Rocky: Your Creative Spirit Animal

Not too long ago, I was drowning in a pretty sour creative funk. Unable to rally, I spent the better part of an hour clicking stupidly through links of baking fails and photo galleries of baby animals in party dresses (actual thing), realizing there is an emotional equivalent of hoovering a bag of Sour Cream and Onion Funions followed by an Oreo sleeve chaser. Not ideal. I was going to shut the laptop and manufacture a headache so I could curl up on the couch and binge something “light” like Sopranos reruns when I found myself thinking, “this is the part of the movie where the montage kicks in and we see the main character get her groove on. If only I had one of those now.” As a child of the 80s, I grew up watching countless films replicate one of the greatest, most famous training/transformation montage sequences in the American movie cannon: Rocky.

The bright, strident opening notes of Bill Conti’s iconic anthem, “Gonna Fly Now” evokes a nearly Pavlovian response to get up on your feet and throw some air punches, or real punches if you happen to be in a bar in Southie at noon on any given Tuesday. The music alone—pumped into rallies, high school and professional sports auditoriums, political events, and in the bedrooms and bathrooms of hopeful pre-prom teenagers of a certain generation–is an electrical current that rips through your body, taunting your pulse not to race higher. It’s aural crack and I thought, well, it hasn’t become a staple of rah-rah-feel-good-get-your-ass-in-gear pop culture for the last forty years for nothing. A lot of writers will admit that when we feel like the floor of a movie theater, creatively speaking, there is very little voodoo we won’t try to scrape ourselves off of said floor and get back to being a mostly productive, functioning human.

I hadn’t seen the entire Rocky movie in ages, but really, if you watch any of them—1 through (checks notes) 983–the training montages start to bleed together. Rocky running in the streets, in the snow, in the dark, in the dark, snowy streets; Rocky doing one-armed push-ups in the gym, in the snow, in the dark of a dark root cellar; Rocky sweating in close-up, a lot, even in the dark. But the original Rocky was the first and set the tone for all the other running and sweating that came after. It is THE SOURCE and as such, has become condensed in our collective memories to that final sequence of Rocky triumphantly bounding up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Side note: If you’ve ever visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you know it’s almost impossible to behave like a normal person walking up the stairs to the top. You are most certainly compelled to jog up those last four or five stairs, raise your arms above your head, and jump around yowling, “Adriannnnnnn!” without a hint of self-consciousness. It’s practically the law in that damn city, look it up.

You have to absorb the entire three-minute segment to leech its maximum juju and inspiration. The milky, winter sun rises over the train yard as Rocky begins his morning run. He’s outfitted in schlubby, depressing, prison-issued grey sweatshirt and pants. He is a formless sack of porridge, jogging along with bricks (BRICKS) in each hand for additional weight. You don’t even have to watch the rest of the film to get that Rocky is classic basic in a necessity is the mother of invention kind of way, not in a Park Slope hipster kind of way. There is no fancy gym or high-end corporate sponsored training center here. There isn’t even a goddamn sidewalk! There is just the doing, the getting it done, the making it happen for the benefit of no one but Rocky.

In the montage, when Rocky isn’t running, he’s at his low-rent gym working the bag, doing one-armed push-ups, getting belted in the gut over and over again on purpose building up strength, stamina, and maybe a little internal bleeding. I’m watching and nodding in time to the close-up of Rocky’s granite bicep rising and falling like oars cutting through water. He’s not whining to his friend over coffee that he “just doesn’t feel inspired to train.” He’s not talking about getting around to training, to thinking about really digging into some training tomorrow. He’s not watching baby animals in little sweatsuits train on YouTube (real thing). He’s showing up and inviting some other dude to sock him in the stomach repeatedly and counting that as a plus. Noted.

