September 2019 Blog

Julia SweeneyIT IS SEPTEMBER. And this is my September blog.

This picture of me was taken today, September 12, 2019, in Chicago. My dear friend Annie took it as we ate lunch at Restoration Hardware. (Yes, there is a restaurant inside the store here — I was skeptical but it was delightful.) We were deep in conversation and suddenly Annie said, “Freeze! Right now the light is amazing on you.” Being an actress, of course I did as I was told. Now, I wish we had one of us together. Or I had one of just her. But it was not to be, at least for today. Just me. And you get it.

I’m in Chicago for two weeks to shoot a TV series. It’s called Work-in-Progress. (It’s so funny — more about it later in this blog.) I had the day off. Annie was giving a tour; for years she worked at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) giving lectures on art, and although she’s retired she still gives tours and talks about town. I loved the Newberry Library tour and have a big fantasy going where I would become a Fellow. Doesn’t it seem right that the actress who invented Pat would ultimately become a fellow in her older years? The gift store had a lot of Edward Gorey items I don’t already own, so I came back to the hotel with a heavy bag.

WELL, PEOPLE, ON THE PERSONAL FRONT … I can’t believe it but I’m on three (3) TV series. It was only a little over a year ago that I returned to showbiz. I remember my friend Bob Odenkirk saying, “I think it’ll take you two years to make your way back onto the scene.” He wasn’t saying it derisively; he was being kind and wise. I loved it. It gave me this time frame, however arbitrarily it was estimated. I was able to say to my husband and family — who have no idea how show business works (does anyone?) — that it would probably take me two years to start making money again. In the meantime I would do my one-person comedy show, Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider and develop a new show, Julia Sweeney: I, as Well.

But before I knew it I was cast on Shrill, playing Aidy Bryant’s mother. A dream! I am such a fan of hers. And she is hilarious and lovely.

Then I got four episodes of Work-in-Progress, a show I did a pilot for over a year ago. While I was developing Older & Wider at Second City in early 2018 I met and befriended Abby McEnany and Tim Mason. Tim was planning to direct some webisodes or vignettes inspired by Abby’s one-person show. One of her stories involved me. Abby had been traumatized in high school, taunted by some mean kids because of their perceived assessment that she resembled Pat. We filmed a scene, and then Tim found he could edit all the material he had filmed into a pilot. Astonishingly the pilot got into the Sundance film festival. Showtime bought it and ordered eight episodes, of which I am in four. So that’s why I’m here in Chicago, filming this show. I’m wildly happy to also announce that I’ll have an Executive Producer credit, although I have nothing to do with the show’s brilliance. The scripts have made me laugh and cry. I love this show so deeply, and I feel Abby is going to be a big star. Work-in-Progress premieres in December; I cannot fathom how Tim and the team at Circle of Confusion (the producers) are going to get it turned around by then, but I’m also giddy because the world needs to know Abby ASAP.

I spent much of last month in Portland shooting Shrill, Aidy Bryant’s Hulu show where, as I said, I play her mother. Her father is played by Daniel Stern. We had a great rollicking time in Portland shooting. I adore Aidy and can’t wait for people to see the second season. Daniel is a delight, and I’m so happy to have him as my TV husband.

Then I just got cast on a third series, American Gods, which is on Starz. It shoots in Toronto, where I’ll be spending much of the next six or seven months. I can’t talk about my character, but I’m wildly excited to be part of this series. Because of the American Gods commitment I had to cancel my Largo show on October 24 with Richard Dawkins and Moon Zappa. I haven’t yet read the source book, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but I’ve ordered it and will read it straightaway.

So my head is kind of exploding. How can this be? I know that in showbiz it can rain and pour and then there’s a long drought, but I’m enjoying all this deeply while being mindful that it may be my last burst.

CAN I JUST SAY THAT HAVING A KID IN COLLEGE is really great? Motherhood was top priority for me for so many years. I literally ached when school was out and I wasn’t at home with my daughter. I rearranged my life so I could be home for most of Mulan’s schooling. It was hard to do that. I feel bad for parents who don’t have that choice. And I understand parents who want to work, of course. But in any case, for me mothering was an all-consuming occupation. My mind was always divided. If I was out of town, I felt miserable and filled with guilt and a genuine desire to be home making dinner. I wanted to know firsthand and in person about everything Mulan had done that day.

