BY CINDY ZELMAN
This past March, the winter was tough in New England with four feet of snow in a matter of weeks and with my anxiety revving up in my body like a race car ready to crash and burn. I have a history of panic problems, so regular life stressors can hit me hard physically and produce rampant anxiety in my body. During one March weekend, it took all the strength I could muster to get on an MBTA train to ride into Boston to see friends from around the country at a writing conference being held in town. This conference should have been a wonderful time-of-my-life experience, but truly, it was hard for me. I didn’t enjoy myself.
I was signed up for a writing retreat with the TMI organization for the following weekend to be held in the Catskill Mountains, a nearly four-hour drive from my home. How would I manage that when I could barely manage 30 minutes into Boston?
The TMI Project is a monologue and memoir writing and performance workshop. TMI is short for “Too Much Information,” and nothing could be more apt for someone like me who loves to tell stories about myself. I’ve been lucky enough to participate in their weekend retreats for women where for more than 48 hours we focus on telling the stories of our lives. And at the end of the workshops, we perform our pieces in front of an audience. Even those who swear they will never do the performance component of the workshop out of shyness or privacy end up wanting to perform. Performance is cathartic.
Motivation plays a role in my anxiety, and I am always highly motivated to participate in TMI. So despite my anxiety about the winter, I leapt into my car that weekend and headed straight to the The Lifebridge Sanctuary in Rosendale, New York. I arrived at the same moment as workshop leaders Eva Tenuto and Sari Botton. I felt a little embarrassed that I was the first one there. You know, overeager, like for a date. Yet, as I stood in the driveway partway up a mountain, I was greeted warmly by Eva and Sari. This was my third workshop with them and with TMI, and as always, I immediately felt part of a family. Here, I knew, I would be free to be myself.
The workshops with TMI waste no time, and this workshop was no different. We had an opening gathering in which Eva and Sari spelled out the goals and the expectations. We had a great dinner, expertly prepared, with salmon and vegetables. We then headed upstairs to the glorious room with the panoramic view of the Catskills. We began to write and share our personal stories on a Friday night. For someone like me, that’s heaven.
Only my therapist knows the special moment I experienced at this workshop, but I will now tell the rest of you. During the Saturday afternoon writing session I looked at the faces of Eva and Sari amazed once more by their ability to listen and to help anyone shape a story into a monologue; and then I turned my head to see my workshop mates — eleven women of diverse ages, shapes, colors, ethnic backgrounds, family histories, sexual orientations, personal stories and sometimes traumas. Finally, I looked out the windows at the beautiful Catskill Mountains, not all that far off in the distance, holding us all safe within their splendor.
I thought, Look at you, Cindy, that you have reached this point in your life as a person and as a writer, where you can sit here in this beautiful place with these women and tell a story about your life to perform in front of an audience. For an agoraphobic, panic-disordered, relatively solitary human being, this was quite a moment of peace and connection.
But the peace I felt was not just about me and how far I’d come in my life. It was also about the amazing experience of being part of TMI. Leaders set the tone and Sari and Eva have honed the atmosphere of safety, connection, creativity, humor, authenticity and fun, to an art.
At TMI, I get to be a writer, a lesbian, a woman who grew up in a dysfunctional family, and a woman who is angry that she is the caretaker of her elderly mother. I get to be humorous, sarcastic, sad or poignant. And I get to be part of a group of women, who in a very short time, come to bond and care for one another. That’s what an open and supportive storytelling workshop will do.
For the first time, TMI is coming to Provincetown for Women’s Week, culminating in a public performance at The Sage Inn. There are still spots available if you’re interested in the workshop being held from October 16th through 20th, and of course, we hope to gather a large audience for the show. To get a better idea of what the workshop is all about, explore the TMI Project website at http://tmiproject.org/TMI/. Included are some great videos of some of the performances. I hope to see you in PTOWN to say hello!
Cindy Zelman is a writer based in Boston, whose blog, “The Early Draft,” explores a variety of topics, including lesbianism, writing, agoraphobia, and humor.