Hail the Goer
The Heart Sutra is imbedded in the part of my heart filled with the words that give me goosebumps. “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, hail the goer.” (Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgati, bodhi svaha.) There is a simplicity and beauty in this chant that sank its hooks deep into me before I knew what it meant.
I had it in my mind with the death of my actress-colleague in Zurich, Erica, someone whose artistic stature blew me away since our first meeting in 1979. It was a regular ritual for me to visit her annually when I went to Europe, first with her artistic partner Zbignew Stok, and after his death, with Peter Doppelfeld. I stayed in their little theatrical kingdom on Silhkai, a three-story narrow building overlooking the waters of the Sihl, and many’s the late afternoons we spent in the rooftop garden with white wine and deep conversation. She was an immense creative force, creating a long series of performance pieces illuminating some of the finest minds we have ever known, like Van Gogh, with stage-pieces entirely made from bundled straw, his painting made literal.
Cancer. Fuck cancer. She had one bout of diagnosis and treatment, and when I last visited she was trim and vital. Three months later, she was gone.
Hail the Goer.
And our artistic partner Camilla Schade. She confronted breast cancer, went through the treatment, and took her unbounded creative energy into more projects. Then the demon returned in a different form and took her away. We spent a golden five hours together at the end, and I will never forget that blessing.
Hail the Goer.
And someone I never knew personally, Paul Krassner, died today. He was the icon of comic resistance for Conrad and me through years of our memory, and today, he crossed over. In our time of turmoil, we will miss his acidic humor, his unerring skewer.
Hail the Goer.
And the time will come when we will join that mighty march. It is inevitable, and should be given respect. When I go this September to Carnac, in Bretagne, I will carry time-messages. I already placed a token there for Erica, when she was searching for monetary support for a major book, and it worked. At the foot of that ancient stone cross I will place three more tokens this year: one for Camilla, one for my soul-sister Flora, and one for myself. We belong together.
Hail the Goer.
This week, for reasons unfathomable, I’ve been thinking about my mother. She died some years ago, age 85, and left us enough money for a downpayment on our house. I’ve been thinking what else she left me.
A pile of photo albums: the family in front of the Christmas tree, the family in front of the car, the family in front of the house. endlessly. Oddly, we’re always smiling, and it wasn’t forced, except on visits when we had to watch the Lawrence Welk show.
And when I hit the teen years and discovered my own, we had many tempests. Yet she could bend—not with a boss or a salesclerk or some honcho in charge, but with me. Having struggled for money all her life, she was deeply anxious about my going into theatre rather than engineering, but finally it was, “Whatever you’re happy with.” Same with my marrying young. Same with my leaving professorship for taking a chance on a rag-tag theatre troupe. She’d worked all her life at drudge jobs—from bookkeeping to riveting B-29s to assembly line at a meatpacking plant to driving a dynamite truck—and simply wanted me to do what I wanted to do.
What I didn’t inherit, to my regret, was her confrontational instinct. I hate conflict. I hate my own anger. I don’t like it in others, but I could use a bit more of it myself. As a playwright, I’ve rarely worked well with other directors of our work because I’m too compliant. I can’t bring myself to complain about the neighbor’s dog. On the other hand, it’s perhaps contributed to my high creativity in finding compromise.
As a writer, I look first at my characters’ incongruities, and much of that, I think, comes from trying to comprehend her. She would certainly have supported Trump’s policies, but she always voted—or didn’t—on whether or not she liked the guy, and her assessment of him might well have been “big fat blowhard.”
For a time she had been dirt poor, with the challenge of being a single parent, but she had no sympathy with anyone on “handouts.” She would have been appalled at the current family separations, but would have blamed the mothers for putting their kids in danger. At family gatherings our kids would hear their loving Grandma spout racial epithets —“The niggers are all over North Omaha”—and we would have to explain, “Grandma’s just that way, and you’re not going to change her,” as I knew from having that fight many times. We’re each a menagerie of personae.
