Sunday, May 19, 2019

The God Project

You are an employee of a nameless Scandinavian furniture store. You work in the disorienting maze of aisles where every Swedish-labeled item is stocked. You are tasked with putting together displays of all the furniture. You hear your supervisor’s voice, but have never actually met her. You were given an employee manual when you were hired, and are urged to make your own checklist.

This is the world of The God Project, a fabulous new play Steve and I saw in center city last night. It is the latest offering of 1812 Productions, a long running Philadelphia theatre troupe known for its pungent satire and lighthearted musical revues. In recent years, 1812 has tackled grittier material, led by co-founder Jen Childs.

Jen and fellow performer Sean Close had arrived at a rehearsal for another production, with the exact same break time reading material: a book by theologian Richard Rohr. Wow, what were the odds? Turns out, they are both PK’s (Pastor’s Kids), their childhoods marked by their lives as offspring of church leaders. A series of conversations led to the writing of this show.

The curtain rises on aisle after aisle of cardboard boxes, each containing a piece of knocked down furniture. The night shift workers, Drew and Sheila, are tasked with assembling displays. Aside from their background as pastor’s children, they could not be more dissimilar. Drew shuns the church and organized religion entirely; Sheila hangs cross necklaces on cardboard cutouts and keeps a prayer list as part of her daily “to do’s”-and Drew is soon added to her list. Drew questions everything he was raised with; Sheila worked selflessly for 30 years at her father’s church before the new pastor fired her—and bears no grudge.

As the evening progresses, Drew and Sheila spar on the subjects of inspiration, miracles, even the way to approach the voluminous manual (Bible?) the employees are given, which Drew hasn’t even read. Drew is currently homeless, living in display bedrooms while trying to hit it big as a singer/songwriter; Sheila begs God for a sign about her calling. God is portrayed as an ebullient African American woman who regularly bursts into song, and appears randomly to our protagonists.

Eventually, Drew urges Sheila to apply to seminary, and he takes a leap of faith to write and perform some new musical material. What becomes of these two misfit companions? Are they doomed to put “Bjorns” together for eternity, or does life offer more? What I loved (beside the numerous inside church jokes) was the subtle movement of the two main characters toward a center point of understanding—Sheila becomes less didactic, and Drew opens his mind and heart a bit.

I will never enter IKEA again without seeing the store as metaphor for the crazy spiritual journey we each take. We are, every one of us, God Projects: sometimes lost, unprepared to put it all together, puzzling over a manual in a foreign language. But determined, by the grace of God, to succeed.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Office, Revisited

Work in progress--but there IS progress!!
When it comes to room makeovers, I am very very slow to act. While I adore the idea of a beautifully redone space, I am incapable of making the magic happen. And I am too embarrassed to ask someone else to do it (though if I were ever to win the lottery, my first act as a jillionnaire will be to hire someone to vacuum for me. I know. I’m pathetic.)

So I recently marked 17 years in my church job, sitting in the depressing disarray that was my work area. I took inventory: in the corner, three huge boxes of stuffed bunnies from MLK Day of Service in January; on my sofa, a towering heap o’ Lutheran World Relief personal care kits. In trash bags on the floor, 60 bottles of water decorated with drawings and messages by our little guys. The toy bunnies had not yet found a home (the place we used to send them no longer accepts stuffed animals, since the last donors had given them teddy bears filled with bedbugs). The personal care kits are here until mid-June, when the collection point in New Jersey will take them. As for the H2O bottles, I forgot to bring them when I volunteered at the Welcome Church last month.

But even after I moved these bulky good deeds to other locations, the scene remaining was not any more attractive. Blog readers may recall I received the gift of a small orchid plant back in December, and I vowed to fix up my office to be a fitting home for it. But when said orchid rapidly shed all of its blossoms, I took it as a sign: I don’t deserve nice things.

Well, a few weeks ago, The Monday Morning Men, a stalwart group of retirees who do what needs to be done in the church maintenance department, offered to paint my office walls. I chose a lovely shade of light blue, which the guys informed me was called “Teensy Bubbles.” Though I consider that a better name for a stripper than a paint color, I went with it, and now my walls are indeed a Rhapsody in Blue.

New IKEA bookcases! A new IKEA desk! A new IKEA filing cabinet! All of a sudden I started speaking Swedish! But seriously, everything looks amazing. My desk in particular is small and perfect (the old one was a behemoth taking up WAY too much space). This weekend we (meaning Steve of course) will hang up my icons, my cross collection, and my Van Gogh print, and the transformation will be complete.

Sitting in the relative splendor this morning, I have to admit I felt a little uncomfortable. I am so used to a mess, and deep down have thought that’s where I belong. But I am trying to accept that I am worthy of a nice office after all.

And guess what? Yesterday, my orchid suddenly bloomed again. If a plant can be an optimist, maybe I can too.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

I'm (Sadly) Over a Purple Clover

My final Local article about my ice cream commercial (among other things)
Call me the Grim Reaper of the freelance personal essay. Every outlet I write for turns to ashes.

When I first entered the fray, there were scads of publications that swooned over well-crafted short-form non-fiction. As a new freelance writer, I was heady with the possibilities, most of which paid a decent sum. A site that published one of my essays paid me $500!!!! While that lofty number was an anomaly, paychecks of $300 were not unusual. Wow! I told myself. I can DO this writing thing, and be adequately recompensed to boot!

My first hint that something was amiss came a while back when, VERY shortly after publishing a piece of mine, Metropolis (a Philly-based site, featuring some really strong writing) folded. Surely just a coincidence! thought I. And for a while, everything else was going swimmingly. I wrote for niche publications like Racked (all about shopping). I scored with the local NPR outlet, Speakeasy, and quite a few times with The Philadelphia Inquirer. I discovered Purple Clover, dedicated to Baby Boomers, and had a couple of essays featured in quick succession. And I became a regular columnist for The Chestnut Hill Local, a stellar small newspaper that published more than 60 of my pieces in the course of nine years.

Last summer, I got word that Racked was no more. Speakeasy reduced its essay offerings from weekly, to monthly, and even then skewed towards commentary on hard news (my “news” is pillowy soft). The new op-ed editor at the Inquirer eschewed the slice-of-life essay entirely. Purple Clover ceased operations in November. And, a final nail in my freelance coffin, my dear editor at the Local just last week informed me that the paper was undergoing a total revamp and, (guess what?) based on the smaller number of website “clicks” personal essays received (compared to the police report items), there would be no more column for me or my essayist ilk.

I am still peddling my wares, but to a dwindling clientele. It seems the survivors of the purge are either the Pantheon (NYT, Washington Post, The Atlantic, etc.) or sites that pay chump change (my favorites are the ones who compensate only by the view, and payment kicks in when you top 1000 views. Now THAT’s motivating! Not!) I am eager to build up my freelancing resume for sure, but at age 62 feel that a payment of $30 is honestly not worth my while.

I love writing, and reading others’, essays. They are windows into my scribbling sisters’ and brothers’ souls, and offer me wonderful new ways to observe and reflect on life. I challenge you, my dear readers, who have borne with me through 318 blog posts/essays (but who’s counting?) Pick up a magazine (or check one out online). Search for the personal essays. Champion them, these terrific bite-size bits of insight. Be part of a rising tide that floats all writing boats.

Let’s be harbingers of a renaissance, not witnesses of a sad literary ending.

"I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover"