14 November 2009

Hairy beginning

It is the end of my first week in the US. I have spent much of the week in the office buildings and hotels and streets of New York City, which is probably the best and worst the US has to offer.

I have eaten sublime meals with my partners, and walked past dozens of people sleeping in doorways on the way back to the hotel. I have watched a Broadway show where the whole cast got naked and walked out to find people dressed in evening gowns and tuxedos. I have asked friendly policemen for directions, and watched street vendors flee in terror from the officer with his knee in the back of one of their colleagues, his illegal (?) wares strewn about the sidewalk. I have rubbed shoulders with the powerful in elevators and felt my body pressed against the unwashed on the subway.

Perhaps the story to tell is about Hair, though.

I decided on Tuesday night, after eating dinner in the city and then taking a late train back to Carolyn’s in NJ, that I really wanted to see a Broadway show if I could. So after a day with Carolyn in Princeton, I headed back on NJ Transit and pushed and shoved and schlepped my way to the hotel (why oh why do I not take taxis when I travel??). It was 5.30 by the time I checked in, and I was despairing of seeing a show, but I asked the friendly fellow at the hotel. “Plenty of time!” he told me, glancing at the clock. I go to TKTS and get discount tickets at 7. Always lots of tickets. No need to wait in line!”

Renewed in my hopes, I dropped my bags in my tiny room and headed to Broadway. Ah, New York is all about the tyranny of choices! Thousands of places to eat, hundreds of t-shirt shops, chocolate stores on every corner. Which show would I watch?? The well-reviewed Hamlet caught my eye. Maybe South Pacific, since now I lived in the South Pacific. Avenue Q had interested me for years. But I asked the helpful fellows offering advice outside the TKTS booth. Ah, hard decision they told me, increasing the aching misery I was feeling. “How many shows can you see?” I can only see shows this night. Only one show, I told them, desperately. “Then you should see Hair because it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.”

Now, I had seen the movie Hair years ago, and I had loved the album as a child and could sing every word (although I didn’t know what the words mean, thank God). And I had read a hysterical piece in the New Yorker about the author of Hair, back for the revival, wandering through Central Park looking for hippies. Plus it was 50% off. I got one orchestra ticket and wandered around Times Square for 90 minutes, gawking like the foreign tourist I now am.

I suppose five or ten years ago, I’d have felt awkward going to a play alone. The “Just you?” asked incredulously by every ticket seller or taker might have put me off. But I’m practically 40 now (in 6.5 months), and I have to say, I didn’t feel awkward for a second. What I felt was delighted. As the curtain fell open (because they had a big scarf for a curtain, and they dropped it to the ground rather than pulling a curtain up), I found myself beaming at the hippies on stage, wondering at the double time warp that connected me to the time of my parents’ youth (by the setting) and the time of my own (by my strong connection to the music as a child).

Hair is hardly a play at all, but a 60s concert with snatches of dialogue. The singing was sublime, the costumes appropriately rumply, the staging creative. I had waves of delight about being there and waves of deep sadness too.

The audience was filled with people my parents age, watching their youth (or the stereotyped memories of it) writhe around on the stage. I was struck by the timeliness of the anti-war theme (what the hell are we going to do about Afghanistan?) and the archaic relationship to sex and drugs (don’t these people know about AIDS?). I was moved to tears by the scathing racial undertones, the (added?) lines about how someday a Black man will be president.

At the same time, as the play went on something struck me as so primitive about their self-centred concerns. It is so quaint to be worried about an organized war on the other side of the world when terrorism and extreme hate now threaten people in random pockets everywhere. It is so quaint to be worried about your own life, your own love, in a world where deadly climate change threatens all life on earth as we know it. And yet the panic in their voices as they sang for their friend Claude, about to be killed in the war, is the essential and timeless connection of one human to another. The shallow, drugged out hippies became charged with real fear and then real sadness as the snow began to fall. They left the theatre, sadly singing “Let the sun shine in” and leaving us alone with the corpse on the stage, spotlighted in the gentle snow, their voices echoing from outside the theatre.

Then, the snow and mourning over, they raced back onto the stage again, gyrating to the music, urging the audience up on stage with them until the actors and the observers were blended, dancing and singing together on the stage and in the seats. All of the lines dissolved and you couldn’t tell anymore who was what, what was real, as audience members from 2009 danced with hippies from 1962 and took pictures of it all with their i-phones. The dead Claude, gleaming-streaming-flaxen-waxen hair now shorn, boogied happily with the rest, handing out daises to all and sundry. The dazed and drugged-out Berger interrupted to ask the audience for donations for AIDS and breast cancer, and the acid-dropping heavily pregnant woman passed a red bucket around and sold CDs for the cause.

