Friday, March 13, 2015

Gambling Eden: On The Joys--And Anxieties--Of Funding

A few months ago, there was a Salon piece going around by a female writer discussing how being "sponsored" by her husband allows her the financial freedom to pursue a full-time writing career. While talking about money is super uncomfortable, it opened up an enlightening conversation among a lot of people in my network about the financial challenges and sacrifices involved in making a career in the arts. When I was between jobs a few years ago, I conducted an informal survey among my writer friends about the most sustainable strategies they have found to both support themselves financially as well as make time for their art.  For some people, the answer is support from a spouse, while for others the answer is office work or teaching.  Because every writer has a unique set of emotional and intellectual needs, no two life strategies are going to be the same.  And a lot of my life over the last few years has been experimenting with different life rhythms to figure out what makes the most sense for me.
The view from my hotel room at the Dead Sea last month

Since January, I have been in Jerusalem on a the the Jewish Theological Seminary's Kesher Hadash Semester In Israel Program, which is funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.  As someone who is in an insane amount of debt from grad school for a playwriting degree, being on a funded program is completely blowing my mind.  Not only am I studying tuition-free with a rent stipend, the program takes us on experiences as diverse as the Palestinian-narrative program Encounter to Perspectives Israel, which was created to provide Israeli views on the occupation. They also frequently reimburse us for attending Israeli cultural activities and puts us up in hotels with sumptuous breakfast bars.  I am not saying this to brag--I find myself every other week to take pains to say how humbled and grateful I am for this experience.  Throughout my whole application process last year I kept waiting to be told I wasn't good enough, that there was some bar it turned out I probably wasn't meeting.  Or maybe I was just traumatized from applying to so fellowships in the theatre world, where funding opportunities are so sparse and competitive it's hard not to feel like vultures fighting over the corpse of a famine victim.

"Are you going to let yourself enjoy this?" my therapist asked me in December before I left.  And to be honest, my first few weeks here were pretty stressful--worrying that I wouldn't be able to maximize on the opportunities available in this city and that I would prove an unworthy investment for the people providing me funding.  Part of the reason I came here was for my writing, and I was terrified of not having a new play started by the time I left.  There was also the fear of going back to New York and feeling like a failure if I go back to working at Trader Joe's and adjuncting after getting used to hobnobbing in much more heady circles.  Like if the story of the musical Annie ended with the plucky orphan girl not getting adopted by Oliver Warbucks but instead going back to the orphanage, how disappointing would that have been?  How much would that week in the world of luxury have changed her and made her less able to cope with her regular reality?

Luckily, like most of the things I stress about, many of these anxieties have proved unfounded.  I've been blogging a lot, my Hebrew has improved, and I have discovered some gorgeous hidden architectural treasures in Jerusalem.  Not only did I finally start writing a new play last week, but I also another play accepted into a festival in New York for the summer, so I know there are awesome things waiting for me when I get back.  On some levels, my experience here is moving me forward.

And yet there are still questions as to how I will carry the journeys I am beginning with my when I go home.  Right now my program is paying for me to take Hebrew classes, and I am finally making progress:  will I have the motivation and discipline to continue my language studies? I am writing a lot now now that I am living in a magical intellectually stimulating bubble--will I be able to cultivate that kind of mental space on my own when I have to balance it with work again? And while you all know my issues with Jerusalem shutting down on for Shabbat, it has been lovely to have an excuse to participate in Friday night minyans and I wonder if I will be able to put a priority on that time in New York, with so many other potential claimants of my time and energy.  

Is there any way for me to possibly know what will be the right choice moving forward?  Probably not.  No doubt when I get home I will be kicking myself for all of the things I failed to take advantage of while here, and will probably lose some of the gains I have made.  Hell, I am still beating myself over a playwriting grant opportunity I missed out on four years ago.

To cultivate peace of mind, I turn to music.  For an activity in our class on Israeli diversity, our class of American Jews, Palestinian Israelis and Jewish Israelis had to select songs to share with the group to get to know each other better.  I shared the song, "Eve" from the album Gambling Eden by Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayem. It was a favorite in high school, but I hadn't listened to it in a while.  The song is a kind of inner monologue for Biblical Eve, musing on the grand consequences of the simple act of picking fruit from the wrong tree.  While both Adam and the angels despair over humanity's expulsion from Eden, Eve chooses to look forward, observing that "Paradise is only what you feel."  she ends the song on a note of resilience:

"Plant your gardens row by row
it may not be Paradise, but you can watch it grow
And if they apple of your eye should bring you pain and sorrow
You can kiss Eden goodbye--there's always tomorrow."

Always tomorrow...

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