When We Melt


for Dennis Krausnik

When ice splits off from a glacier, it is called calving, as if the iceberg is giving birth and not losing something. Far away, on the Amundsen Sea near Antarctica, the Pine Island Ice Sheet cracks and drifts away. The amount of calving has quadrupled in the last twenty years. Only ice shelves guard these newborn calves and keep the ice sheet itself intact. The warmer it gets, the more likely the calves are to run away from home, break into pieces, and cause ocean levels to rise, overwhelming dry land everywhere.

I left home in January 2017 to take a month-long actor training at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA. I was self-employed when my life fell apart. My beloved grandmother died, and I had a surprise divorce within a few months of that loss. The death of my grandmother highlighted my estrangement from my parents, and other members of my family, and then the divorce created even more calving. My numbness made it hard to work at my regular gigs, teaching and healing other people. For the first time, I couldn’t muscle through it. My body wanted to flee.

My friend hired me to collaborate with her and take this Shakes and Co training so that we could use the techniques to coach our actors in the theatre piece we would make. During the month, we would perform a Monologue, a Sonnet, and a Scene. I could barely function in the normal world, why not attend a month intensive to revisit a life path not taken, that long ago time when I wanted to be an actor? Winter had spoken rain, not snow, to me for many years in Portland. As I packed to go to Western Massachusetts, my friend urged me to plan for icy walks and slush, for softly falling blankets.

At the beginning of the intensive, we sit in the black box theatre with the dusty floor. My Shakes and Co class consists of seven of us in dark cherry seats that circle the well-lit center. Fluorescents focus everything in their glare. We are here to learn the basics of Shakespeare and acting from a brilliant and multifaceted team of about twenty instructors. Each of us brought a Monologue, a Sonnet, and a Scene. We stand up in the center and our group watches each of us perform a Monologue we chose from one of Shakespeare’s plays. A smaller group of instructors interrogate me about why I selected my Monologue. They ask me what I have lost lately. I stare at them, without any of my own words.  I always liked theatre because I got to be someone else. Here, they won’t let me do that. They want me to find the experience inside my own body, and that sounds awful.

There are so many ways to freeze and melt. When I was a child, I pretended to be present, when I was hiding far away, inside my cheek, my ear. I knew how to hide within the thought of a home I hadn’t yet found, even if I didn’t leave the room. I knew exactly how to escape my body, even when my mother or father said “Don’t talk back to me, and don’t you dare try and run away, young lady.”


Theatre is born of ritual; it’s about joining the cosmos on a visceral level. In ritual, your throat gives birth to stars; your muscles become galactic clouds. In Greece, after the public lamentation parades were banished, theatre came into being. Our theatre teacher, Tina, is a founder of Shakes and Co. In her unapologetically British accent, Tina says that before these public rituals were banned, women would march through the streets after a death, carrying the emotion of the entire city in their voices. And this was a kind of worship, praising what was gone and would be remembered. Their steps would ring out through the stone paved roads as they struck their chests, beating their thymus glands. In medical terms, the thymus would stimulate the immune system, so that even if they lost the one they loved beyond life, their own immune systems would survive. The moaning women in the streets later became the Greek chorus in theatre. The one rule in the Greek audience was that you could not kill yourself, no matter what you saw onstage. All other expressions of grief were acceptable—thump your thymus, tear your hair, scream and moan, even lacerate your own skin. There was no escaping the flood, the loss.

Sea ice is more temperamental than an ice shelf; it freezes and melts intermittently. That’s normal. But glaciers that seemed permanent are melting completely or beginning to break. Ice shelves buttress and protect the glaciers that live more inland. When they dissolve, the land ice drains into the sea, and a woman in the South Pacific loses her home to flooding. I don’t want to think about it, but I know it’s happening.

Every day, when we walk to class, I yearn to go right to the center of the lake and fall through the ice. It’s almost a sexual desire to walk out, allow it to crack, and trap me underneath the surface. In my fantasy, I release the loved ones that I no longer have into the frigid water. But with my luck, the pond wouldn’t even be deep enough, so I would just fall to my waist. I’d get frostbite and discomfort, still no way out except to keep calving my own life. This is not a story I want to tell anyone else.


Dennis, another of the Shakes and Co founders, is our white-haired, balding Acting and Sonnet teacher. He’s the reason I said yes to the month-long training. He wears wire rimmed glasses and has a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. In the first weekend class I ever took with Shakes and Co, I brought a Monologue from Othello—the one Emelia says to show that husbands hold the power; wives can only support men or plead with them to do something different. The words of wives have no influence. Her words slide off Iago like sheets of water, barely changing anything. Dennis asked me why I chose this Monologue. My words stayed locked inside the large grief stone that had lived in my throat since my former life cracked and melted.

