West Side Story: A Story for Any Time and Place

Earlier in June, good friends took my husband and me to see the Rainbow Stage production of West Side Story. The quality of the production was so phenomenal, I became immersed in the story, music, messages, and themes. I was a little leery to move to Winnipeg, as I have lived in some of the great cultural cities of North America. But I am learning from my experiences as an audience member at this Rainbow Stage Production as well as Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Royal Winnipeg Ballet performances, that Winnipeg, too, can compete as a cultural city.

The setting for the musical is New York City, the clash between two gangs, the people of European descent and the Puerto Ricans. It could have taken place anywhere at any time; the story is universal and relevant, conveying important messages. It could have been Philadelphia Story, LA Story, or Winnipeg Story. The theme of tensions and war between people who are different, either different in religion, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, gender, or anything else I have forgotten is likely as old as humanity. Instead of celebrating that unique backgrounds and distinctions are what lead us to learn and to grow from each other, to advance in every way, we tend to become territorial and protective.

A quote which reverberated in my head throughout the production was Rodney King’s plea, “Can we all get along?” during the 1992 LA riots. Rodney King suffered from severe police brutality because of his race, and the police were acquitted which led to the riots. My generation of Americans is supposed to remember where we were during The Challenger disaster, as our parents remember the assassination of J.F. Kennedy. My memory of the space shuttle tragedy is a bit foggy (I was very young at the time), which is strange because I was obsessed with space and space shuttles as a child and even read space shuttle manuals, but I remember the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots in 1992. I remember my teacher silencing us for a minute, which is what he said the duration of the beating was, and I remember thinking how long a minute is. Try it. Sit with a stopwatch and imagine you are being beaten for a minute. It was one of those pivotal moments of my childhood.

The play is about more than racial tension and base human aggression. It is even about sexual discrimination and violence against women. It is about immigration. It is about dreams. It is about love. If I had to use one word to describe the production, the word convincing comes to mind. The stage dialects of the actors, the staging, the scintillating dancing, the powerful singing. I was mesmerized during Act I, so caught up in the story I failed to see some critter cross in front of the stage. (Why were those people laughing behind me? The part we were witnessing was not comedic, though other parts of the musical were successful at being humorous). It was during the ballet dream sequence in Act II, especially when Alison Roberts sang Somewhere, when I felt the true impact of dreams. For Maria and Tony, the dream was more noble than the conventional interpretation of the American dream. For them it was for us all to get along. The dream was for romantic love as well as brotherly or sisterly love and harmony among all people, despite our differences. The dream was for all cities to truly be cities of brotherly (or sisterly) love.

Maybe the American dream, the Canadian dream, the dream of any people should not be for personal success, to obtain a better life for oneself, but to make a difference, to bring harmony and tolerance, for all people.

As Rodney King so eloquently said, “Can we all get along?”

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Are you afraid of completing a project?

What do you fear? Are you afraid of dying? Are you afraid of living? Are you afraid of being alone? Are you afraid of commitment? Are you afraid of success? Are you afraid of failure? Are you afraid of completing some project? What fear lurks crouched in your most secret places? As an undergraduate student my only fear included exams. In the rest of my life I was somewhat reckless, running around Boston at 3AM, sleeping in the Boston train station waiting for the first train back to Wellesley, sleeping in the MIT student center outside the computer lab all hours of the night and day during a summer I worked at MIT. The only harm that came to me was sleep deprivation and some bed bugs from the MIT student lounge. Exams were another thing. They felt akin to life or death trials of my very being. Since leaving school, my fears have become scattered and unfocused. In some ways this is more disorienting because I never know when the panther will pounce into my thoughts. I am sure when I register for the Grade 8 piano exam or Grade 7 voice exam (which I have postponed), exam anxiety will take the role of the lead in my fears. But for now my fears blow around in my head like snow flakes on an October Winnipeg day. I seek attention from my friends, family, and Andrew to allay the boiling, burbling voices in my head. Being alone with my head is more difficult, as my mind makes more noise than the banter of my friends.

