A letter to innocence: Snapshot of a beginning at the eve of an end – Memory to Light, Day 27

September 6, 2011

Beginnings and endings

I hear so many stories of beginnings from people who were witness to the 9/11 attacks in New York. A friend I met recently arrived the day before in a moving truck. Meg got sober the day before, conceived her child two days after. I arrived three weeks before: Grad school started on 9/10. And the stories continue. Was it a season of beginnings? Or was it a heyday of creation, creativity always beginning at something?

When I went to grad school, I didn’t do it alone. I often referred to it as church camp without God. We bonded immediately, the actors, directors and playwrights. Orientation week got us settled into the city, and on the first day of classes and the first night of taping at Inside the Actors Studio, we laughed as Bruce Willis told us he had saved the world 17 times in his movies. We were 12 hours away from a plane hitting Tower 1 two miles south.

Light framed

We would get to know each other deeply in the ways we exposed ourselves in our work. But the events of 9/11 sped that up in a ghastly precursor that blew open the doors of us, ready or not. Being creatives, the only way to survive was to create. Being theatre folk, the way for us to create was to be together, to open up and dive together into the places in us that would be freed.

Last weekend, Rhea MacCallum, my fellow classmate and playwright, posted a letter on Facebook to Cohort 8 of the Actor’s Studio Drama School. She captured with crystalline detail our excited sense of “purpose, potential, community, security and hope.” Her images are so clear, her memory so dear in framing our hopes and courage and leaps of faith and people who supported us to be there taking them, that they tell a story of light I have wished for as this series nears its conclusion.

With great thanks to Rhea, I invite you into the picture of light that brings to life those days in the beginning, as the end of what we knew of our world was beginning, too.

Dear Cohort VIII,

Ten years ago today we introduced ourselves to each other. So much of our orientation week bounces around like a fiery comet trapped in my brain.  As we filtered into Tishman we were continuously instructed to ‘come forward, move to the center, leave no empty spaces’ and the mostly vacant auditorium vibrated with our exuberant energy.

That day, that first day, we met James Lipton.  We were told that our talent was as recognizable as spotting your sister in a crowd.  We were told playwrights don’t hug and most of us promptly decided that we would be the exception.  Then we got up, one by one, alternating sides of the room and introduced ourselves.  Our name, our track, where we were from, what brought us here.

A few weeks later, after the planes hit, after the towers fell, after walking from hospital to hospital looking to give blood, after surviving world altering events, we gathered again, a bonded unit, for a workshop led by Lisa Formosa.  Our homework was to bring a personal object, something of great significance to us.  Our class work was to share with each other what we brought and why we choose it, in three sentences.

Ten years later our orientation week and personal object workshop have become bits of memory strung together in a not so linear fashion.  When I look back at our grad school experience, and think of it fondly, these two events emerge as moments in which I was filled with a sense of purpose, potential, community, security and hope.

This is what I remember…

Henriette’s map of NYC.

The wooden box A’ndrea received from her boyfriend.

Jamie’s chilling rape monologue.

The beer scarf.  I think it was Waldron’s.

Bi with her boyfriend’s wallet filled with cash he’d earned over the summer.

Pema, the freelancer from Santa Barbara/San Diego/San Francisco, who had a 30th birthday/going away party who also received cash… in a wallet?

Holly and her grandfather’s cross, monologue about being invisible and mutual North Dakotian cheering with Brandon.

Naveen and her frog puppet Dostoevsky.

Monica, who left us for Cohort IX, delivered a monologue about feeling like an object.

Chantel and her cherished bookmark

Fred who brought a telegram from his sister and sang and sang and sang his little heart out.

The clown that Vered brought creeped me out.

Kari’s plain vs. pretty monologue.

Sean Harris in his Counting Crows t-shirt and Claddagh ring.

Bob and his backpack.

Nancy who people seemed to already know and talked about a Friday night party at Battery Park City.

Jacqui tripping her way out of the aisle to introduce herself sang Easy to Be Hard, dedicating it to the people working in the Financial Aid office

Moti sang a funny song.  I want to say from South Park, but something tells me it was Russian.

Mr. Lipton calling attention to Ronit who he swore was the spitting image of Susan Saradon.  And a sheep.  I’m pretty sure Ronit’s item was a sheep.

Billingsley, who made me snort when he delivered the line “Fat people make me feel good.”

Eriko and her father’s watch.

Francis’ photo album.

Cole’s navy polo tee.  It’s the only top I ever remember seeing him in.

Terry who made a number of people sit up and take notice when he said he applied to grad school because “he always felt like a fraud.”

Yasmin calling herself a former Muslim and carried a new ID having destroyed all others.

Uran who sang White Snake, “lived all over” and within seconds of knowing me talked ‘shrooms.