On the first day of Sonnet class, Dennis told us a story of when his voice changed. It wasn’t the familiar cracking from high to low in adolescence, but a story about a time when Dennis asked for a cookie in the loud, careless voice of a child, fresh from playing outside. His mother yelled, “Say it nice!” He describes the decision to make his voice sweeter, higher, more pleasing to her ears, He describes the way we make our voices smaller to get what we want, to convince the parent to give us the cookie. He describes the way we have the souls of giants living inside us, but the world tells us whose voices should be heard, so we begin to shrink. How do you live in a world that does not want to hear your story? How did you become voiceless to survive?

When I wanted to stop listening to my parents yell, I would think to myself, if I can stand, I can exit. I imagined the whole process. First you lean forward from the waist, push down with your heels into the floor, lift yourself, straighten your knees. When you are on your feet, you can think through the fuzz and the buzz. Maybe you can unthink what has happened to you in the past, which is why you need to leave the room right now. If I was on my feet instead of sitting on my bed, the impulse to leave would begin with a shy tilt forward in the pelvis. I’d lift my foot toward the door, ready to flee if I wasn’t frozen in my bedroom while they screamed.

I say I don’t want to think about calving glaciers, but that’s not quite accurate. They trickle into my thoughts and gush into my dreams. The oceans are rising. The coastline is falling. What can I do? I recycle. I use metal straws. I vote for change. I’m not doing enough. No one is doing enough. Even as it snows each morning in Western Massachusetts, West Antarctica is bleeding ice; the warm water swirls underneath, heating from below, and the wound opens. Solid land sweats a fleet of icebergs cruising the ocean, a warning that glaciers cannot hold themselves up anymore. Important things are leaving. The world is not safe.


Dennis tilts his head and listens while I recite Sonnet 65. I stand in front of the room, but instead of meeting all the eyes that I imagine are judging me, I look only at him.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’ersways their power.
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

I feel the familiar sting behind my eyes. No one will listen. They have all the power. They don’t care if we lose it all. How can we just sit by and make art while ice weeps into the sea? When I say the bit about rocks impregnable being not so stout, I notice that Dennis’s eyes also overflow.

“We can’t stop time from taking everything from us,” Dennis says. He pauses. We stand together in the flash flood, in front of everyone. He doesn’t hurry to speak.

“I’m suspicious of a narrative with a foregone conclusion, and no way out,” Dennis muses, “slow it down, breathe, turn and see us. I want you to try it again.”

Why don’t you breathe when men are in the room? another instructor scolds me. He’s right. I also don’t breathe when people are looking at me. Instead, I become someone else. Stage fright produces extreme activation of the nervous system, major sympathetic activity that can be calmed or channeled by performers into energy to use. The biggest fear is freezing in front of everyone. They will all see you and sneer, until you melt into tears or run away. You have to be able to connect with your audience, the instructor says. See them, allow them to see what you are feeling. I told him I left my voice behind a while back.

Find it, he says.


At Shakes and Co, we learn that vowels are emotional. Our Voice teacher says we’ve developed habits of speech that drain emotion from our voices. We elongate syllables or drop our soft palates. We clamp down on what we feel, perhaps because we have to play the long game. If people know how we feel, we are vulnerable. Theatre is the opposite. It makes us confess the truth and make it so obvious that the person in the back row believes us. We must take a piece of text and crack the silence within ourselves to make the audience care about it.

When we feel safe, we can leave our front side unprotected. We turn our heads from side to side without tension. Our shoulders remain where they are meant to be, gently extending from the neck to become the root of the arms. Relating to other humans and communicating with words and the language of the body is our first stop. If fear begins to rise and spread, the sympathetic nervous system responds. The brain responds like a smoke alarm, alerting us to danger. Our neurobiology decides what is best. Should we strike back? Should we flee the scene? A neurotransmitter cocktail is poured into the blood to maximize our performance. We feel the bite of adrenaline, the crystal clarity of norepinephrine, the control of cortisol.

But for some of us, escape isn’t possible. Maybe we’ve been in this situation too many times, and we know how it ends. Maybe there’s no energy to run or fight, we immobilize to save resources. All the blood leaves our extremities, redirected to our brain and organs. Even though we might be standing right there, our blood pressure has dropped away. We pretend that we’re dead.

Predators are often fooled by a limp body. Without resistance, sometimes they let go. In extreme situations, freezing can save our lives. But what if we can’t turn it off? What if the circuit that stems from our reptilian ancestors stays activated because we can’t tell when the danger is over? What happens when it’s too much work to breathe, much less tell a story? What happens when we just want to sleep forever? What makes us want to return to life when we’ve lost something important?


It’s time to shift away from individual work with Monologues and Sonnets. I will perform a Scene from Henry IV, with a partner. An instructor breaks it down for me:

You are Lady Elizabeth Grey, whose husband was killed on the wrong side of a losing battle. The emerging king is young and has a way with the ladies. Your lands have been confiscated and you have nothing to leave your children. All you have are your reputation for being the most beautiful woman in England and your wits. You make up your mind to ask King Edward (your Scene partner) to return your lands. The legends say that you gather your sons and daughters and go to the giant oak tree to wait for the king and his soldiers to pass so that he may see you. He has all the status and all the power. He can kill you, rape you, or put you in prison. You can’t even make eye contact with him unless he gives you permission. How can you get him to give you exactly what you need?

