my great-grandmother received shortly after my grandmother was born.

Remarks that dismiss the richness of Christian teachings are thoughtless, I think, and they can alienate congregation members who have their own relationship to them. Such a mindset doesn’t serve anyone. Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a thinking, rational faith, but I don’t believe we have to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Thank you Reverend, for reading all of this, I’ve enjoyed thinking about it. I’ll continue to keep my mouth shut in worship planning meetings as best I can, but the day may come when I stand up with my finger in the air and say “I protest!” Perhaps I am a protestant after all.