I used to think healing was purely physical. Now I feel the depth of emotional healing possible for myself, audience members and generations of women in my family because of my one-woman show.
I’ve had experiences in my life that left me ashamed, angry, annoyed. I feel better when I identify them and use them like compost to grow something better in my life. One of these times was when I entered a dairy princess contest I had no interest in. The thought of public speaking and being judged paralyzed me with fear. The thought of drinking milk repulsed me.
My mother regretted not standing by my side as my dad, a dairy farmer, persuaded me to enter the contest on the very night my hero, Alice Cooper was playing in concert. It was my 18th birthday. I still longed for my dad’s approval so I entered the contest turning my back on my true passion. 40 years later I told Mom I’d be acting out that scene in my one-woman show “If I Were Me… I’d Know What I Want.” She cringed asking “Why can’t we just sweep that under the rug and forget about it?”
Sweeping what we’d rather not see under the proverbial rug was habitual for my family. The disgusting thing may be out of sight, but everyone still felt it.
Acting out that embarrassing experience in my own way, on my own terms under stage lights was liberating. Like a clean slate. It ended up liberating my mom from her regrets from the past as well.
I heard the sweet sound of her laughter in the audience as I performed the first 15 minutes of my show on stage in my Minnesota home town.
During the next year, I continued writing the hour-long show, rehearsing scenes for Mom as she lay in a hospital bed recovering from multiple myeloma chemo treatments.
To act out characters, it’s essential to know their back story. I remember reading to her what I thought was her back story… what it was like growing up the youngest of ten children, why she got married, how she felt about sex, what her favorite moments in life were. With one nod of her head she said, “Yes. You read me correctly.”
I’d ask her feedback on how well I played out my dad, brother and sister. Running low on energy she still wanted to help, suggesting how Dad would talk faster, my brother slower. I recorded her saying a couple of her lines. We both knew she was running out of time. I wanted to remember her vocal pacing and intonations. One night, she surprised me as she came around the corner in her walker. She mustered up the energy because she wanted to know more about my broken engagement that’s part of the show. She was curious what I really wanted out of life. I wasn’t clear. That’s how my show ends and I still needed to do work on that.
Grateful for a platform to share untold stories, I welcomed her comments and questions. She never got to see the full play on stage but did see me rehearse many times. As fate would have it, she took her last breath the morning of my debut at Seattle Fringe Festival.
It was surreal acting out her character that night. I was numb. My first few lines on stage lingered in the air for a few seconds, then felt like they dropped into a void. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling but once I got the first lines out, the rest came as rehearsed and I completed the show. There was applause. There were moments of insights. There was death. And life went on.
Less than six months after her passing I get an intuitive nudge to scatter her ashes at a small lake where she used to play with her sisters. Originally, I planned to take them to Prince Edward Island where I was performing. It would have been meaningful as we spent time there together, but her hometown lake was calling stronger.
I changed my flight to stop in Iowa before the Chicago Fringe Festival. Driving to the lake, I talked with the campground attendant and discover the dam (now called a spillway) where the water flows over to the most peaceful pond I’ve ever seen. I was surprised Mom had never taken me here, but it was just as she’d talked about. I’m by myself in nature and feel her little child’s energy. Laughing and full of life. My heart opens as I take in the sounds of trickling water and a solitary bird. The leaves gently sway in the wind and I feel connected with everything. The numbness is gone and I’m feeling again. Peaceful, happy, content.
The next day I perform my show at the Rialto Theater in Pocahontas, Iowa. Mom’s 16 year old granddaughter is in the audience. At the end of the show, she gives me a tight hug, lets out a big sigh and tells me she feels like a human being again. I’m not sure why she said that but somehow everything feels like it’s going to be ok.
Before I fly out I have a chance to take my niece to the pond where I scattered mom’s ashes. We talk about her grandmother (my mother) and feel the feminine power that has been passed down. It’s running through our veins. We’re all connected by an invisible, benevolent force.
This force is with me on stage every time. Performing a one-woman show allows me to play out family members, understand them better and see life through their eyes. The stage is a safe space that invites dialogue after the show. It allows me to fully express myself and be seen. I’ve experienced much emotional healing by sharing my story. Old wounds of feeling misunderstood, unseen and unworthy. Perhaps these wounds have been in the family for generations. And perhaps they would continue if they’re not addressed.
We all have stories. My niece commented how she’d be so afraid to act on stage. Then she realizes that I was probably afraid at her age too. This is true. Now, to be a positive influence for her means the world to me. That, along with the memory of my mom’s laughter in the audience comforts me knowing the pain she felt so many decades ago was released.
Emotional healing is an individual endeavor, yet we can help those we love by expressing our unique creativity. For me, this path has been writing and performing my show “If I Were Me… I’d Know What I Want.” I couldn’t do it without believing in myself and my message. I also couldn’t do it without the help of others, those who have gone before me and shine a bright, steady light.