6. The Pobrecitas: A Meditation on Method Acting and Accessing Powerful States- Growth and Coming into Our Own in the In-between

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Trigger warning for video links: I don't really know what to say here, except that it took me a while to decide to watch the scenes from Kramer vs Kramer- because they are so well delivered- and a startlingly accurate illustration of the physical and emotional landscapes I don't want to revisit. 


I had Googled to read more on Method Acting and stumbled across this article in Vanity Fair on Kramer vs Kramer, the film that catapulted Meryl Streep into her own as an actor, and into stardom. I didn't realize how so much from this article would come back to me, just a day later.

As a young girl, I remember there were certain conversations at dinner parties that the adult women would have. I knew, the moment that hush descended upon them, or when they would speak in code, after the dishes were cleared. There was a tension between the easy banter and the slow smoke wafting out of the living room, where my father and the men would be enjoying their digestives and cigarettes- and the certain relaxed sensuousness the women exuded, carrying soft conversation in the family room, next to the kitchen. Sated and seated with their after-dinner coffees and teas, my mother and the other wives seemed, at first glance, relaxed.  I would see hints of them easing into it, but something told me that it was more of a release than being truly relaxed. Maybe it was the furtive nature of their sharing, despite the apparent languidness, post-meal. That state of relaxation was like the relief any of them would feel once home at the end of the evening, from the bristles of her hairbrush caressing her scalp, after undoing her hair. The weight of makeup and feigned smiles, youthfulness coming off with the Ponds at her nightstand. Her rib cage freed from wire, heat, and fabric, tracing lines around her back, and drawing thin lines against almost-middle aged flesh. Yes, their post-dinner easiness seemed more of a release than true relaxation- a momentary exhale.

Something about these conversations would draw me to the family room. I scurried past them with some of the daughters of the other couples, pretending to look for something in the kitchen, just adjacent to where the women were. I wanted to linger around those encrypted post-coffee topics. I would catch the edges of them, and be shooed away, right as I would land. I would get The Look. These were the conversations young girls were not allowed to join, ask about, or offer opinion. I wasn't supposed to understand, anyway. They were speaking in what they thought were cleverly disguised metaphors. They were clever in that I couldn't sound out the narrative which lay just beneath. But I could physically read and sense the leaden heaviness of whatever it was they spoke of- and a certain resignation they carried. The resignation was not pointed only toward the topic at hand, but toward the bigger frame of life in general. They were in control of all of the little things that made life. How many vegetables we got in a salad. Which flowers got replanted. What vases would be out today. I'd come to appreciate the small details, the attention and that love that went into this- but for many years, I was maddened with curiosity as to why they hadn't looked beyond the galaxy of home. Didn't they want the Universe, as I was being taught in school? This made my ears burn, and context-cracking abilities more sensitive, alert.

Later, I'd be banished to sleep. Restless, I would wake up to sounds that I thought was ice. I felt like I might be missing out- were they making shaved ice? No, they were only mahjong tiles, being mixed in between rounds. I wondered whether the women's faces were still as relaxed, or whether they'd put their faces back on, once out of the family room.

I lay in bed replaying the expressions, the over-yonder look this film had given the ladies as a souvenir. It seemed to elicit a lot of reactions- many sighs of kawaïsō- pobrecito/a, poor thing, poor darling, in Japanese. With kawaïsō, my attention went toward the unhappy-looking kid in the movie. I knew that the movie was about a divorce, and that somehow divorce rendered kids kawaïsō. But something- the tone of the ladies- said otherwise. There was more than that.  The women were openly talking about the kid, but they were in secret solidarity- captivated, caught off guard by Meryl Streep's character, Joanna. The Mother Who Went Away. Without Her Child. Joanna's eyes and the way she spoke felt to each woman like a favorite sweater snagged on an unexpected nail in the gate of the garden, or a fish bone in her throat at dinner, in polite company.

