Rowena Richie on Prayer Porch

Rowena Richie on Prayer Porch

An interview with Rowena Richie, from The Write Stuff series:

Rowena Richie is a performer and maker of dance theater. Her original works include, among others, “Twindependent,” co-created with Jennifer Chien, as part of the CounterPulse Artist in Residence Commissioning program, “Lost and Found in the Mission,” co-created with Susie Hara, which received the Best Ensemble Performance award in the San Francisco Fringe Festival, and “Mary Magdalen and the Fallen Women’s Revue” which she adapted from her masters’ thesis. She has received grants from the Zellerbach Family Foundation, Dancers’ Group’s CA$H dance grant program, the Harold F. Gallivan, Jr. Family Foundation, and Moving Words. She is a founding member of the Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project, and is currently collaborating with Chong Shuch and company on For You, a series of performance works for audiences of 12. Her essays and articles have appeared in In Dance, and she has read her work in Lit Crawl’s Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose. Richie holds a BFA in dance from the University of Michigan and California State University, Long Beach, and an MA in Interdisciplinary Arts from New College of California. She is a City College of San Francisco instructor of Body Dynamics, aka Flow with Row.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I pray.

My husband’s cousin Billy died suddenly in an accident. He was only 19 years old. A grieving congregation grew on the wrap-around porch of his parents’ house in Chicago, where Billy had been raised and was spending the summer. Every morning people gathered to pray. It became known as Prayer Porch.

When we were visiting last summer, four years after Billy’s accident, Aunt Dorothea, Billy’s mother, slept late one Saturday morning after entertaining into the wee hours the night before. Prayer Porch happened without her. When she woke up and learned she missed it she was so deflated. I told her I was glad she had slept in. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Why would I not want to wake up and pray?”

We adopted this practice. Every morning we pray, my husband and I, sometimes with a kid. We call it Prayer Porch West. We sit in our window-seat drinking coffee — mango sunrise to the east or a blanket of fog to the west, pigeons spiraling from roof to crumbs, early birds lined up outside Tartine bakery.

We pray to know each other, everyone else, ourselves, and to accept the Unknown. We pray to open our hearts and to close the space between us and the dead.

We start by saying the 12 Step Serenity prayer (not because we’re alcoholics, but because that’s what they do in Chicago). The original line, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” was scrapped and rewritten on a poster I saw at the San Francisco Women’s March. We alternate with this version now: “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change, I’m changing the things I can no longer accept.”

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

I have a tendency to complain; to play the victim — the oppressed housewife or the repressed artist. Especially when the kids were younger, I felt like I had to sacrifice my aspirations in order to meet their needs. It’s a huge responsibility to raise a family, but I wanted children. I wanted to marry. I wanted to be an artist. One of my passwords is Udidthis! Whenever I type that I remember that I got myself here.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

I’m a rockstar at the Rhoda Goldman Plaza, an assisted living facility where I teach senior fitness. I call it Flow with Row. My classes have the highest attendance. I enjoy my work. One of my students, a witty 99 year-old named Estelle, told me I have a good mien. My students are an inspiration.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

Hands down: Turn Down For What. I love how extreme it is. I first heard the song blaring from car stereos. I googled it. I was shocked the first time I saw the video. We have kids, tweens, I was terrified they were going to see it. Now I think they probably have. My sense is that they’d regard it as over-the-top, gross and inappropriate for sure, but also hilarious and empowering.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

John Howland, our ancestor from my dad’s side of the family, who came on the Mayflower. Legend has it Howland was blown off the Mayflower deck by a storm. A sailing rope was tossed to him and he was miraculously saved. In a Charlie Brown special about the Pilgrims Linus narrates Howland’s dramatic rescue.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

Martha Graham, American modern dance pioneer. In 1974 Graham was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ford (also a descendant of John Howland). I was 4 years-old at the time and just beginning to dance. By the time I was 10 Martha Graham was my idol. I saw her as a role model for innovation and passion. I wanted to be as daring and driven as she was. I wanted to be like Graham and dance into old age.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

Day one: We head off, first-timers on the Pacific Crest Trail, buoyant despite hunchbacking packs.

