Editor’s Notebook: How Lynn Shelton mapped our shifting sense of self

Plus: Taking poetic shelter and making digital dates for dance.

two young women sitting next to each other on mossy ground

A scene from Lynn Shelton's first film, 'We Go Way Back' (2006), in which the main character must face up to the younger version of herself. (Geisha Years, LLC)

Seattle lost a shining star last weekend: filmmaker Lynn Shelton, who died suddenly at age 54. She was known for writing and directing many independent films set in Washington state, including We Go Way Back, Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister and Outside In. Poignant, funny films were her hallmark, with natural dialogue that came from largely improvised scripts.

Moreover, Lynn was known for conducting her work with incredible kindness in a famously unkind industry. A graduate of Garfield High School and the University of Washington School of Drama, Lynn was a Seattleite through and through. She was a huge proponent of making films locally, both because she loved our deep green landscape (her films feature long, loving shots of mossy logs, bright ferns and soggy sidewalks) and also because the local crews were like family to her.

After writing about her work for many years, we became friends. That’s why I’m calling her Lynn, instead of applying the proper journalistic remove and using her last name. It was hard to be removed when it came to Lynn. She was magnetic.

This week on Crosscut, I tried to capture a sense of her spirit and work in an essay examining her first feature, We Go Way Back. The film is about a 23-year-old aspiring actress in a rut, who becomes haunted by the letters she wrote to herself when she was an optimistic, confident 13-year-old. In an event scheduled before her death, Lynn was going to do a livestream screening and discussion of the film this week. Northwest Film Forum is proceeding with the event (May 21 at 6 p.m.) in what is now a tribute screening. Viewers are encouraged to watch on the NWFF website or Facebook page and share memories of Lynn in the comments.

One of the human stories Lynn was drawn to was that of the many selves we inhabit over the course of a life. Her films often feature a main character who has lost the sense of who they really are. “I do tend to gravitate toward … some kind of identity crisis,” Lynn says in a 2015 interview for the Frye Art Museum. “The endless fascination for me is always … this question of the self: How do I change over time, how do I change in different situations, how do I change in relationship to you as opposed to other people?”

ballerinas in a row

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers flock together in Swan Lake. (Angela Sterling)

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers flock together in Swan Lake. (Angela Sterling)

Our selves may be feeling especially shifty these days, as we adjust to a new world order — one that for many of us has become geographically smaller. Has isolation caused you to discover a new version of yourself? One that was waiting in the wings?

SJ Chiro, another talented local filmmaker, offers her take on a shifting sense of self with the hushed and lovely film Lane 1974. The story concerns 13-year-old Lane, coming of age in the allegedly “free love” environment of her unpredictable hippie mother. It premiered at South by Southwest in 2017, and next week is the featured film in the Seattle International Film Festival’s new Virtual Movie Club. Watch the film through your own streaming service, then join the online post-film discussion with director Chiro, star Sophia Mitri Schloss, cinematographer Sebastien Scandiuzzi and producer Jennessa West (May 27, 8 p.m.). Register at SIFF to get your free Zoom invitation.

Sometimes an identity shift comes as a matter of course, as when growing up, but sometimes it takes an outside force to spark the transformation — for example, an evil sorcerer who turns you into a swan. Starting tomorrow, Pacific Northwest Ballet is making the 2018 dress rehearsal performance of Swan Lake available to the public online (via Facebook and YouTube, viewable starting at 7 p.m. on May 22  – May 27). Watch Kent Stowell’s choreography of the iconic Tchaikovsky ballet, in which swan princess Odette finds love in a full-feathered form.

a girl lies in the grass

A still from local filmmaker SJ Chiro's movie 'Lane 1974.' (SIFF)

A still from local filmmaker SJ Chiro's movie 'Lane 1974.' (SIFF)

Just as the Northwest Folklife Festival takes shape in an entirely online format this Memorial Day weekend (May 23-25), so might you find yourself transported and transfigured — at least for an hour or so — by viewing the proceedings in your living room. Perhaps you'll become a briny sailor singing along with maritime chanteys, or a vocal viewer cheering on Mexican troupe Bailadores de Bronce. You might even ‘dance the shim sham’ (just beware a shin slam into the coffee table).

Whatever your personal shape shifting looks like during these isolated days, you may want to keep track of it. Otherwise the new you might forget what the old you felt like.

Keeping track doesn’t necessarily mean keeping a diary — it could be observed creatively, such as via a map of your newfound comings and goings. The website CityLab recently put out a request for “maps of life under lockdown,” and the responses range from sweet to funny to quite moving. Take Seattle teacher Tin Dinh, who says, “My map lays out the many places you will find me each day, all from my couch.” Her illustration shows her in different positions on a couch, while eating, napping, teaching online and creating digital and fiber art. People from all over the world share hand-drawn maps of their block, their garden and the sounds heard during this newly quiet timespan. (You can share your own map here.)

Or try an ages-old method for mapping internal shifts: poetry. Washington state Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna recently shared a new online project called Poetic Shelters: Documenting Home in COVID-19, where she’s collecting and publishing poetry from the public about the new way we’re living — and the new ways we’re feeling — during the coronavirus pandemic. “This project asks you to consider the poetics of your home and how its physical and emotional character is changing during this time,” Castro Luna writes. “Any poems, observations, mini-essays of home are encouraged.” She is posting the entries and mapping them by the writer’s home location on a Washington state map, so viewers can read by region.

Already the poetry submissions here suggest how our intimately shifting landscapes add up to a whole state (a whole country, a whole world) shifting into some new shape. Dotty Armstrong from Yakima shares a funny poem about spouses having to give each other haircuts in the yard. Patrick Dixon from Olympia writes about two empty lawn chairs, placed at a social distance, and the emotional weight they hold. And Judith Ames from Seattle notes, “A longing to touch. To connect.” She poses the question we might all ask ourselves, “What is happening to our hearts? In our hearts?”

Get the latest in local arts and culture

This weekly newsletter brings arts news and cultural events straight to your inbox 

By subscribing, you agree to receive occasional membership emails from Crosscut/Cascade Public Media.

About the Authors & Contributors