And then, of course, there is the last stretch of the sequence that builds to the montage’s joyful peak, which begins with a shot of Rocky sprinting along the river, his legs becoming a pin-wheeling blur as he hurtles toward the museum steps. Underneath the wailing brass, a chorus of voices sings “Feeling strong now! Won’t be long now!” And  suddenly, through no volition of your own, you kind of are Rocky. You’re leaning closer to your laptop as he reaches the top. You, too, want to thrust your fists up, shattering the air, sharing the glory of, what exactly? The top of the museum isn’t where the movie ends. It’s a pause in momentum before the rest of the work continues. Crap. What the hell, Rocky.

I got it.

No one was coming to pull me out of my creative funk, just like no one was going to tell Rocky to go ten rounds with his punching bag. I had to decide and in doing so understand that the way forward is about fighting for that decision every single day. A life revolving around some type of creative pursuit is about the choice to show up, to rise at 5 AM, put on your East German prison-issued grey sweat suit, grab a couple of bricks, and hit the trail, champ, in however that looks like to and whatever that means to you as the creative maker. It’s putting in the effort, doing the work, paying out whatever kind of sweat equity is involved in your choice of art (if that does involve getting hammered in the gut repeatedly, you may want to rethink your creative vocation), and to keep reaching, keeping climbing—higher. And when you do get to the top of the museum, savor the view, reward your efforts, relish your accomplishments. Then make your way back down and keep going.

 

 

Women Do

At first it seems like the three women are just hanging out in the middle of the Commonwealth Ave. mall—a quiet, tree-lined promenade that runs like an artery through the heart of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley, and Lucy Stone appear as life-size bronze statues, posed around large granite blocks. Quotes from each woman are inscribed on the blocks, their words reaching across the past to tickle the present. The Boston Women’s Memorial, like the women themselves, is unassuming until, of course, it isn’t.

Abigail Adams, wife of president John Adams, mother of future president John Quincy Adams (must have been something in the water), leans against her horizontal granite plinth. Her arms are folded across her chest, one foot extended forward, her head turns slightly as if she’s been the one tapped to be lookout for this badass lady gang of three.

In addition to harboring presidential genetics, Abigail took an active role in politics to the point where opponents referred to her as “Mrs. President” (never going to get tired of trying that out on my lips). As a woman in the 1700s, Abigail didn’t just stand on the right side of progressive history when it came to lady issues, she carved out feminist territory upon which many of her peers and future generations would inhabit. She openly advocated for women’s education and for more opportunities for women in general. In one of her most famous or infamous (depending on your perspective) letters to her presidential husband and the congress, Abigail wrote:

Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

I count a minimum of five hashtaggable phrases in this short statement. Also, talk about your echo from the past resonating with the present as if it were blaring out of 8 billion watt speakers hooked up to someone’s low rider.

Abigail is flanked on either side by a couple of historical friends: Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Stone. The first African-American poet, Phillis sits upright at the edge of her granite block. A hand with one elegant finger raised, rests gently against the side of her face. The other sits on the surface of the stone, palm up, fingers curled in except for her forefinger pointing downward to the desk as if she had just finished speaking and was punctuating a point (I like to think it might have included a sick burn about a racist colonist’s wig or a racist colonist’s racism). Sold into slavery to a family from Boston, they eventually taught Phillis how to read and write. She put those skills to good use, stunning half of the country with her eloquent and rigorously intellectual poetry. That a slave and a woman (gasp, pearl clutching, fan waving, fainting!) could be thoughtful, smart, artistic, and, essentially, human was enough to twist more than a few knickers. But for others, Phillis was an immense inspiration and source of power and hope.

Across from Phillis sits Lucy Stone, an ardent nineteenth-century suffragist, orator, and writer and winner of lady-with-the-coolest-name. She sounds like a tough, savvy detective from a 1940s noir series who breaks cases and hearts. Lucy sprawls across her granite “desk,” one hand clutching a thin pencil in the act of composing something on the page. She was the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree, helped initiate the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, and founded and wrote for Womens Journal, a weekly periodical publishing essays about women’s rights and generally scaring the crap out of people.

