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Posts Tagged ‘Anna Deavere Smith’

I have not come close to death. But I have feared it. Taunted it, too. Repelled down the sides of cliffs. Spelunked in the bowels of caves. Flown over the Arctic in a small plane that landed on a short gravel bar on the banks of the Nahanni. Once I drove through the mountains on a cold snowy night, joyriding with friends. We ended up stranded in a ditch, no coats, no water, no food. Another night I got lost hiking in Arches National Park. But I sat tight with the bats, two camera bodies, flickering distant desert, until rangers whispered my name.

I was younger then, took more risks. I feel more cautious. Older and prone to safety. It’s boring to lose that sense of adventure. The bones creakier. The face more wrinkled. The risks emotional.

Who do I know that has come close to death? A girlfriend in high school told me she had meningitis as a baby and nearly died. She was scarred from the shots, said it was a miracle that she was still alive. What must it be like for a parent to lose a child? My grandmother lost her son, my mother her brother, at the age of 18. There are ways I would not want to die. I wouldn’t want to be in a fire or drown in the ocean. I don’t think I’d be fond of a shark bite ripping me in half. Car accidents don’t sound like a way to go either. Maybe there is no good way to die. To imagine death.

There have been times when I felt like I was a millisecond away from making a wrong turn with the wheel, a swerve of a bald tire, and something righted the machine. The hand of Fate? A God or Goddess? Is there something bigger, unimaginable to the mortal brain, there to intervene? I believe so. What if reality turns out to be only what we believe. I watched a movie recently called Paper Heart. It was an exploration of love. What is love. When was the first time you fell in love. Have you ever been in love?

I was thinking of the broken heart. In the movie, a faux documentary, the experts said love wasn’t in the heart, but chemical reactions in the brain. How then to explain the tight chest, crackling near the ribs when someone suddenly says goodbye. When I think of death, I wonder about being ready to die. Will I feel like I’m ready when my time comes. And when will that be.

It’s unpredictable, a good argument for living in the moment. And here I am writing about death like it was love and love like it was death. And on the screen in front of me a shark swims next to a narwhale, elusive creatures of the sea. You could go your whole life and never see a narwhale. Yet there he was, the National Geographic photographer who spotted the ivory tusked cluster from the air.

And when he zoomed in with the telephoto, face to face in the water, who was closer to death, animal or human. Do skeptics believe in love? Maybe they don’t need to. Dense and blue. I think love is blue. “In love” is that bright color mix of powder and turquoise. Broken love, a deep blackberry navy. Death. What color is death? In the end it does not matter. The one thing we share besides birth is death. I haven’t come close to it. Yet skin cells continue to shed. New skin, new me. Haggard and prunish, a raisin in the sun.




-Related to topic post WRITING TOPIC – 3 QUESTIONS. [NOTE: This is the first of three questions mentioned by actor and writer Anna Deavere Smith in an interview with Bill Moyers (see link). She talked about the questions in the context of interviewing people and listening to them. The three questions came from a linguist Smith met at a cocktail party in 1979; the questions were, according to the linguist, guaranteed to break the patterns and change the way people are expressing themselves. QuoinMonkey, ybonesy, and frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman take on the three questions by doing a Writing Practice on each.]

-Also related to posts PRACTICE: Have You Ever Come Close To Death? — 15min (by ybonesy), PRACTICE: Have You Ever Come Close To Death? — 15min (by Bob Chrisman)

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By Bob Chrisman


The question strikes me as amusing because I wonder how many times I’ve been on the edge of dying and didn’t realize it. How about the time the gray BMW swung around the corner as it turned left? The outside mirror on the right side caught my open coat and flung it in the air. Even the driver thought he had hit me because he stopped, at least the brake lights flickered before he drove away. But the question is about a time I knew I was close to death.

In college I ran with a group of theater people. My friend, Margie (not her real name), lived at home in the suburbs with her family: Mom, Dad, and a younger brother and sister. The parents regularly invited us to their house for taco night, a family and friends feast of food and laughter. One night in February I left their house to drive back into the city. I felt so lonely and depressed as I headed home in my VW bug.

I took a shortcut down a curving, two-lane road to the main highway. At the beginning of every curve I pushed the accelerator hard. Looking back, I may have wanted to die at that moment. My friend and her family showed me what I would never have in the way of a warm, loving family.

The car entered one curve. I caught the sheen of ice on the highway. Too late I took my foot off the accelerator and stomped on the brake. The car spun around like a yoyo, first one way and then the other.

I left my body. From the backseat of the VW, I watched my physical body frantically try to regain control of the spinning car by turning the steering wheel. Finally “I” gave up. As I watched the accident unfold, I said, “Oh, crap. I’m gonna die.” The car ran up the side of the hill and turned over on the left side. In that instant, I found myself in my body watching the asphalt speed past my driver’s side window.