Day two: After a fitful night’s sleep, blisters are bubbled up, food seems scarce, but we’re fortified by adventure and instant coffee. We take notice of spider webs and wild fuchsia along the trail. By the end of the day we are telling ourselves: “It gets better!” “You have to go down to go up!” “Udidthis!” And other positive affirmations to help us stay the course.

Fast forward to the last two days of our 210 mile hike: We plod along in silence having run out of things to say, forgotten speech, and to save our strength for Mt. Whitney. At the base of the mountain we build a roaring fire. There is plenty of oxygen. The air will get thinner the higher we get. Nose to the trail we lumber up Mt. Whitney (the tallest mountain in the contiguous U.S.). We come to a narrow mountain stream. I take off my shirt and plunge into the ice water. I hold my head under the current so cold it feels like it’s cleaving my skull in two. My skin tingles as I drip dry. A shadow falls over the summit. It gets dark and cool. I look for constellations. Perforated with stars the sky domes down around me. I dissolve. Our epic journey suddenly feels infinitesimal to me.

Last day: I no longer feel infinitesimal, nor do I feel invincible. I no longer feel Rowena, but rather: Are Now. One Raw. A New Ro.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.

In her answer to this question, my friend Susie Hara told The Write Stuff, “I’ll never forget the reverse striptease I saw performed in an Erika Chong Shuch dance-theatre piece.” I was one of the reverse-strippers she was talking about.

The idea came when Erika posed the question “what are you afraid of?” One company member said he was afraid of “homophobes with guns on the 14 Mission bus.” In the performance he pointed a gun at us. To disarm him, another dancer and I threw off all of our clothes. He laughed and dropped the gun. Starting with pointing our toes, we seductively slid our clothes back on.

What’s wrong with society today?

“Sitting is the new smoking;” I heard that somewhere and have imparted this to all of my Flow with Row students. But I don’t just worry about the grown-ups oversitting. I worry about the kids—ours sometimes like to sit and watch videos of other people playing video games—that really disturbs me! There should be a local dopamine campaign. A good dopamine jolt is contained in every San Francisco scenic flight of stairs, free dance in the park, or car-free Sunday Streets. In the words of Michelle Obama, “Let’s Move!”

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

I had breast cancer a couple years ago so I take Tamoxifen. I’m cancer-free, but Tamoxifen is supposed to help prevent a recurrence. I tossed out all of my other cancer meds except for Lorazepam, an anti anxiety drug that inspired the nice song “Lorazepam” by Bay Area band Felsen:

“I’ve got a new girlfriend
she makes me feel alright–yeah
her name’s Lorazepam…”

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

I like my vibrators, but sometimes they turn themselves on. We call it “ghost in the vibrator.” In the middle of the night we’ve been woken up by the vibrator jumping around.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

Fifty dollars covers our annual Dearborn Community Garden dues. We’ve had a plot there for about 14 years. (There is a 180 person waitlist with an estimated wait time of 18 years.) We grow pumpkins, plums and raspberries, and we’ve celebrated Thanksgivings, Easters and birthdays in the garden.

Both of our kids’ placentas are buried in our plot. When our son was born we planted a lemon tree on top of his. It grew a beautiful batch of lemons. Before we had a chance to pick any, it got stolen — the whole tree was ripped right out of the ground. I wrote a song about it:

“The last day in Paradise

was a mean day in Eden.

Someone stole a piece of me

when they lifted my lemon tree.

Lemon tree thievery.

Buy your junkie juice on me.

Eden soured appreciably

when they lifted my lemon tree.”

The garden has taught me to have respect for the wild and to be resilient.

Here to read all The Write Stuff profiles; here to watch all the videos