She had a capacity to accept the inevitable. Two failed marriages, but while she was dead honest with me about my deserter dad’s faults, she was honest about her love for him. When she was courted in elder years by a nice man with what was, to her, absolute disqualifiers (a farmer, a Catholic, and with strong family ties), she married him—in large part, I think, to provide for her old age without being a burden to us. When she was seriously ill, receiving regular transfusions, as soon as it became clear to her that she was beyond recovery, she died rapidly—an iron will turned inward.
Odd to think of that as a survival mechanism, but it was for her and it is for me. Shit happens, and my head goes instantaneously to, Okay, what do we do? It’s a challenge to realize that I need to precede that by an appropriate allowance for grief or rage, and I try to be mindful of others’ emotional timelines, but it serves its purpose for my own process to proceed on, Damn, that’s life. What’s next?
I’ve always thought that my father, through his negative example, gave me an almost pathological sense of responsibility. But maybe in a roundabout way, my mother contributed. “You’re the man of the house,” she told me at the age of five, and I was painfully aware of my inadequacy for that role. But a little guilt goes a long way. I was no better than any only-child at taking on the dishwashing or lawn mowing that would make a difference, and I married someone with a technical bent that made “man of the house” irrelevant. But traits kick in at various levels. If I say I’ll do something, I’ll do it.
It was always that. In my own life, I can only claim that for three people, my wife and my children. Love for and a stake in many friends, but for me “unconditional” for only a few, and it’s as literal as my mother’s love for this little brat who stomped on her boyfriend’s shiny shoes.
Lots of genes that I wish hadn’t come from her, and lots that didn’t, but I’m grateful for what she gave me.
I have developed a highly itchy reaction to any photo wherein one person, grinning at the camera, is pointing his/her (usually his) index finger at the other person. “Looky here!” One person who does this a lot is he-who-shall-not-be-named, and I thought my ick-reaction was a product of how I feel about this “person.” Then I began seeing a lot of photos with this same gesture being performed by someone I know personally, someone for whom I have a big heap of respect and affection. And I still went “Ick.” So what’s up with that?
We live, IMHO, in a Top-Dog culture, where dominance is the name of the game. The domination memes are so baked into our consciousness that they don’t register as that, and the use of the meme may have nothing at all to do with an attempt to dominate. It takes a aha-moment to get it.
There was a study done, multiply reported, that went something like this. In a mixed group, a researcher named Jackson Katz would ask a question: “What do you do on a daily basis to prevent yourself from being sexually assaulted?” In general, men were initially confused, then answered, “Nothing. I don’t think about it.” Then the women responded, and they had a long list of their multiple actions, from holding their car keys in their fist as a defensive weapon to putting a male voice on their answering machine. It would take a whole page to list these, but all women will know what I’m talking about.
So neither men nor women are putting this at the top of their consciousness, it’s just part of what they do on a daily basis. Why should this matter? Because it takes for granted the inherently different lives lived by men and women. Should this be accepted?
OK, what about the common photos of two people, one grinning and pointing at the other? This is what I get, whether or not it is intended. The pointer is putting himself in the dominant position, and reinforces this by grinning directly at the camera. “See me? I’m telling you to look at this other person, and I’m telling you that they’re really special. You know me, you think I’m special, so you’ll pay attention.”
Why am I writing about this, other than to vent an irk? Because I’d like to share a wish to see from the other side of the mirror more often, to walk in other shoes, and to have the sand to be able to ask, “Is this what you really mean?” When our kids heard their beloved grandma use vile racial terms, we would say something privately to them later, “Well, that’s just Grandma, that’s the way she grew up.” Looking back, I can’t remotely imagine how I could have spoken of this to her. But we are on different ground now, and much of it is turning to tar-pits.
So if your shoe starts to stick to the sidewalk, I encourage you to lift your foot, see what’s under there, and think where you’ve been walking. Then see if there’s anything you can do to clean it up.
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