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I walked around the memorial, running my hands over their hands, giving Abigail an affection pat on the shoulder (thanks for the assist a few centuries ago, we’re kind of in a pickle these days), and couldn’t quite believe that I didn’t know this memorial existed in my town! I felt a little ashamed, but squared it as less about being a lazy feminist and more about being a feminist a tad preoccupied lately or for the last two years. Recently, for instance, watching an unhinged, likely sexual assaulter ascend to the highest court in the country where he is, also likely, to eviscerate rights and privileges afforded to women and vulnerable populations. Also, there has been all the ugly crying over new episodes of This Is Us and pretending to care about Boston sports ball teams. The sched. has been a bit tight.

But then again, maybe it was exactly the right time for me to discover these incredible women, each of whom could easily fit in along with the rest of us as contemporary feminists, represented in this unique way: doing work they were passionate about, working for change and impact they believed was important to purse.

Each woman seems animated—writing, speaking, composing—and it’s this sense of action threaded through the memorial that I find ingenious and compelling. Together, the installation reifies the legacy of all women across time, space, race, and background: action. It is simply what we do, what we’ve always done—engaged with and driven movement. Consider our greatest biological hat trick, which is called “giving birth,” “having a baby,” or “going into labor.”  It’s not “receiving a slimy ball of precious goo just freed from its germination pod” (though, if science can make that a thing, I doubt any of us would mind all that much). Women have the capacity to turn the world. And it is this that we need to remind ourselves of a thousand times a day every day if we’re to make it out of the Patriarchal Fire Swamp with any hint of sanity in tact.

Women shift, we break through, we disrupt; we are fearsome kinetic energy refusing to be bound. We will corner you in an elevator, senator, and you will feel our hot, incensed breath, the heat of righteousness and pain, pushing against your face as we make you reckon with our inconvenient, unrestrained selves. We travel thousands of miles to march, to sit-in, to stage die-ins, to meet, to canvas, to move and be moved, to do the work that needs to be done.

Like Abigail, Lucy, and Phillis, hundreds of thousands of women have taken themselves down from their symbolic pedestals and platforms, surging into their communities and surrounding areas, applying what they have and doing their own part to make a difference during this extraordinary, distressing, dark, and also exhilarating time.

I step around the memorial, snapping photos and consider these three women who are carrying the history of millions on their bronze shoulders. I marvel at how difficult it must have been at that time to not just be a woman in the world, but to be a woman so active in the world. I think of what new difficulties we face today and what’s at stake now (everything) and what was at stake then (everything) and I start to walk onward, leaving the ladies behind, my pace quickening.

 

 

Hearts and Seeds

For a long time now I’ve been catching hearts out in the wild. They show up everywhere—in patterns of leaves, in the formation of clouds in the sky, as graffiti on the sides of underpasses. It’s a lot like that Sixth Sense kid, “I see hearts, they’re everywhere!” and sometimes I do whisper in that same creepy little kid voice just for fun. I’ve decided they are my own private cosmic Valentines, postcards for the soul that make me feel counted and seen in this wide world and to remind me that hope, love, compassion, empathy, just softness, really, are the mightiest gifts we can give and receive.

Thanks to the super keen attempt to put an alleged sexual assailant on America’s highest court (like of JUSTICE), this week has not been a ride on a cloud of cushy Charmin.

Walking through the city Wednesday night, dragging my already low mood along with me, I glanced down to see these two hearts set against the dirty pavement.

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I snapped a photo and considered the juxtaposition: the black pieces of what looks like bandages slapped onto the sidewalk in a right angle to form a heart with a fragile, “helicopter” tree seed (also known as an “angel wing” seed) resting gently on top. I don’t know if I could have more perfectly captured a visual representation of what I’m feeling these days if I had staged it in a studio. In these times, it seems as if my heart is in some constant demand for triage, for fresh bandaging from the lacerations that never quite heal fully before some fresh trauma pulls them open. Despite these conditions, something tender and thrumming with life force pushes through to make itself known and felt.

Hope, love, compassion, empathy, just softness. No matter the scorched terrain of our heart-selves, these things find a way to grow and blossom.