Out into the evening, where it had never been snowing and where there had been no real hippies for decades, I passed well-coiffed middle aged couples humming “Sodomy,” and shuffling homeless people looking just as drugged out but far less amusing than the cast inside. This is New York, where it’s all an illusion and it’s all frighteningly real. This is our world right now, where we can be amused by the 60s, and long for them too, the lost youth of every generation, the lost past of our species. I power-walked to Madison and 52nd, the streets as frighteningly empty after the show as they were full before. Soon it’ll be the winter solstice in New York City. Let the sun shine in.

ps pics today are of Times Square, the New Year's ball, and a rather odd sculpture garden in the median strip of Park Avenue. Yep, a little bit of Kiwi in NYC, those are sheep sculptures...

09 November 2009

Jetting to Neutral

It is a quiet and grey morning. The house is still asleep: all eight of them—nine including Perry sleeping under the dining room table. The weekend’s perfect early summer weather has turned grey and brooding. It’s time for another trip around the world.

This past week has been so amazingly busy I have hardly been able to think straight. And before that, there was the planning and prep for last week. The conference (you can click here and read about it) was amazing. I am moved and amazed by how much I learnt, how deeply collaborative the space was, and how urgent our need to get education into a new place—now. The environmentalists I talked to are not kidding about the peril our world is in. I feel a renewed sense of an emotion that sometimes threatens to tip over into desperation. What kind of world are we leaving our children?

Then a Leadership Development Programme where we tried to help our programme participants think hard about systems and how to understand them and manage them and make powerful decisions inside them. We taught at Lake Okatina which must be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. I love that work at least as much as I've ever loved any work in my life.

And then the weekend. First the late Halloween party where we all dressed up and had American candy that Carolyn brought over. This was to mark the loss of actual Halloween which Caronlyn’s kids said goodbye to as they crossed the dateline on the way over. Then the Kapiti Coast Arts Trail where we wandered under cobalt blue skies through the village and into artists’ open workshops. I ran into people I knew from work, and the whole mob of us—my family and Carolyn and two of her kids and our lovely American WWOOFer—were dizzied by the magnificence of the place.

And now it is Monday morning, my 18th wedding anniversary. The conference is over. The Leadership Development Programme is over (until February). The Arts Trail is over. Carolyn’s visit is over. And another trip to the US is beginning for me, a packed-solid set of work and partner meeting and a new gig at the Kennedy School of Government (check this out: I'm the Growing Wisdom one). And I am melancholy like the weather.

It’s this whole split life thing of mine. I love the life I have here, and love the work I do. I find that my love for New Zealand gets more and more fierce all the time. But I also love the work I do across the world, love the opportunities I have there. And so my life here is punctuated by blank spaces where I disappear from here and pop up over there. My children complain. My husband gets sad. My work colleagues move on and make decisions without me. My chickens lay eggs I won’t eat, my garden grows, days pass that I’ll never get back. And I am changed by these trips in unanticipated ways.

So today I’ll walk on the beach in the rain. I’ll hold my children more tightly before they leave for school. I’ll try to figure out how to get from Philly to Boston next week. I’ll pack my hat and gloves—which I just stopped wearing here. I’ll turn to the issues I haven’t had time to face because I’ve been too busy (how will I organise my time? What will I do about the loss of my publisher now that the book is nearly done?). And I’ll know me in a different way next week and next week before a long trip back to summer and life on the beach.

Last week I taught about change and about the Neutral Zone, a powerful space of possibilities, but disorienting because you don’t know what’s next. Each of these trips across the Pacific is a movement into the Neutral Zone, the belly of the 777 neatly transporting me into the liminal space from which some unknown new will emerge. I’ll remember to fasten my seatbelt low and tightly around my hips and hope for as little turbulence as possible.

Pictures today are of Ryan in the garden, Michael's birthday and our silly Halloween party

01 November 2009

We've got them, Jim!

Once again, we have pieces of the Coughlin-Harris family--this time Carolyn, David, and Becky. The whole weather system was delighted to welcome them back and we had one of the most beautiful days possible. The boys even went swimming for the first time this season.

We'll keep them safe, Jim and Abby! We miss you and wish you two were here with the rest of the gang!

ps For those who are tracking, tomorrow is Michael's birthday. Emails appreciated!