This is week 2 of actor training, and a different instructor says, Why are you still not breathing around your Scene partner? In Henry IV, the king does whatever he wants. Lady Grey must find a way to get his attention without going beyond her status and getting thrown in prison. It doesn’t matter that you would never open yourself to a person with this kind of power in real life. In this scene, you have no choice. Fighting, running, or freezing will not keep your family alive. Make yourself useful. Ingratiate yourself to the king. You have to fawn over him. Use your wits to entice him. Make him believe that you love him. Dance for me, the king says, as you both feel more deeply into your characters. You twirl until the king tells you to stop.

What would you do to be Queen, an instructor asks me during a Scene class. She goes on to say, I believe Lady Elizabeth Grey knew King Edward would marry her from the beginning. She planned the whole thing, accosted him at that oak tree. You have to act like you have a plan. Your form is all wrong, stop tilting your head. You seem frozen, you have no feeling in your voice, are you depressed? Yes, I say, this is the first time I’ve tried to act while taking antidepressants. I feel flat. Stop being depressed, she says, you have to snap out of it. I hide my raised eyebrows. Look lady, if that worked, I would have done it already.


Tina tells us the ancient Greek rituals of women flooding the streets with grief were eventually outlawed and people went to see theatre instead. No one told the stories of the people who had passed on or died in battle anymore. When kings create armies and too many people are dying, they must not tell the truth about death. They can’t allow people to publicly grieve. If you are to stop people from really grieving, of course, you must take away the women’s voices, singing and screaming about what they have lost. That’s how we survived until now. Hide the grief. Snap out of it. Stop telling the truth. Immerse yourself in other people’s stories. Dull yourself. Leave the room while you’re still there. Marry someone who you think will help keep you alive. Push back the flood. Shore up the ice shelves. Whisper, “I can always kill myself tomorrow.” Pretend to want things. Become voiceless. Twirl for the king in your Scene.


Dennis puts his hand on my low back and asks me where my rage lives in my body. I feel nothing. I don’t know. I hate this question. I am not an angry person. And yet, there is an icy spread inside my lower belly that argues with this idea. Dennis asks me to look at his kind, white-bearded face and say the word no, over and over. He asks me to increase my volume, look into his eyes and say no, no, no, no, no. He asks me to think of the person who brings my fury, the one who doesn’t want to hear me, and to say things like NO, FUCK YOU, or I HATE YOU or whatever is not nice to say in my pinched and pleasing voice, in the voice I use to get the cookies. I trust him, so I do it. The rage beast is shy at first, unsure of the new found space in which to move. I never knew that sad and angry were friends. My voice can be so many things but never angry, not out loud, not in public, not in front of people. It turns to tears, so typical, and Dennis says tears are not always sad, keep going. There is a surge, a spike in my spine, a cold flame that shoots and my no becomes solid, and I use it to hit him in the chest with my power because he can take it. When it crescendos, I am wet and melting between my legs and screaming with a weird kind of fury beauty. He yells: NOW! And I move from my own rage into Emelia’s words, the poetry that Shakespeare set forth for her to say.

I should remind you that there are theories that Shakespeare was a woman, a collective, a witch, a warrior, a wizard, a conduit of the human experience. And I now know exactly what was meant by this monologue. I deliver it at the top of my voice, not just loud but full, true, raw. And when I am finished, the whole room of actors is silent. All their eyes see me wild and gasping, like I have just killed something. And Dennis says, “You are a bitch on wheels.” and this is a kind of worship.

Art makes things go together that don’t fit at all. That is another way to survive a surprise divorce, to survive any of the losses that were not fair. The choices others make almost kill us every day, and if they don’t, we figure out how to breathe again. I carry the ice of holy anger. There is no pretense that anything could be as it was. I lived past what happened to me. I froze and thawed. I dissolved into water. I solidified.

I used to panic when someone was angry or weeping, try to fix it, shut down the flood. Now, I can sit with someone else’s tears all day and night. Now, I am so big; I am an ice cave inside. It does not frighten me to get down on the floor with you and become a barrier for what is melting. Now, I can hold it all, the cold rage stones, the bottom of your life. Our stories are worth telling.



Rumpus original artwork by Iris L. 

G. Ravyn Stanfield is the author of Revolution of the Spirit: Awaken the Healer, an exploratory guide to the crucial need for holistic healing today. She practices acupuncture and relationship therapy in Portland, Oregon with a focus on trauma recovery. Her fiction and essays have been published in The Rumpus, Guernica, Typehouse Literary, and elsewhere. Ravyn designs trainings for emerging leaders and healers in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. She uses her background in theatre, psychology, acupuncture, writing, and neurobiology to coax more of the extraordinary into the world through the cracks in Western civilization. www.gerriravynstanfield.com More from this author →