Sari’s rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody and her brick napping picture taken on Lucielle Ball’s property during construction/demolition.

Melinda bringing an American Flag and espousing the virtues of exercise in her monologue.

Larry’s Hairy Ape monologue and plaque that was given to him as a thank you gift from a recent production.

Jesus who sat next to me and already had an MA from NYU.

Kawanda who thought life stopped after 25.

Luis’ hand carved lady with his grandmother’s name on the bottom.

Casy brought and wore a brooch of comedy/tragedy masks.

Brian with the mug with his brother’s picture on it.

Nichol who ranted like Homer Simpson, carried a journal that was a gift from his father and had just returned from an amazing hike in Alaska.

Sean Stevenson’s miniature mouse.

Kristen, the NYC tour guide whose friend had recently passed.

Mary, who was still holding onto Beth’s ring when she walked away to go to the restroom, leaving a nervous looking Beth alone.

Sayeeda singing You Are My Sunshine and weeping unabashedly about Ellen Burstyn’s performance in Requiem For A Dream.

Soft spoken Matt from So. Pasadena who seemed to have a case of the sniffles.

Rich, who I met in line at the registrar’s office, brought a wallet with an emblem on it.

The ball from Arnold’s first date.  I think it was orange.

Miranda, who tugged at our heartstrings as she spoke of her janitor father who worked extra shifts so she could pursue her dream and made us all chuckle when she brought in a strawberry air freshener that survived, what was it, 7? car accidents.

Trevor and his passport.

Michael Raimondi who had never lived away from home and brought a turtle from Brandon… I think.

Jonathan and the journal his mother gave him.

Colette brought a book.  I’m guessing it was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, not that I remember the title from that day.

Doug and his flask.

Aziza’s evil eye.

Stephanie called herself a Jewish drop out and brought a stuffed animal from an ex-boyfriend.

Seibert who sang The Smiths.

Max and his ball.

Nicole Hurley who sang Lean On Me.

Linda, the lawyer, whose conservative mother would rather she was unwed and pregnant than going back to school to be an actor.

Kira who worked the hell out of her Vagina Monologue.

David Salsa, as in chips and salsa, who spoke from the heart about the Smurfs.

Seth, in his white baseball cap, who showed up to the workshop with Papa Smurf.

Jake who sang If I Were A Bell brought a sprig of eucalyptus, one of my favorite scents.

Kristen and her pig.

Poorna and her house keys.  At least I think it was Poorna.  There were definitely house keys.

I remember we prayed to the sun and the moon and the stars.  We burned sage.  We sat in silence.

I also remember my mother being comforted to hear that I was studying playwriting with a Teeter (my grandmother’s maiden name) and a Stevenson (her maiden name) taught by a Laura (my sister’s name).  She wasn’t normally one to view the world through cosmic signs, but she made an exception.  She felt I was in the right place, at the right time, with the right people.

Try as I might, I don’t remember every one from those early days.  Isn’t the brain a funny thing?  Why do I remember, so vividly, Nicole Hurley who I spoke to once, once in my life, but not so many others?  And as for the accuracy of my memory, well, only you can tell me how well I did.

I just wanted to let you know that I’m thinking of you, as I do every year when it gets to be about this time.  And when I think of you, when I think of us, as we were in these days, I smile through the tears.

Lots of love,


P.S. from Pema: Rhea brought that day a wooden, multiple-holed picture frame filled with pictures of family and friends and inscribed with “Best of Friends.” It was a thank you gift from a dear friend for having hosted her baby shower.

Rhea’s most recent production, “Independence Day,” won the Audience Award for Best Drama at the Life and Death Matters Film Festival last weekend.

Not her first, and not likely her last award. Congratulations, Rhea. To find out more about her work, find her on her Facebook page.


(You can read all of the Memory to Light stories in order on the side bar –->)

. . . . . . . . . .

Thanks for reading Day 27 of “Memory to Light: 31 Days of Stories, August 11 – September 11, 2011.” It is an exercise in writing about loss, for the purpose of letting grief wake, live, and pass through the system. Grief is transformation. Story is transformation. Our world could use a some wakeful transformation right now. Take a peek at the introductory post for the full story of what we’re up to.

Join me

Consider this project an online story circle. Read a story that moves you. Write your own on your blog. Link it to the comments below, so we can read your piece. If you don’t have a blog, write your story in the comments.

Let your memories live. Let small corners of your grief breathe. Let your loss be swept into the collective experience of people sharing, witnessing, and letting be.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave September 7, 2011 at 12:29 am

“Ten years later our orientation week and personal object workshop have become bits of memory”

Those are more than just bits!


Pema September 8, 2011 at 11:01 am

Seriously! What can she say, her memory for detail is untouched by years. Fortunately for the rest of us. :)


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