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Writer, Performer, Truth Teller: Christine Rathbun Ernst
by Kim Baker
I first heard Christine perform poetry at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod. Open mic. She laid down a poem so emotional and honest that I left wondering who this powerhouse was.
A year later, I listened to Christine mesmerize the audience again. This time, she read a poem matched with a work of art for the Cultural Center's annual Mutual Muses show. It was brave and open, as if I were looking into her soul, her demons, her triumphs in a poetic movie about her life.
But nothing quite prepared me for Christine's signature show, Fat Ass Cancer Bitch (FACB). Christine performs FACB each summer at Cotuit Center for the Arts. Not only is the delivery riveting, but the stories are intelligent, insightful, and achingly honest. And don't forget the kickass sense of humor.
When I asked Christine why she chooses performance art to tell her stories, she said: "There's nothing like hearing a good story well-told. The immediacy and visceral impact of live performance are thrilling for both the performer and the receiver - that arc of human reciprocity from the stage to the audience and back is crucial to the story's impact - that kind of intimacy is vital to the work."
And if you have seen FACB, you know the audience gets it. The truth about cancer. The truth about family. The truth about self-discovery. Christine is fearless. She is vulnerable. And it turns out that her truth is quite often every woman's truth.
Christine's writing blossomed when she had cancer. "Speak. Speak. Speak. Speak. Speak," Christine urges. "I had a bad stutter as a kid and always wanted to be a good writer to express myself accurately, eloquently. I didn't really become a bona fide writer until I got cancer at 34 and finally felt I had something big enough to tell the world. My neighbor called me a fat ass cancer bitch nine years ago - she apologized, and we are friends now, but FACB stuck."
Christine rejoices in the fun adulthood she lives with her husband and two daughters. She reminisces, "When I was a kid, our home was extremely orderly and clean - quiet, never messy, never joyful - I spent a lot of time alone with imaginary friends in imaginary places wreaking imaginary havoc.
"ALL I wanted was my own fort / tree house / bolt hole / giant cardboard box to decorate and have parties in - we would talk and cook and paint and dance and sing songs and make up shows. Mess and clutter. Noise and laughter. This is pretty much the life I have now - our house is slightly (just) larger than a refrigerator box, and it is filled with words and color and music - the best people in the world come to our table - we sing at the piano - we know how lucky we are."
In addition to writing, performing, and producing theater at Cotuit Center for the Arts, Christine leads writing workshops there. I joined Christine's Morning Glories last fall for an eight-week session early Saturday mornings. Seasoned and new writers in a safe, supportive environment.
Christine describes her journey to starting the group: "I need discipline and structure as a writer - I'd been part of groups that were too much kaffe klatch and not enough writing - so I came up with the class that I needed.
"It's based on Natalie Goldberg's free-write model, and it's a little like joining a gym: it's early in the morning, you complain about having to go, a nice but firm instructor keeps you on task for two hours - some days it's a slog - but you feel GREAT at the end - like you've done something really healthy and important for yourself and your writing - and you end up with a fat notebook filled with your own words.
"Your muscles get limber - the page is not so daunting - it gets easier to tell the story burning inside you - you learn endurance, you get good at paying attention, at listening, at unleashing your voice."
One can also find Christine unleashing her voice at Healthy Children Project, which promotes breastfeeding. Christine explains: "I get to work part-time as an editor and marketing strategist in an open office filled with some of the smartest women I know.
"On any given day there are two or three babies or kids on site (often my daughter Julia!), four or five standard poodles, and a chocolate cake and a loaf of homemade bread or a potluck lunch in the kitchen. We all work as a team to promote breastfeeding all over the world."
"According to the WHO, the lives of 800,000 children under the age of 5 would be saved every year by breastfeeding. 22% of all NICU deaths could be prevented by breastfeeding. These are huge facts.
"But the formula lobby is as powerful as guns and tobacco - there's huge money involved, not to mention politics (same thing) and the fact that we live in a pornified era where something as good and healthy and perfectly engineered as breastfeeding is often construed as obscene.
"We live in crazy times defined by a power-and-sex-mongering male hierarchy. Sounds extreme, you say? Read the latest edition of Cosmo, I say. Or go shopping for a five-year-old girl at Marshalls. Or try to breastfeed your baby at the food court at the mall. Women are objectified and subverted in overt and subtle ways all day long. We have a lot of work to do."
Christine Ernst works hard. Hard at being a force for good. She wants "to keep everyone safe and pay the mortgage and still manage to be a force for good - worry less, care more - write and speak and make a difference, confront the haters, connect and heal us all with story."
Hard at truth telling. She wants to "address the brutality of men - it comes down to this no matter where you start." And of course, hard at sharing her life's journey. As Christine chants, "share. the. damn. story." And I am so glad that Christine shares hers with such grace and power. She is truly a Cape inspiration. And I am honored to call her friend.
To read more about FACB and to buy tickets for this summer's shows, visit the Cotuit Center for the Arts.
The Fat Ass Cancer Bitch
Performances are in the Art Studio Thursday, Friday & Saturday at 8pm
July 10-12, 2014
Tickets: $15 / $12 Members
When she isn't teaching the abundant virtues of the comma at Roger Williams University School of Law, writing poetry about big hair and Elvis, and doing the Cha Cha, Kim Baker works to end violence against women.
Kim's poems have been published online and in print and essays broadcast on NPR. Three short plays have been stage-read at Culture*Park in New Bedford.
Kim's first chapbook of poetry, Under the Influence: Musings about Poems and Paintings, is now available from Finishing Line Press.
She is currently working on a book of ekphrasis poems about the stories and portrayals of women in the paintings of female artists.
Kim also edits the online poetry journal Word Soup End Hunger. The theme is always hunger, however the poet interprets it. 100% of the submission fees are donated to a food bank. www.wordsoup.weebly.com
Kim can be reached at email@example.com