But now that’s over. Mulan calls me a few times a week. We mostly enjoy a five or ten minute call. She is acclimating to college life so well. She’s so ready to be independent. It’s a deep joy to see her become her own unique self. Now that she’s out of our house, she’s able to let her inclinations have full sway, and it’s funny and fun to hear about and watch. We’re so different in so many ways, Mulan and I. Things she values about college are so different from the things I was driven toward, and yet I enjoy seeing her become herself. I love learning about the things she likes and why she likes them. Of course, not everything is different between us. She loves going to the library and eating whenever she wants to without having to coordinate with the family. I remember that thrill too, that feeling of being on your own. That sense of the wind whooshing past your ears as you walked across campus, knowing hardly a soul that you passed, but with a sense of collective commitment to the place.

Right now I’m going through my own independence. I’m freed from this tether of constant mothering. It’s exhilarating. Frankly I’m glad I don’t have other children that would have extended the time I spent enmeshed and ensconced at home.

WHAT AM I READING RIGHT NOW? Well, I see three books at my side.

I’m about halfway through this wonderful book, Women Talking, a novel by Miriam Toews. Brilliantly written and a joy to read, it’s about a Mennonite community in Bolivia. The plot concerns a group of women trying to decide if they’ll leave or not. They’ve never learned to read (forbidden). They don’t even know where they are geographically, and don’t speak the language of the people in their area. It’s so good! Now I have to get Miriam Toews’ other novels. I woke up early today and went down to the lobby of the hotel by 6 a.m. I sat reading for a couple of hours. At 8 a.m. I decided I had to start my day, so I went up to my hotel room to shower. There’s nothing more enjoyable than beginning the day, going from darkness to that eerie and hopeful early light, while reading in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee. To have the hotel lobby coming to life at the same time made it feel magical.

I’m also reading Celtic Tales. Its subtitle is: Fairy Tales and Stories of Enchantment. The illustrations by Kate Forrester are gorgeous. I recognize many of the stories, but some are completely new to me.

And I’m reading Jesus Christ Superstition by Robert M. Price. He’s my favorite guy to read when it comes to analyzing religion. Price is not wholly dismissive of religion. In fact, I think he stirs the ire of many non-believers because of his sympathy toward belief (while not believing himself), which aligns with my own general view.

I learn something new, or a new way to think about some aspect of religion, in each chapter. Take his chapter entitled, “What an Imaginary Friend We Have in Jesus.” Price goes into great depth and with astonishing insight into the fundamentalist-evangelical gospel of the “personal relationship with Christ” and “Jesus as a personal savior.” There is no New Testament basis for this concept. In fact, Price draws a line from this Jesus-friend idea from Christianity to Stoicism and Seneca. Seneca had suggested that for an individual trying to be a better person, a good technique would be to imagine an ideal person and his approving or disapproving gaze. A little bit of “What would Jesus do?” Interesting! Price also draws a line from the Jesus-as-my-friend concept and the devotional practices of Hindus and Buddhists. Of course, this Jesus who lives in the minds of believers is simply a picture from their own imagination, a projection, neatly fit to that particular devotee.

I definitely experienced a bit of this, even though I was a Catholic and Catholics in general do not peddle the Jesus-as-friend idea too much. I had come across the idea and it immediately seemed powerful to me. After all, I was highly imaginative, and so for me it was as natural as anything to imagine a real Jesus. I imagined that Jesus gave me advice. I had an experience where I thought Jesus/God visited me. It took me years to learn enough about human psychology to untwist the knot of religion in my psyche. But Price is enlightening me further, and I’m learning through him how these ideas got started and whom the early Christians likely borrowed them from. (Mostly Stoics & Hindus.)

LET ME SAY A WORD ABOUT CHICAGO. I actually do love this city. Even though I spent a great deal of effort getting away from it.

I’ve been able to get to know Seattle, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Chicago quite well. I’ve lived for years in each place. And if I had to pick the greatest American city among those, I think it would have to be Chicago. The architecture, the museums, the neighborhoods, the entire spirit of the city is appealing to me. Its place on the continent, the friendliness and down-to-earth-ness, its style and verve. I love Chicago so much.

I would say my favorite city, however, is Los Angeles. It’s home, and that city is so entangled with my coming-of-age as a young adult, and the backdrop and foreground of so much of the drama of my life, that it just is, and must be, my favorite city.

Seattle is ancient to me, my first big city. The city probably represents me best. In my soul, I’m a Seattleite.

New York is the most exhilarating city I’ve ever lived in, and I yearn for it often and fantasize all the time about getting an apartment there. New York is like a charismatic boyfriend with whom you had your most torrid affair. Whenever I’m there, I wonder how I could have left it. After a few weeks, I remember why. But I never get over it.

How lucky for me that I’ve gotten to know all these places.

Okay, I think I’ve gone on long enough. Until next month.

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