I got to thinking- as the lead to the story reads- maybe we really do grow and come into our own in the in-between. Just as we grow at night, when we sleep- we regenerate, we create ourselves in the liminal space between the death of the previous day, and another one yet to be born. Celebrating the wins from the past day and mourning what has not been. Praying, being open to the promise of the coming day, even though we know nothing about what it might bring. We grow in the in-between, like we did as children, in the summer, or as young adults, in between school and work. We expand between assignments, and some of us, between loves, lovers. And others of us, between marriages.

The article traces Meryl Streep's role in making the film what it was, whether it was in the way she lived those days, the finally-believable script she wrote for Joanna, or her tense relationship with Dustin Hoffman, her co-star. But it also recounts the in-betweens: Meryl Streep being what seems like bullying in the name of art by her co-star, in the valley between the fragility of mourning of her partner's death and in the nascent, surging excitement and newfound passion of her relationship with the man who would become her husband. There is Dustin Hoffman standing in the limbo of his own real-life divorce, in a frustrating window between separation and divorce. The complex feelings he felt toward his ex-wife- which he drew to illustrate Ted's feelings toward onto Joanna, and almost by reverse osmosis- onto Meryl Streep.

All my life I’ve felt like...somebody’s wife or somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter. Even all the time we were together I never knew who I was. And that’s why I had to go away. And in California, I think I found myself. I got myself a job. I got myself a therapist, a really good one. And I feel better about myself than I ever have in my whole life. I learned a great deal about myself.
— Joanna Kramer, Kramer vs Kramer

There was something palpable and alive reading about the making of Kramer vs Kramer. Seeing the characters, and the lives of the people who made them come alive somehow felt close to something I know. That this was an "unofficial" recounting of Meryl Streep's life didn't matter. Reading about Meryl Streep birthing herself, feeling deeply and with abandon in a Dark Night of Her Soul- a narrow crevice between the death and the lives of the men she loved. Dustin Hoffman's use of Emotional Recall, a Method Acting technique that feels like a distant cousin to a coaching technique that I often use with clients- and the responsibility we carry as coaches when introduce use such tools. The speech Joanna gives about being "Somebody's wife or somebody's mother, somebody's daughter", is one I've recited almost verbatim since my own separation- without having known Joanna's lines. I felt a little raw. It felt like the article was whispering to me about something else. It felt like decoding the Pobrecitas Code, all over again.

Marriages evolving, coming to an end. Starting. Starting over again. Recovery and reclamation after toxic spills. Visceral reactions to places we can't and won't go anymore. Healing. Knowing what we want for ourselves alone and together. Becoming whole selves.

There was a part of me that knew whom the ladies spoke of as kawaïsō- were, in fact, themselves. The Pobrecitas. This I know from my grown-up heart-to-hearts with some of them, the women who now no longer identified as a Pobrecita, decades later. They would tenderly tell me in their sagesse that divorce is not necessarily failure. That mine was not. I was happy to have been welcomed as a peer, as one that's lived to know the beauty and compromise- the bounty and confines that marriage can bring, and to be supported in the aftermath of my unraveled marriage. What I've learned, is that they, too, fantasized about leaving in search of their whole selves, as Joanna had. And that for them, there had been a wide abyss between that fantasy and imagining. They could fantasize through someone, but could have never imagined themselves there. Nor, saw that they had the means.

That evening, before the mahjong tiles were clattering on the table, none of them would have imagined that it would happen to anyone in their midst. There was, in fact, one who did pull a Joanna. Once a year when she would appear for a reunion of The Pobrecitas, she promised to come on the condition that they would not speak about the past. Or, hers, to be more specific.

And there was another. The girl who had been shooed away. She would grow up and do all of it. Marry, have the kid. In her case, her husband pulled a Joanna. Many years later, she realized that it allowed her to find her whole self. She told him she hated him for the way that he did it. But thanked him for setting her free.

And she has a feeling- it might have allowed him to get closer to his whole self, too.