You see, I have been spending entirely too much time trying to soothe my addled brain rather than pursue the activities I dreamed of doing during this period of my life. The most piano I have mustered was in twenty minute daily stints the week before a recital. Then I still didn’t feel the confidence of Alexander the Great backed by troops, me backed by fingers, arms, and neurons, to play my Mozart Sonata from memory. I bailed. I should have shown up anyway, just to try to play the piece from memory. Even if all I played was the opening bar and the concluding chord, that would have been more of a success than not showing up at all. I redeemed myself later in a master class and played the piece from memory.

Except with the exam anxiety which I thought would be the death of me, I used to be fairly fearless. Now that I live in the privilege to spend my days following my doctor’s orders by playing piano and preparing my stories, poems, and novels for publication, my fear is an arrow without a target. But I think I can identify my secret fear. My fear is not being connected. And maybe being alone in my head. Perhaps also not knowing how to live. The fear of not being connected would motivate my frantic attempts at connecting to friends and family. This, I believe, is a relic of having been institutionalized my entire life, always being tethered to a university. As a college student, I felt I belonged to Wellesley. Alums and students are denoted as sisters to each other. At UCLA I was a member of a close knit group of astro students, and at McGill I felt a sense of belonging to the high energy theoretical physics group. I was always a member of some community. Since completing my teaching job in the fall, I felt estranged from community. I sat alone at home with my piano and a computer, belonging to no organization or family.

This changed in April when I became an editor of two columns for the alternative alumna magazine for Wellesley College graduates, Wellesley Underground. I started connecting to amazing, inspiring, caring women who share the experience of being undergraduate alumnae of my college. I am learning we share a lot more as well. Although the connection is through articles and email, I feel as though I belong to something meaningful and greater than myself, a community. Someone recently told me life all means nothing and then we die, but we might as well have fun in the meantime. I also acted in scenes from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the end of March which my acting teacher said is about the horror of existence. There isn’t any inherent meaning in anything, but we might as well make the most of our time existing, have fun, and find some meaning every day, even if it is just in an act of kindness or a poem on the page. The world can be as meaningful or meaningless as you want it to be. It is up to us to find the poetry.

I find writing my novel to be a more solitary occupation than even doing scientific research. With scientific research there is the deluge of work emails and meetings with collaborators. Sure you might go through periods where there are weeks spent toiling alone with a project, but in a good work environment this is rare. At McGill, the high energy theory group spent lunches together, had at least one seminar and one colloquium a week, and enjoyed frequent dinners together in addition to coffee and tea. We interacted strongly and positively like particles. Our ideas and information collided and bloomed daily. At a smaller institution this might not be the case. And in creative writing it certainly isn’t the case. I am thankful to be a part of Wellesley Underground in which I can collaborate with others and exchange ideas, but it is still somewhat solitary without face-to-face contact.

At the moment I am struggling to complete the final draft of my first novel. My companions are my characters in the story. I wrote a novella before college, but I never edited it, which is the stage I am at now in my work with my novel. How do you go about finishing a task? Should I work for a certain number of hours a day or impose a deadline? There are no rules for self propelled projects. We have to create our own rules. I think I fear finishing projects, and I find finishing projects to be challenging. But then you reach a point where you just want it completed, where it needs to reach an end. Either it will become finished, or we will become finished first, and the former is preferable.

I don’t have any magic answers for dealing with completing projects. I think making the project a priority in the day and reducing other clutter (which unfortunately means letting my music go somewhat by the wayside temporarily until I can incorporate it into a routine with a writing routine) is key. And imposing an approximate deadline. Prioritizing and deadlines. That is what is in my arsenal to try to finish this task.

What are you afraid of? Will you let it stop you from realizing your dreams? Will you choose to be fearful or fearless? Is it a choice?

And with that, I will submerse myself into my characters, connect to them as though they are dear friends of mine, and let their story take center stage in my life. And I will continue to enjoy the community I have found through Wellesley Underground. Maybe I won’t run around the streets of Winnipeg in the wee hours of the morning, but I will make a conscious choice to be fearless. Even if I need perpetual reminders of this decision.