Recently I wrote about what we’re working through culturally as a frightening, messy, hard lurch forward in our social evolution. I still believe that, though I really wish we could hurry up and montage through this part set against the tune, “Maniac” from Flashdance. As tough as it’s been this week in particular and as nastier as it’s guaranteed to get (and honestly, my liver is not having too much more of this day drinking and swearing at CNN), I don’t believe that the rage and pain and legitimate suffering is in vain. And seeing this the other night made me feel it even more acutely—many of us are weary, broken, and scared and also intensely alive, passionately engaged, and acutely tuned into that most organic, fertile part of ourselves where we keep our angle wing seeds seeking to root, longing to spread.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stronger Together: The Newport Folk Festival

Ben Harper looks like he is about to cry. Harper is a blues/rock/indie guitarist who has been making music since the early-1990s. Tall, lean, and with chiseled features that make him look like he is clipped from the pages of a superhero comic book, Harper is an imposing figure. From where I’m sitting underneath the Quad Stage tent at the Newport Folk Festival, I can see thick ropes of ink vining up and around his, equally cut, forearms. He is at Newport this year with the legendary blues harmonica player, Charlie Musselwhite performing tunes off their new disc No Mercy In This Land. Musselwhite, a spry, white-haired man in his 70s, could readily pass for anyone’s gnatty grandfather. Harper introduces him to a standing ovation that feels like it clocks in over the two-minute mark.

During their blistering 45-minute set, the duo leave nothing on the field. They close with a staggering version of Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” that, weeks later, I can still feel vibrating in my marrow. Still on our feet, screams and applause spilling out from under the tent, Harper dispenses with a requisite round of thanks—the crowd, the band, the festival staff, crew, and organizers. He pauses and that’s when I see his jaw, this square piece of granite, start to quiver. This intimidating man who, just moments before, held total command of the stage, ripping through song after song without so much as a pause to take a breath, begins to speak again in short, halting sentences.

Ben Harper ©SheilaMoeschenPhotos

Harper was raised by his mother and her parents in California who owned a music store called The Folk Music Center and Museum, frequented by people such as Leonard Cohen, Taj Mahal, and John Darnielle. It was in this kind of incubator of art and music and intellectual curiosity where Harper’s earliest interest in making music was forged. Harper’s voice splinters with emotion as he speaks about what it means for him to be on this stage at this historic festival. He flinches a little as he talks about it would mean for his grandparents to see him here, adding his energy to this event that has endured for more than fifty years, season after season raising up the same kinds of artists that passed through his grandparents’ store. Our roar surges back at Harper. Tears mix with sweat as they track down my cheeks and I think, “Jesus Christ! It’s only 1:30 and I’ve cried twice today already! Is this how it’s gonna be, Newport?”

What is, “Yes,” Alex. I’ll take Stupidly Obvious Questions for $600.

You can’t live in New England and be into the indie-ish music scene without at least having heard of the Newport Folk Festival. For years, that’s exactly what I did—I heard second and third hand about Newport and what an unparalleled experience it offers. Many times I had toyed with going, but felt daunted by logistics, by securing tickets (passes for the three days sell out in a half hour, give or take, on the day they go on sale), and by festival suspicion itself. Coachella, SXSW, Levitation, enjoy your endless lines for janky portos and views of stages glimpsed only with the aid of the Hubble telescope. Hard pass. But enough people assured me that Newport was leagues apart from any other festival event. “Unique” was a word repeatedly passed along, as was “nice” (usually with an apologetic smile as if to say, “I know how lame that sounds, but we’re over 30 and damnit ‘nice’ is a huge selling point!”), and “surprisingly chill.” When a photographer friend of mine and longtime Newport veteran offered to sell me her extra passes for this year’s fest, I heeded the Universe’s kick in the ass and handed her my money.

