Happy differences

Remembering Broad Street Review’ writer Naomi Orwin

4 minute read
Naomi Orwin BSR 4 23 19

After one of my monthly lunches with a Philly writers’ group, Naomi pulled me aside. There was something she needed to tell me.

A few parents in the group had been talking about balancing work with kids.

“It’s okay not to have kids,” Naomi said, looking intently into my eyes. “Your life will be full and happy and valuable,” she continued, speaking from personal experience. “I want you to know that there’s nothing wrong with your choice.”

Somehow, this remains one of the most personally validating affirmations I’ve ever received. In my experience, people constantly ask women my age if we have kids—and if the answer is no, they ask if we want any. If we say no, we brace for comments like “But you never know!” or “But what if you meet somebody who wants kids?”

Naomi saw me for myself, not for what other people expected of me, and she shared that when I most needed to hear it.

Real friendliness

Naomi moved to Philly in 2012 after a career spanning arts journalism, teaching, screenwriting, and much more. After living and working in cities including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, London, and Tel Aviv, she dove into Philly’s art scene, writing dozens of pieces for BSR starting in 2013, with many Phindie bylines as well.

But one of my favorite pieces was her 2014 essay for WHYY about the problem with hugs. Naomi was a warm, intelligent person and, for a variety of reasons, she liked her personal space. She objected to the rampant “I’m a hugger!” philosophy, which pulls every acquaintance into a tight embrace before anyone can say no.

“There are hugs I do enjoy,” she wrote. “All I’m asking is: Be respectful. Ask people if they want to be hugged. . . . Make it a shared experience, not a show of force, and you’ll both emerge from the experience feeling good.”

In other words, real friendliness is respecting other people’s boundaries and letting them consent to interacting with you—every time. Whenever Naomi and I met up, a smile was all we needed, and when we headed for home, I’d ask her if she wanted a hug. Sometimes she did.

Happy disagreements

As constant SEPTA riders, we often encountered each other on buses. We crossed over at theater openings, too, and loved discussing the intersections of feminism, sex, and power onstage.

We reviewed Lee Minora’s 2018 Fringe production of White Feminist on the same night and both enjoyed the show. I cautioned audiences to find additional sources to understand the serious injustices perpetrated by a certain brand of white feminism.

Naomi pointed out the way the show emphasizes the fraught trope of women seeking power by opening up about trauma. “Is claiming #MeToo status, whatever our stories, the only way to claim power?” she wrote. “Is woman’s vulnerability the source of her strength?”

Naomi and I relished disagreeing about some things, like Dîner en Blanc, which I view as a giant, elitist nuisance. But she enjoyed attending for the fascinators, the exclusive edge mingled with international bonhomie, and for the thousands of strangers sitting together not to protest but to picnic. Naomi loved stylish outfits of expertly layered black, but when rain threatened Dîner en Blanc, she made a poncho out of a white trash bag.

See you there

The last performance we both attended as critics was the Arden’s Charlotte’s Web. She found me during intermission, both of us more than a little agitated in the sea of clamoring matinee kids. For once, we left the show in perfect agreement about something: the Arden’s Wilbur could, in fact, be precisely described as “fatuous.”

Going to all those shows wasn’t easy for Naomi. She stayed active, but chronic health challenges often made the theater difficult to navigate: she got cold easily, her lungs couldn’t abide any smoke effects, and sound systems overwhelmed her. I can relate. But instead of staying in, she brought an extra sweater and some earplugs.

One of our favorite things to do was see Philly Improv Theater shows at the Adrienne, especially our friend and former BSR editor Judy Weightman’s improv team, the Time Bandits. We sometimes got dinner at the nearby Shake Shack, where Naomi could easily get a dairy-free meal.

Taking the bus by myself

Several days ago, Naomi was at a performance when she began to feel sick. An ambulance took her from the venue to the hospital, where she died after suffering a series of strokes. I was on 16th Street near Rittenhouse when I glanced at my phone and saw the email from one of our mutual colleagues. I reeled, trying to grasp a city where I will never get on the bus and see Naomi again.

Naomi spoke up about things other folks might neglect. She reminded me it was okay to focus on what I want to do in life, not just what I feel obligated to do. If I could do what I wanted, I’d meet up with her again. More feminist debates, more soldiering into improv shows of unknown quality, and more burgers: one with cheese and one without.

I’m so grateful Naomi made Philly her home.

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