UCLA’s Meryl Friedman: “Here are 5 things we can do to remain hopeful and support.”

For me, talking through things always helps, so I try to offer that as an option. I try not to talk too much, but to listen. And I try and ask, “what do you want to happen?” Even if it can’t happen, voicing it sometimes allows other options to become clear. As a part of […]

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For me, talking through things always helps, so I try to offer that as an option. I try not to talk too much, but to listen. And I try and ask, “what do you want to happen?” Even if it can’t happen, voicing it sometimes allows other options to become clear.

As a part of my series about the the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Meryl Friedman, Director of Education & Special Initiatives for UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance.

Meryl manages a diverse portfolio of arts engagement activities, including K-12 arts education, artist residencies, and community art-making initiatives reaching over 15,000 participants each year. For the past 7 years, Meryl has been the co-professor for Arts Encounters, an arts lab for undergraduates, offered through the School of Art and Architecture at UCLA. Meryl is the recipient of numerous awards for writing and directing; her plays are published by Dramatic Publishing and are regularly produced across the country.

Thank you for joining us Meryl! Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

When I was growing up, I only wanted to be two things, an artist and a teacher. Well, actually, I also wanted to be a veterinarian, but I knew I couldn’t take the heartbreak. For my 8th birthday my parents took me to see a big Broadway musical, South Pacific, and in it, the female lead washed her hair on stage, she actually washed her hair on stage and sang this song, “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair…” It made an indelible impression on me. I was in love. I had no idea how those people got on that stage or how they made it all happen but I knew I wanted to do that.

Not long after I saw the show, I did my own rendition of that song for some of my relatives and I remember them staring at me, aghast, and then joking that whatever I was doing certainly didn’t come from their side of the family. I was always the different one, the “artsy” one. I always felt like I needed to keep a little part of myself hidden because others might not “get it” or “get me.” Art is trying to find the balance — the conflict between inside and outside. It’s exhilarating and irresistible to me to poke and test that balance point, to see what can happen.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

When I was young it was definitely The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and the whole Chronicles of Narnia, which I read over and over, hoping each time I went back to it that there would be more books. I had no idea that C.S. Lewis was no longer alive and couldn’t write any more. I loved the storytelling, the books were highly theatrical, I loved that the kids had agency, that they did hard, important stuff. Probably most of all, I loved that they went to another, fantastical place where there were talking animals, and many of those animals were more honorable and admirable than the people. For me, it didn’t get any better than that. Much later, when I was much older, a friend introduced me to the writer Bruce Chatwin and gave me his book, The Songlines, which I read every year. It’s about our need, as humans, to walk, to travel, to wander, to seek out what we don’t know. It’s one of the most profound books I’ve ever read and I never get tired of it.

Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

When I first read this question, I thought it was going to be easy to answer, I’m a pretty optimistic person. But I got stuck, not because I can’t see any hope in this crisis, but because hope is so personal. The light at the end of my tunnel might be very different from someone else’s and I worried about overgeneralizing. So, here’s my shot at it, maybe a little off the beaten track, but hopefully resonant to someone.

  1. Hope is shock and disbelief and sudden understanding. Hope is your heart breaking with unanswerable questions and then laughing at an online posting with hundreds of other people in front of hundreds of other screens that you don’t even know.
  2. Hope is thinking, contemplating, putting together an idea from nothing, finding a solution.
  3. Hope is a roller coaster in the dark, knowledge and deep uncertainty.
  4. Hope is convincing your students that their creativity matters, even when the system sometimes tells them that it doesn’t.
  5. Hope, like art and teaching, is about leaning forward. It is running up the stairs, two at a time, breathless. Hope can banish despair in a country of strangers who somehow work together to make a community.

The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all.

From your experience what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

A number of years ago a friend of mine lost her grandfather. He had raised her and they were very close. She told me that after his death, some people, in an effort to make her feel better, told her that she would “soon get over it.” She said, “That seemed so outrageous to me, I didn’t want to get over it, I wanted to learn to live with it.” That was a big “Aha” moment for me, so when I’m feeling anxious or unsettled because those that I know or love are feeling anxious or sad, I remember my friend’s feelings in that moment. I try to offer comfort. I try not to negate their feelings, even if I don’t feel that way, or I think they shouldn’t feel that way. For me, talking through things always helps, so I try to offer that as an option. I try not to talk too much, but to listen. And I try and ask, “what do you want to happen?” Even if it can’t happen, voicing it sometimes allows other options to become clear.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it…but by sitting still, the closer one comes to feeling ill… Thus, if one just keeps walking, everything will be all right.

When I feel stuck, I walk. I go out. The physical act of moving forward is always helpful. Plus, when you’re walking you need to see stuff around you, you need to listen, walking brings things into sharper focus. It would be an understatement to say that we have been living in a time of profound transition, some deal with change by surrounding themselves with what is familiar and known, and others cope by going out. Right now, we can’t really go out, so we must master the challenge of staying right where we are. To listen, to observe, to find out, so that when we’re ready, we can walk on, and move forward.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Instagram @merylvirginia

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