Today I finally let go of a burden I’ve been carrying around with me for 17 years…my wedding gown, and everything it represented. I always thought I’d be married in white but my best friend worked in a bridal boutique. By then I was living in Boston but I flew back to Indiana and she took me into the shop when it was closed so I could try on gowns she’d set aside. The one she thought was meant for me was indeed the one I fell in love with–a shimmering, beaded, periwinkle blue. Tradition was still so important to me at the time that I struggled to give desire a place over expectation. But we called in my friend’s husband and he agreed–the blue gown was the one.
There were multiple somber notes beneath my wedding ceremony: the knowledge that my husband was newly diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and resisting a cocktail of meds that made him comatose and disinterested in me or anything else; the time that I postponed marriage until he was willing to seek medical attention–something he didn’t want to do–and he confiscated my engagement ring in a rage; his fights with his overbearing mother that my family tried to shield me from on the day; the hints of hesitation from people who loved me; the fact that when I asked my husband for a chair during our reception–because I couldn’t wrangle one in my gown–he impatiently replied, “In a minute” and dashed off to talk to someone, leaving one of my friends to help me instead as I flushed with humiliation.
I stayed married years longer than I should have. I held on to my husband’s letters and mementos even longer. When I finally made the big move from California back to Massachusetts, I looked through all of those keepsakes and realized that nearly every single card and letter from him contained an apology for something hurtful he had said or done. I cried for the first time in many years, knowing I would no longer keep them. I didn’t even miss him anymore but the grief was still there. The gown stuck around even longer, mostly in a closet or basement where my parents lived. Even though I knew I wouldn’t have children, there was a vague idea in my mind that the gown would go to someone special, or that it was too beautiful not to commemorate in some way.
At last, when I knew I was settling back in Massachusetts for good, I was ready to say goodbye to the gown. I tried selling it, I thought about dropping it off at a thrift store, but it still took a couple more years for it go. Then, recently, my mom discovered a local charity that accepts wedding gown donations. They take apart the gowns and re-purpose them to make burial gowns for infants who have passed away, for the families who need something beautiful to dress their sweet babies in. At once, I knew this was the place for my gown.
Last night, I took out my gown for one last look. I tried it on, ran my hands over the fabric, and thought about what that day, that marriage, that man, had meant to me. I cried from a lingering grief, which I honestly didn’t expect. The person I was when I wore that gown seems like an entirely different woman–a girl, really–from an entirely different life. While I truly wish the best for my ex-husband, I haven’t seen or spoken to him in many years, and I don’t miss him. It’s hard to imagine ever having been in that relationship but it was my first real, glorious, love and it contained oceans of passion. I also said a prayer over the gown, that it might provide one small drop of comfort or peace to a family facing the worst day of their lives.
It’s always been so very hard for me to let go but this was the year that taught me how to do it. In place of all of my history, experience, loss, regret, mistakes, growth, and–yes–love, is just…space. Having lost nearly everything this year, I don’t know what shape my life is going to take next but I have nothing but hope. A college friend recently posted that he had found “deep and abiding” love; that it had taken him 44 years but that it was worth the wait. I turned 44 last week and his post made me smile; maybe abiding love will find me yet.
This week I learned that the legendary Marta Becket passed away in January. I had no idea. I visited her opera house for the first time on Christmas Eve but her impact on my life hit back around 2009-2010.
I was divorced and had left my beloved Santa Monica for a studio in Koreatown with an actual paper-thin Murphy bed that folded down from the wall and was possibly the kind of bed you get in hell. I hated my new neighborhood, I was free but alone, I was nursing yet another heartbreak and creatively things couldn’t have been bleaker. I used to sit in the generic apartment-furnished armchair, staring out at the brick building next door, where people would literally scream out of their windows at all hours for reasons unknown. Because they could, I guess.
My mom told me about this amazing documentary she’d seen called Amargosa and I immediately ordered it from Netflix. On DVD. When I saw it, I was deeply moved by Marta’s story – one of a frustrated artist who took a giant leap into the unknown to create something that didn’t make any sense at the time. She left her metropolitan New York world behind to settle in Death Valley and refurbish a dilapidated performance hall, where she danced to a crowd that she literally painted on the walls – because there was no audience – until National Geographic discovered her.
The story of a woman without an opportunity to create the kind of work she wanted to, stepping off the grid to start living a different kind of story, spoke volumes to me. I felt the stirrings of something akin to that for myself or the idea, at least, that something else might be possible. As soon as I finished the documentary I rushed to find out if Marta was still alive and performing. She was, but she was heading into her final performances of the The Sitting Down Show because she could no longer dance and was ready to retire. I was determined to be there but a winter storm hit; those isolated Valley roads were flooded, nearly impassable, and phone lines were down. The Amargosa website warned of treacherous travel and I sadly abandoned the idea.
