Yes, Virginia, Conrad and I do sometimes have energetic arguments, bolstered by the knowledge that for more than sixty years we have always worked them out. The recent one was on the way home from the ocean last Sunday where I remarked that I didn’t understand how I could’ve taken honors in debate competitions in high school when I couldn’t remotely sustain a conversation about the (IMHO) devastating mindset of a large segment of our body politic. I retreated by pulling the “I’ve got to quit here, I can’t avoid talking from my gut.”
I’ve been thinking about that. My entire adult life has been bipolar, in a way. From the get-go I’ve been the penny-pincher, the bookkeeper, then the accountant combing the trial balance for possible errors before the audit. It’s been a huge relief to have folded the tents of The Independent Eye, no longer making payroll reports because there has not been a payroll for a long time. The old habits hang on, though, and I still am aware of things like cash flow and I quail at the thought of MAGA’s lust for the mutilation of Social Security and Medicare.
But the core of my life as an actress and composer has been immersing myself in going deep and finding the flow that comes from the heart and the gut, not the brain. I think that’s one reason that I find poetry to be an essential part of my diet. I find the photos of dried riverbeds and sunken lakes to be tragic and true metaphors: our world has forgotten about the value of the deep sources, the ones we can neither see nor sell.
The two of us are currently in good health and working steadily on writing. We live on a beautiful piece of land and regularly celebrate the outlandish perk of having a fireplace in our bedroom. But we are both in our eighties, and the road that beckons has inevitable mileposts. How will we deal with the losses and indignities? How long can we live in a big house by ourselves? One step at a time. However, the map is clear.
I take comfort in my habits of going deep, going dark. At 4 a.m. I may wake in a panic sweat, but then later I find the core of what I’d told myself. After all, we will all go deep, go dark. Best to find the stories along the way.
After a two-week absence, seeing old friends, I logged onto my online writers’ circle, the San Francisco Writers Workshop. It has a long history, it’s free, and since Covid, it meets live on Tuesdays in SF and Wednesdays nationwide thru Zoom. I miss live talk and drinking afterwards, but I don’t miss the drive to the city.
A very wide range of styles & talents, mostly all narrative prose—memoir, short story, novel, essay—ranging from a vampire tale to sci-fi to romance to me at my weirdest. While I’m in the second draft of a novel, i’ve found that presenting very short stuff is most useful right now. Is the voice right? Is the character real? Does it flow sentence-to-sentence? Does it hit any glitches? I don’t ask these questions directly, but I listen.
Very rarely does anyone show-boat or fall into abuse. If you have nothing to say, you don’t say it. If you think your comment might be helpful, you do. As a reader you may not get the praise you want, and a comment may be far off the mark, but that’s for you to decide the next time you hunch over your keyboard.
Oddly, one rule to me seems responsible for the absence of horror tales I’ve heard from other writers staggering away, blood dripping down, from critique groups. When you present your pages, you’re not allowed to reply to comments. You come into the circle unarmed: you can’t shoot back.
Pacifism may not stop a Hitler, but it seems to work here. It puts full responsibility on the writer: take it or leave it. If nothing flows from a comment, no one will ever know, as you’re not allowed to present revisions. For me, the comment is only like a symptom, perhaps requiring surgery, perhaps an ignoring, perhaps a slight chiropractic adjustment to bring it into alignment. It’s not about whether I get into Heaven.
That may not be the main cause: there’s a wide age range, so it may be that there’s less of an impulse to strike a blow to purge literature of all folly. But I just want to note that we can come together, driven by the urge to help one another—which is mildly revolutionary.
We did our trip. It was a revisiting of beloved people from start to finish, and it was the best and smartest gift we could give ourselves. We saw friends we hadn’t hugged since 2019, without any excuse of performance or book sales: it was just to be with these people. And it was magnificent. Oh, the waves of memories.
The memories of people were updated with the lovely presences of their current living selves, mental snapshots of who they are now, of an age with who we are now. All of us had war stories and epiphanies to share from these years of Covid, and we’re up to date with each other.