Newport takes place in Rhode Island on Fort Adams or “the Fort,” as everyone calls it. Fort Adams is a former U.S. army post built in the late-1700s. It sits on a peninsula at the mouth of the Narragansett Bay just across from the scenic seaside down of Newport where, once upon a time, egregiously rich families like the Rockefellers and the Astors spent summer holidays in their sprawling seaside mansions. Newport is no slouch.

In the same way that New York City felt like a fifth character on the show, Sex and the City, the Fort itself is very much another member of the Newport family. At 80 acres large, the Fort feels intimate and roomy; you often have to remind yourself that you’re hanging out with 10,000 new friends. There’s also a welcome sense of insulation, the notion that you’re in the Fort’s embrace, cradled by sky and ocean. The real world exists at arm’s length, for a little while at least. In essence, the Fort is as special as the festival itself, which is a word that usually makes my eyes roll so far back in my head that I could perform my own brain surgery. But here we are—a believer and convert, crying on the first day before the first set was barely under way. Special. You win, Newport.

Music happens continuously throughout the day on three outdoor stages and in one indoor space. You can study the roster and even chart out your day to catch sets from any of your favorite artists, but it becomes clear early on that it doesn’t matter what you see: every artist, every ensemble, every band is operating at the top of their game, swinging for the fences, pouring their musical DNA into every note, every chord, every verse. How is it that you people aren’t all Grammy winners? I found myself marveling along with the follow-up thought: where have you all been this whole time? How, for instance, have I completed a single week without the dirty, gritty, sweaty Philly bar band licks of Low Cut Connie whose lead singer, Adam Weiner, resembles the love child of Jerry Lee Lewis and Peter Wolf? Why haven’t I been letting the rolling baritone of country singer Tyler Childress break my heart for ages? Courtney Barnett and Margo Price, can I trouble you to come over after school and start a feminist revolution with me? I have snacks!

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Low Cut Connie ©SheilaMoeschenPhotos

All the artists in the first set of the first day were unknowns to me, though I heard rumblings about the Americana quartet Darlingside as not-to-be-missed. When the gates opened, I threaded my way through the stampede of people racing with their quilts and chairs to claim valuable territory out by the massive Fort Stage area and decamped to the Harbor Stage for Darlingside’s set.

Their four-part harmonies are unparalleled, earning them appropriate comparisons to  Crosby, Stills, and Nash, though they certainly do have their own unique sound and style. Darlingside’s set was masterful and too short, but it was what happened before they had played a single note that set the tone for my festival experience. Darlingside’s notoriety is emerging; they might not have the same name recognition (yet) as someone like Josh Ritter or a group like Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. The foursome came out from the back of the Harbor Stage and were met with a thundering sound of applause, cheers, shouts, and whistles that quickly became a wall of noise. The guitar player standing closest to where I was sitting, grabbed his guitar out of the stand and looked out at the crowd with a genuinely shocked expression on his face. His eyebrows rocketed, he glanced over at his band mates who were also tuning and smiling and trying to play it casual as we screamed like we were in a barn on fire. I saw a joyful grin spread across his face as he shook his heads, mouthing the words “thank you” and “wow.” Cue my eye water, the first of many that day.

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Darlingside ©SheilaMoeschenPhotos

In that instant, I could feel what it must have meant for a, perhaps, lesser known group than say, for example, a band like Mumford and Sons (the surprise guest Saturday night), to be so instantly and warmly embraced and welcomed. I noticed this kind of dynamic throughout the weekend working like a feedback loop of energy that is so palpable it almost becomes a kind of blissful undertow. Artists give their all musically and emotionally—their gratitude and humility is on full display, they are often spied standing at the edges of other stages watching other artists perform—and festival goers return it all in kind. And it’s not just reserved for the music and its makers. Newport made me want to be a better person.