Several years passed. I sort of forgot about visiting the opera house although Marta remained an inspiration to me. I thought of her often, whenever I floundered around wondering what the hell I was doing in Hollywood. Every time the thought arose that I should create my own work, forge my own path, I would beat it down with resistance but then Marta would be there, like a beacon in the background. More time passed. I saw Diane Bell’s first film, Obselidia, and its scenes at the Amargosa Opera House reminded me that Marta’s legacy was still there…waiting.
Cut to December, 2016. Bone weary, shattered, burned out in every possible way…I’m in the middle of packing up my life in a limited number of boxes that I can snail-mail home to Boston. I’m finally calling it quits. A friend has come to stay and this is my camping/hiking/national park exploring friend. The one who will join me on any wilderness adventure. Each time we meet, we excitedly plan where to go next. We know we have a short window this time. We’re both exhausted. It needs to be a place we can drive to in a day and one that won’t be closed from all of the snow. Then it hits me: Death Valley. All those years in California and I still hadn’t been. They were at the tail end of a winter storm and about to get hit with some epic flooding but we had just the right amount of time to miss the worst.
We hit the road late on Christmas Eve day and drove like demons to make the show. The opera house had confirmed via e-mail and phone that there was a dancer who was going to perform that night. Then there wasn’t because she’d been injured. Then there was because they were mistaken or at any rate she was still going to perform. We didn’t have time for any pit stops. We ate snacks in the car. The two-lane road out to Death Valley Junction was pitch black with no cell service, my aging car was insistently fogging up in the rain and we’d hit huge pockets of flooding that were impossible to see ahead of time. We nearly missed the opera house because the valley was so dark but we swerved in and I jumped out to tell them we were there. There was no time for a bathroom or food or even to buy our tickets. Marta’s personal assistant was manning the door. She said to go over to the hotel afterwards to pay for our seats but, for now, to enjoy the show.
The opera house was toasty from the wood-burning stove and I couldn’t get over the rough wood floors or the detailed murals. It was beautiful. The assistant spoke to the small audience of tourists, telling us that Marta still lived on the grounds and that she was too ill to come over but that she knew we were there and that “she is happy” we were. A young Dominican dancer had been tapped by Marta to perform. She explained in broken English how grateful she was because, in her home country, the opportunity to dance was non-existent. She danced a short program from Marta’s past, including some of Marta’s own choreography. She wore Marta’s costumes – delightfully out-of-style – and there were long pauses while she changed. A little dog in the audience quietly growled whenever a new costume appeared. The ballerina danced in front of scenery that Marta painted. The faded red curtain opened and closed jerkily. The dancer’s pointe shoes were worn to shreds. The entire experience felt like pure anthropology and I held both joy and sorrow in my heart.
Afterwards we walked over to the hotel and someone opened a vacant room for me so I could finally use a bathroom. The room was scrubbed clean but old and in some disrepair. We wandered around the hotel filled with Marta’s photos and memorabilia. We were left to ourselves in the vacant gift shop. The lobby had a Christmas tree, a cat lounging on a desk, and a guy playing the guitar for his friends. Finally an employee appeared at the front desk and seemed pleasantly surprised that we had stuck around to pay for our tickets. We were starving but there was still no cell service. I asked the employee if she could give us directions to a restaurant somewhere and she told us that the hotel’s cafe was serving a complimentary Christmas Eve dinner, courtesy of Marta.
I think walking into that cafe on Christmas Eve was the moment when, on a micro level, I started to heal from the burn-out of the previous few years. People from all over the world were gathered at the counter and tables. The employees were warm and welcoming and explained the menu. When they found out we were Vegetarians they said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” Even now, I cry when I think of it. To be in a place that meant so much to me as an artist, to be exploring a part of our American wilderness, to be surrounded by fellow travelers on a holiday eve…it was pure gratitude. Pure joy. I was remembering the core of who I was – the things I actually care about, the values that actually mean something to me. It wasn’t about booking a guest star or walking the red carpet or getting the next audition. It was about being in the world. Being present. Being loved.
Marta Becket changed my life because she lived hers with full authenticity. She surrendered to her art and allowed it to move her where it wished instead of trying to control or resist the outcome. She taught me that it’s not only possible to forge my own path – it’s desirable. I am forever grateful for her life and work.