The memories of place were sometimes different. Michele and Mary’s home in the farm country south of Millersville was as lush and gorgeous as ever, enhanced by their careful caretaking. Bill and Bridget’s home outside Bethlehem had kept all the beauty we remembered, and had added a new guest cottage, straw-bale built and old-barn-timbered. We shared it overnight with Bloomsburg’s Laurie McCants and demolished half a black box of wine catching outselves up to the present. But when we went back to Philadelphia, I walked to where our home and theatre had been from 1992 to 1999, and it was a different story.
When we’d found it in 1992, knowing that we needed to relocate from Lancaster, it was a comic first meeting. Conrad had been pounding the streets following up any possible rentals, finding only spaces too grimy and small or too pricey. Then came the day we somehow turned onto the first block of Arch Street and saw a “for lease” sign plastered on a storefront. He pulled to the curb and I got out to peer into the window.
I was looking through dusty glass into 132 feet of 23-foot-wide space with 12-foot ceilings, a huge pristine ex-warehouse, half a block long. After I started breathing again, I went back to the car, took out my cell phone, and did the dumbest thing a prospective tenant could possibly do: “I’m in front of 115 Arch Street and I’m in love.” Dumb or not, it worked, and we got the space.
When we shoved our stuff into the van and a U-Haul and arrived at our new home, we only had the energy to drag our sleeping bag and floor mats and a few big set-flats to screen ourselves from the big storefront windows. We spent our first night in the middle of an empty huge space with only one little votive candle for light. In 1999, after we’d packed to leave for California, it was exactly the same way we’d spent our first night there, a little bed in the middle of a huge empty space, lit by one votive candle.
In those seven years, we’d built our theatre, our apartment, and our office. We had a braided ficus tree given to us by a friend who’d had it outgrow her law office, and it graced our front window by the bin that housed the many many umbrellas forgotten by audience members, next to the fireplug we’d gotten in Lancaster to make the set for American Splendor.
We built platforms to support the 49 seats of our theatre, seats that included a rocking chair, a throne, the back seat from our van, and a little front-row couch that guaranteed us front-row audience. I climbed a twelve-foot ladder to hang lighting pipes from the ceiling and drilled big holes in the red-cedar flooring to wire our dimmers into the basement’s 220 volts. I helped build the massive firewall that made it legal for us to live in the back, and after more than a year of freaking about building a stair, I got rid of the ladder we’d had to use to get us up to our bedroom loft. I’d built that loft so strong you could have done Irish dancing on it, but I had nightmares about building a stair.
Our four nine-foot north windows were the glory of our apartment, and I got very attached to the squirrel who showed up regularly to beg for peanuts. When I didn’t appear on time, she’d rap on the window with her little paw. The day we left for California I cried about that squirrel: who was going to give her peanuts?
Now it’s a condominium, with one place left for 3 million dollars. The ground floor, our apartment, office, and theatre space, is a parking garage. But in my mind, the secure space of my memory, there is still a place where we made our living, made our home, and made love.
We were on a trip, back in the town where we spent about fifteen years. I was driving a rental car, and Liz was in the passenger seat. We were trying to find our way out of town and on to our next destination. She was following the GPS on the cellphone and telling me the turns.
We ambled through the streets toward the north end of town, stopped at the light before the turn onto the freeway. We had a full tank of gas and plenty of time. Liz said to turn left. The light turned green. I turned left.
Immediately a truck lunged at me. I sped up. Another vehicle, black and big, came whipping around the truck to the right. We would be destroyed. I jammed down the accelerator—contrary to my usual predilection for caution—and escaped a collision by a hair.
This might well have meant death. Both vehicles were coming fast and I wasn’t driving a tank. I swore at myself and merged onto the freeway.
I was at fault, of course. I had heard “Turn left” and had only been thinking Turn left. Which canceled a lifetime of preparing to turn left by waiting for the green arrow or waiting for traffic to clear. I knew not what heart attacks I left in my wake, only that we went on with our trip.