The car ran into a ditch, stopped and flipped upright. I stumbled out into the cold, dark night on a lonely road in a wooded area. A young couple, on their way to a movie, stopped and made me climb into their car. They took me to a pay phone so I could call the police. When we arrived back at the wreck, they insisted on staying until the police arrived. A tow truck pulled my car from the ditch. The officers told me I could drive it home and I did.

I always remember that night whenever I drive a car. The accident made me more cautious about my driving. To have death come so close made me appreciate how quickly life can be snatched away.



-Related to topic post WRITING TOPIC – 3 QUESTIONS. [NOTE: This is the first of three questions mentioned by actor and writer Anna Deavere Smith in an interview with Bill Moyers (see link). She talked about the questions in the context of interviewing people and listening to them. The three questions came from a linguist Smith met at a cocktail party in 1979; the questions were, according to the linguist, guaranteed to break the patterns and change the way people are expressing themselves. QuoinMonkey, ybonesy, and frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman take on the three questions by doing a Writing Practice on each.]

-Also related to post PRACTICE: Have You Ever Come Close To Death? — 15min (by ybonesy)

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I have a tracheotomy scar that I got when I was 18 months. Mom said I used to get croup and that this particular time my croup turned into pneumonia. By the time they realized how bad it was, I was turning blue. They rushed me to the emergency room, and Mom says that a little Mexican doctor, a woman, performed the emergency tracheotomy on me. They kept me in an oxygen tent for days, and Mom said that’s when my hair went curly. She said I looked like an angel under the plastic of the tent.

Later, as a young girl, any time I got fever, I would have dreams where it seemed angels were hovering in the room with me. I could hear people talk, my brother and sisters, but it was the underwater sound of voices. And I felt like there were other children with me, except these children were calm and light. Those were the angels who visited any time I was sick, and I often wonder now if they related at all to the time I almost died.

Also, in my mind, I picture that little Mexican woman. The doctor. Mom and Dad had great pride in saying that it was a Mexican woman who saved my life. Mom’s grandmother on her dad’s side was a little dark woman with a long thick braid. Mom talks about how as a child she would go in and see her grandmother, who was sick in bed. Her name was Elena, and Mom said she’d be in a white bed dress, sitting up, her gray-black hair pulled back in a thick braid. Mom says that she thinks Elena had Indian in her, Spanish and Indian, which is Mexican. And somehow, when Mom talks about the Mexican doctor, I often think of Elena as being that woman. She wasn’t, of course, but that’s who I picture saving my life.

The other thing that I picture is the doctor puncturing my throat with a pair of scissors. I don’t know why I see that, but I do, and it’s comical now to think that someone would take whatever object they could find, a good pair of steel scissors with black handles, and poke them into my throat to open up a passageway.

And I see myself under the tent afterward, sweaty from the oxygen and heat that builds up. And then like when the house falls on the Wicked Witch of the West and Dorothy takes off the witch’s ruby slippers, and all of sudden the witch’s feet curl and retract under the house, this is how I picture my curls happening. Mom and Dad are staring at me in the tent, my hair is wet but straight, and suddenly the entire head of hair starts to curl into ringlets. I picture my parents’ eyes getting big and the two of them looking at each other, incredulous.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my parents to almost lose a child. Mom says that after that, she didn’t like to take me out. She didn’t like it when people with colds came over. She tried to keep me covered and away from germs. Back then we had relatives visiting all the time. And neighbors, too. We were a big family, social. All my sisters’ friends would come to our house to play and hang out. And Mom’s friends, too. On Sundays my Aunt Barbara and her eight kids would often drive up from a town just south of us. Eventually Mom must have just let it go, let me be a normal kid again. What do they say? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.




-Related to topic post WRITING TOPIC – 3 QUESTIONS. [NOTE: This is the first of three questions mentioned by actor and writer Anna Deavere Smith in an interview with Bill Moyers (see link). She talked about the questions in the context of interviewing people and listening to them. The three questions came from a linguist Smith met at a cocktail party in 1979; the questions were, according to the linguist, guaranteed to break the patterns and change the way people are expressing themselves. QuoinMonkey, ybonesy, and frequent guest writer Bob Chrisman take on the three questions by doing a Writing Practice on each.]

-Also related to PRACTICE: Hair – 15min

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Question Mark, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2008, all photos © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


A few weeks ago, I watched an interview on Bill Moyers Journal and was mesmerized by the work of Anna Deavere Smith. It is tough work. She takes on controversial subjects most would not touch in our sanitized, politically correct language of the day. Her 1992 one-woman performance Fires in the Mirror explored the violence between Jews and Blacks after an August 1991 civic disturbance in the New York neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Her solo performance in Twilight: Los Angeles dramatized the 1992 riots that broke out in L.A. following the first Rodney King trial.