Immediate and galvanizing fellowship between festival attendees takes hold while you’re simply waiting around for the gates to open. Clustered up against the metal barricades, people trade conversation and hugs, sunscreen, water, and extra space on tarps or blankets. As the festival unfolded, I found myself becoming more attentive to everyone. Before leaving sets, I’d look around for anyone searching for a front row/prime real estate type seat and make sure they knew mine was open. I’d glance around at people standing behind me and ask if they needed me to move or duck so they could get a good shot. One morning as the gates fell back and the sun was already reaching nuclear status, making my way to one of the stages, I stopped by one of the staff members keeping an eye on the foot traffic. I said good morning and, spontaneously, asked him if he needed water, a snack, or more sunscreen. Outside of this experience, especially in New England, this kind of interaction would be greeted with extreme prejudice and a lot of loud profanity.

But this festival is special (said through slightly clenched teeth). Its founding members devised the event as one striving toward inclusivity, diversity, and, above all, fellowship, connection, and community. That these ideas not only remain, but reanimate in real time, year after year, is proof that music can become the conduit for urging us to be our best selves, for reminding us that we’re all here for one another, and for breaking down what divides us to show us what’s possible when we gather united.

There’s a large green banner tacked to the main entrance point where staff members nose around your backpack and scan your ticket. It bears the Newport Festival logo—a bird making off with a guitar surrounded by a circle of stars—and the words of one of the festival’s original members and iconic folk and social activists, Pete Seeger: “We’re stronger when we sing together.”

It’s a massive marquis, but it was only on the second day of the festival that I noticed the banner. I couldn’t believe I had missed it on the opening day, but maybe I just wasn’t able to see it. Maybe I had to feel it first.

 

 

 

 

Life Finds A Way

“Life finds a way,” says Jeff Goldblum as the wry, arch, very Goldblum-y character Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park. He’s referring to the naïve notion that the scientists actually have a handle on population control in the Dino-park, that they can somehow put a leash on the dinosaurs’ breeding habits, which would not only be futuristic science, but also make for a very short, boring movie (read: way less sexy, spooky Goldblum running away from teeth-gnashing T-Rexes in his tight black jeans. Not that I’ve considered this image much at all. Nope).

I think of this line whenever I’m walking around Boston, or wandering through any city area, and glimpse the spectacular collision between the natural world and the urban elements gamely trying to assert their dominance. You will lose concrete, brick, iron, and glass, I say silently. You are intergalactic interlopers in this planet’s perspective, forged from materials that might have come from parts of this blue sphere, but bear no more resemblance to those original organic pieces.

© SMoeschen Photos
©SMoeschen Photos

It’s a “we were here first” mentality I subscribe to the green, vining, growing, flowering, pulsing, pushing things propelling themselves up, out of the earth and onto whatever available structure is in reach. I subscribe this same attitude to indigenous peoples and most non-domesticated animals like deer, bears, and hawks, but not squirrels—those bastards were dreamed up in a lab by some evil syndicate who designed them with cartoonish cuteness in order to distract us from their pure vileness. In short, I root for the natives.

I’m heartened by watching life spread itself across brick walls, drape itself over concrete slabs in a loving, strangling embrace. I’m thrilled to see a wrought-iron fence engulfed in twining, twisting vines like arteries sent from a beating heart in search of oxygen. I’m cheered by happening upon flowers proudly thrusting out of a slit in the pavement, clinging to a light pole, or scaling the side of a building tucked into alleyway. I nod.

©SMoeschen Photos

After all, reclamation is your right. It’s as if to say, we’ve had enough of your co-habitation bullshit, humans; you’re not holding up your end of the bargain. We’re taking back what’s always been ours and we’re going to look pretty spectacular doing it. I get it; you’ll have no argument from me. I’m not about to getting into a pissing contest with a consciousness that’s older, wiser, and a lot more tenacious than all of us.

“Life finds a way,” says Dr. Malcolm. He means it as an omen, a red flag, a bit of necessary foreshadowing for the sake of a movie about overriding nature. In the real world, I prefer to view the persistent lurk of living matter in and around and over and through our man made structures no matter our efforts to curb, contain, and eradicate as an outstretched hand, a peace offering. It’s a call to relish and revere the natural world; it’s a chance to check ourselves and pay some respect now that we’re actually starting to pay attention.