Why did I do that? Was it a gas bubble rising out of the swamp of eighty-one years? Was it a sudden urge to audition for a James Bond flick? Did it portend the inevitable jump off Planet Earth? I’ve spent the past week drinking wine with old friends and thinking about death.
It hasn’t gone into my dreams as yet. My only anxiety dreams are trying to assemble the cast—frisking around like chickens—for a show we’ve never rehearsed; or packing the van for a tour with a stage set that won’t fit; or finding that the van will only drive in reverse, so I have to strain around to steer backwards. Nothing fatal.
I don’t think I fear death; I only fear irresponsibility. I don’t want to leave a mess for other campers to clear. I don’t want to leave things undone—a neat trick, as I’m always working on something undone. I’d like to slip quietly out the door without letting the cats escape, but while I’ve played roles involving dementia, murder, or Lear’s heart bursting, I’d definitely be miscast as a suicide.
So as regards the near-accident, I’ll give the PTSD time to settle in and meantime write it up. I’ve often said that one perk of a career in the arts is that whatever shit happens, it’s raw material for my work.
Whatever our politics, we can respond to the “other side” of the spectrum in different ways. We can find new, clever phrases to mock or damn them, focusing on the stupidest comments of the stupidest among them. Lots of creative effort went into jokes about Trump’s hair, and Marjorie Greene has plucked the baton from Sarah Palin and is grabbing headlines by the bucketful.
Or we can indulge in long, reasoned commentary on issues that only concern enlightened souls, namely us, branding all who oppose our views as knuckle-dragging sexist/racist fascists, or as irretrievably-woke radical socialist pedophiles.
Or we can post photos of cats.
All sides assume that dialogue is a total waste of energy. Even suggesting dialogue marks one as a traitor to the cause or—just as bad—insufficiently committed. Of course I have my own candidates for dolt-of-the-week, and some are hopelessly gone to the Dark Side of money, power, or idee fixe. Sometimes words are wasted, though at times verbal laxative serves a purpose, invigorating the choir, sweeping you to power, or selling your best-seller. There are reasons why Bloviating is raised to a high art, while Listening is a starved foster child.
Our activists pride themselves on speaking Truth to Power, as if Power were listening. Meantime, the progressive tradition of the circular firing squad holds sway. We troll the Web for evidence of racism, sexism, white privilege; allies turn against one another and go in for the kill.
Granted, my “activism” is hardly boots-on-the-ground, but here’s a thought: No one will listen unless you convince them that you hear them. No words will get through. I had a five-year teaching career, thought myself good, but I was wrong: I was more focused on my inspired pontificating than on their learning. Only when I found my theatre audiences and engaged with them, did I reach the point of occasional communication.
Somewhat. I’ve always been focused on the stories I want to tell, not on stories that people want to hear. That’s a choice that’s limited my “entertainment” career and is disastrous for politicians. Listening is vital to military strategy: know your enemy. No frontal attack will succeed if the other army’s behind you. What’s their appeal? What need are they answering? In my view, for example, white supremacy isn’t a need, it’s an assumed nostrum to a much deeper need.
To me, TRIBE is the strongest driver in politics today: the need to belong. Whether it’s a pussy hat or MAGA cap or just a t-shirt saying Eat Shit and Die, we want to belong to something that gives us an identity. A lifelong Mormon or Catholic may cling to the ingrown identity of belonging, no matter what disagreements they have with ideology. Similarly, a person of any political persuasion will be hard to convince on the issues if it causes ruptures with their friends and colleagues: easier to change your mind than your tribe.
Or perhaps the answer was best stated by someone from our old neopagan group: Throw a better party! Do you really want to spend your time with depressing angry people or with people having fun? Rage is a great fuel for the first stage of the rocket, getting it off the ground, but probably not for the Starship Enterprise, which has farther to go.
A weekly view of the world we
wake into every morning.
Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
a historical fantasy
AKEDAH: THE BINDING
a novel of promises broken or kept
a novel of blue-collar ghosts
a novel of puppets & renewal
50 Years in the Making
A Memoir of the Creative Life
35 Snapshots for the Stage
A Novel of Dystopian Optimism
From Inanna to Frankenstein