For her current one-woman play Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith interviewed Americans from all walks of life about healthcare, medical, and end of life issues. After 9 years and 300 plus interviews, she chose 20 people; through their words, body language and speech, she transforms on stage into each one. I’ve only seen snippets of her 90 minute performance on TV. And from bullrider to politician to Buddhist monk, I could hear the voice of all America inserted into the healthcare debate, leaving little room for doubt — something has to change.

We are trying to bring disparate worlds together, not so that we can all get along, but so we can see out of the ‘me’ into ‘us.’

— Anna Deavere Smith

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Highlights


Below are few notes I jotted down while listening to her conversation with Bill Moyers. A few may seem cryptic, but will make more sense when you watch the interview:

  • The title Let Me Down Easy came to her almost out of a dream. There are two songs with the name. Of the title, James H. Cone of the Union Theological Seminary said they are the words of a broken heart and can be interpreted as broken love. “Don’t do it harshly. Not too mean. Let it be easy.”
  • Let Me Down Easy is a call about grace and kindness in a world that lacks that often —  in a winner take all world.
  • Death is the ultimate form of loss, the ultimate form of abandonment
  • It broke her heart to know that we, with all of our money and technology, believe that we can afford to leave people so alone
  • Are we afraid of being poor, afraid of losing, afraid of being sick? Is that why we distance ourselves from that reality all around us?
  • She chose these 20 particular people because they are very connected to the life cycle – death and life
  • The most important thing you can do is be with someone when they die
  • Art comes in when the official language falls apart. When things fall apart, you can see more and you can even be part of indicating new ways that things can be put together.


What seems to be important to Anna Deavere Smith is the art of listening. And letting what she hears soak into each cell of her body. Words matter. People matter. She believes something she learned from her grandfather (who was also the inspiration for her method of theater) — if you say a word often enough, it becomes you. In a New York Times article Through 1 Woman, 20 Views of Life’s End she says, “I try to embody America by embodying its words.”

Near the end of the interview, Bill Moyers asked, “When did you begin to listen to people so acutely?” Anna said when she was young, she lived next to a woman who weighed 400 pounds. The neighbor would ask her to go to the store to buy her fatback and she’d love to sit on her porch and listen to her stories —  that’s when she started really listening.

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Writing Topic — 3 Questions


How do we teach ourselves to listen? How do we get people to talk about what has meaning for them, moving beyond repetition or sound bites? In Anna’s words, “I say their words over and over. I listen and I wear the words.”

She said she also taught herself to listen by breaking up certain rhythmic speech patterns. She met a linguist at a cocktail party in 1979 who said she would give her 3 questions that were guaranteed to break the patterns and change the way people are expressing themselves:

Have you ever come close to death?

Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do?

Do you know the circumstances of your birth?


And that’s the inspiration for this Writing Topic — 3 Questions.

Choose one of the 3 questions above. Write it down at the top of your paper. Take out a fast writing pen and do a timed 15 minute Writing Practice.

Maybe 3 questions, combined with the wild mind of Writing Practice, will break patterns in our writing and lead us to listen more closely to our own voices.

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Epilogue


Anna Deavere Smith is on fire. In pursuit of her mission to translate art into social commentary about race, poverty, and injustice, she’s won two Obie Awards, been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and two Tonys, and is a recipient of the prized MacArthur fellowship. (Not to mention her role in NBC’s The West Wing, as National Security Advisor Nancy McNally.) You can read more about Anna Deavere Smith at Bill Moyers Journal. Or watch the full interview with Anna Deavere Smith and Bill Moyers at this link.

In November, the Moth Storytelling Awards in New York honored her as their 2009 recipient at the Annual Moth Ball. The Wall Street Journal blog Speakeasy covered the event which was also attended by writer Garrison Keillor. On the subject of healthcare, the blog references a compelling verbal account from Keillor that night about his stroke in September. He had the stroke while on a massage table, eventually drove himself to the ER, and waited 15 minutes in line before he was able to tell anyone he was having a stroke. Read the full story at Speakeasy: Jonathan Ames, Garrison Keillor and Anna Deavere Smith Headline Annual Moth Ball.


In some ways the most effective politicians are the ones who have the best verbal clothes that they manipulate the best way. And there is a gap between that type of clothing and where people walk and where people live.

Whitman was doing another kind of work for the country at that time. Speaking a different song. And I think the politicians can sing to us but I respect, in a way, the limitation of their language. I mean I guess it’s a part of our culture that goes back as far as Jefferson, that they have to be so careful about what they say. My only desire would then be that we would find other places in our culture to work out our differences.

— Anna Deavere Smith from Bill Moyers Journal, November 2009


-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, November 29th, 2009

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