Teri Orr: When mute isn’t moot
November 14, 2014
I am about halfway through the book about the eight-foot-tall mute bride. And I am loving every page and identifying with her far more than I imagined. My cold turned into laryngitis and I am, in some ways, miserable this week. I have been rendered mostly mute. Which is of mild to more-than-moderate amusement to those around me. I rediscovered the art of mime, a bit, and I remembered a handful of well-intentioned movements can speak volumes.
But let me tell you about the bride.
I have met her in person and she seemed to be eight feet tall but, then again, she was standing on a high-top bar table in a tiny lodge at the top of Whistler Mountain last year. She grabbed a ukulele and banged out the anthem for our tribe. Her husband, a god among authors, sat on the edge of the stage and told us a ghost story on that dark and stormy night. And I was anything but mute then.
Amanda Palmer changed her name legally to Amanda F—ing Palmer. I can’t remember if it was before or after she married Neil Gaiman. She gave, in 2013, what is now one of the most-watched (eight million views to date) TED talks, about asking for what you need and letting people help you. The Art of the Ask. It was brave and slightly naked. Which is a state familiar to Ms. Palmer (see her YouTube piece Dear Daily Mail and while you’re there, go to the ukulele anthem). She is outrageous in her art, and her life.
And I want what she’s having.
Amanda began her acting/performance career by becoming a human statute in Harvard Square — an eight-foot-tall, white-faced bride to be precise. She created the illusion by standing on milk crates, and she discovered she could average more money per day doing that, than by working her hourly job in the ice cream store. She did it in all kinds of weather to all kinds of passersby. And when the little exchange between gawker and bride ended, she would pluck a flower from her bouquet and hand it to the patron who had dropped a bill in her hat. And there would be — a moment — a connection — when their eyes met and her eyes said, "I see you." And wordlessly returned "thank you for seeing me."
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And here’s what she learned. We are hungry, starving really, to be noticed. To be seen. To have individual exchanges that matter, if only for a moment and if only with a white-faced, mute, eight foot tall, bride.
Yes, she goes on to form The Dresden Dolls and become a rock star (later with The Grand Theft Orchestra) but the core of that talent began in the simplest of ways. Genius doesn’t always look like a wild grey-haired man in ill-fitting clothes. Genius sometimes wears a bra (or not) and is beautiful and curvy and outrageous in thought and deed.
When she was pressed hard to create a "hit song" by her record company for her new album, here’s how she responds:
"We didn’t need a f—ing hit. We were a punk-cabaret duo specializing in tear-jerking seven minute songs with drum solos. We were not radio friendly. Our audience loved us precisely for all the weird radio-unfriendly sh-t we did. We weren’t in the hit business, or any-business. Even the music itself was only a part of it."
The recorded songs, the tangible CDs, were only the tip of the iceberg: the perfect, frozen, beautiful soundtrack for something far bigger and far deeper.
The connection underneath was everything.
And sure, I already loved her, but after reading that — there was a mild form of worship starting. Art isn’t a formula that a committee uses to decide what is worthy to be on a gallery wall, or printed, or recorded, or built, or performed on a stage. A life that is art is rare and undefined and confusing, even in the eye of the beholder. It isn’t popular to the masses. It is odd. In the way an all-white bride in a black wig who stands 8 feet tall is odd. And beautiful. Really, really beautiful.
And when you discover that as painful and difficult it is to do, asking for what you need can be that simple and satisfying — beyond your modest $100,000 Kickstarter imagination. She asked for that, exceeded that and raised $1.2 million — hers being the benchmark for all other music-crowdsourcing fundraising campaigns. Because of her moxie, sure, because of her talent, of course, because of her fearlessness, absolutely. But most of all, because she asked.
When we are teaching young people how to learn and how to be successful in life (and we all should be engaged in teaching and learning all our long lives) we need to help them understand how to ask for help. In an artful way, not an entitled way. In a way that respects the exchange of money or power or slightly wilting flowers on a hot summer day. Asking is entirely different from the younger person’s demanding what they feel they are entitled to. Asking is vulnerable and genuine and thoughtful and pure.
What is it bubbling in your soul or head or hands or heart that you wish to create but are afraid to start? Maybe you should simply ask for help.
You could begin, this very Sunday, in the Park
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.