Today I make a formal announcement of my insanity. I’m nearly halfway through a reading of ORLANDO FURIOSO.
For the unenlightened: it’s Ariosto’s 16th century Italian epic, replete with jousts, beheadings, enchanted castles, virgins in jeopardy, evil queens, Muslim incursions, flying hippogriffs, magical shields, and the definitive model of the cliff-hanger: let us now leave Paris on the verge of destruction and return to woeful Bradamante as she leads Ruggerio’s horse . . .
Notably: it’s 38,000 lines in rhymed octaves, two 700 pp. volumes. A formidable challenge to read, and an astonishingly well-done task for the translator.
Question is, why am I reading this?
Well, first off, it’s great fun, though that’s never been a high priority with me. Other than food and sex, my idea of fun is checking something off the worklist. And my daughter gave me the volumes for my birthday, so I feel a certain obligation, but I was the one who inquired of it. Beyond that?
I wonder if it’s the intense urge at this age, before night falls, to make a mad grab for the immense treasury out there. I try to fill in my gaps in contemporary fiction, as that’s what i’m writing now and need, for practical purposes, to know how wide is the gap between what I’m writing and what sells. But reading Ariosto, Grimmelshausen, Shaw or Heinrich Boll doesn’t really serve any practical purpose, and I, being sprung from the German peasantry, am a pretty practical soul.
It’s also possible that, despite myself, I’m learning pleasure. Not that I get great joy reading of knights getting knocked off horses—got a lifetime supply of that in Le Morte d’Arthur—but I guess there’s something about skilled extravagance that appeals to me. Right now, in the current draft of our new novel MASKS, I’m taking great delight in describing performances of Medieval farces—comic bits I could never pull off as an actor, stuff I’d never actually write for the stage—and the indulgence is immensely satisfying.
In any case, I’m about to embark on the second 700 pp., with all the full frenzy of Orlando. Hopefully the good guys win, though with one hero slaughtering hundreds at a time, I’m not entirely sure what the standards are.
This morning I woke sweating and shaking from what felt like the most drastic nightmare of my life. I threw on my robe and staggered downstairs, dizzy and wobbly, and sat down on the floor in the corner of the kitchen and asked the cats to help me ground. I’ve never had a bad acid trip, but this would have been a good stand-in.
All during my childhood, through my teens and into my twenties, I was plagued by nightmares. Eventually I learned some powerful dreamwork techniques, and gradually hauled myself out. It was a relief not to be afraid of sleep.
Now for the last year or so, they’ve made a comeback, usually in the last sleep-shift before morning. Often I’m in a position of responsibility and I find myself unable to cope, or I get lost on the city, or the building I’m in is suddenly huge and unfamiliar. And just for variety, I have some of these complex group-dreams where everything works just fine and I wake with a warm feeling. Not this time.
Conrad and I were preparing for a performance of Descent of the Goddess Inanna, a huge, complex production with a big set and masks and puppets. It was on tour, and we arrived on the day before to unload and set up in a city space I’d never seen before. Instead, the space was filled by some other theatre company, a big bunch of very self-assured and aggressively cutting-edge people, and they didn’t understand our wanting to prepare for the next day’s matinee.
Conrad went off to try to find who was in charge of the facility, and I did likewise. The building was mammoth and complex, many performance spaces on many floors, all thick white stone walls and elaborate curving staircases, old and musty-smelling and not in very good shape. At one point I was going up a back stairs and the whole bannister crumbled and took the handrail with it.
There seemed to be dozens of theatre troupes there, and it was every man for himself. I tried to retrace my steps to the entrance and find a phone to call Conrad, but when I found him, he was staggering and incoherent. Many of the people around us were deformed or disabled. We got out into the street and couldn’t find our van, and eventually we were running up and down endless curved streets lined with metal-front warehouses. Then I woke up. Jesus.
This was a different kind of terror. Not a tiger chasing me down the basement stairs (a childhood classic) or fearing that something happened to the children, or trying to run with my feet stuck in mud. This was being in an incomprehensible and incoherent situation without the skills to push through, and without anyone to help.
This tangled skein is rife with threads to pull. We were for many years part of a vibrant theatre community, but in recent years we’ve been pretty much on the fringes. We’re not in the fast-running current now, we’re at the margins. And we’re not only focusing on the solitary life of writing fiction, we’ve fallen off the edge of the youth culture.
But I think the truly hideous part of the nightmare was finding myself in an uncaring, carnivorous “community,” and I think this is totally a reflection of what our national political structure has become. And it doesn’t take much to find where the deteriorating buildings and deformed people came from. Our national bannisters and railings are falling off.
But we’re in Sebastopol. We have dear friends and kind neighbors here. I will invite them to become my dream allies.
As I write this, it’s Sunday, Dec 30, and this morning I bought baby chard plants at the farmers’ market. Then I bought seeds at the hardware store and a grow-lamp to assist with sprouting my own collard and kitty-grass starts. I’m nuts. Even though it’s California, there’s going to be a form of winter coming soon. I’m really late for planting a winter garden, but I’m going to try anyway. I need to get back in touch.
We moved here in July of 1999, and my first garden was the summer of 2000. I’ve scratched at the soil for eighteen years, and until recent years it’s been pure joy. Now, year after year of being gone on our long-haul touring at the most critical weeks has taken a toll. I still got sauce tomatoes and garlic this fall, but the peppers and eggplant were puny, the basil and chives died, and believe it or not I got about two viable zucchini from my vines. I wasn’t there for them, I wasn’t digging my fingers in the dirt regularly. They didn’t see my face, they didn’t hear my voice; I was a distant parent.
King Lear took everything we had, every minute, from early 2014 through July of 2017—three and a half years. Then it was done. What next? A solo show for me, developed through 2017, performed sporadically through 2018, now in limbo (although we intend to produce a quality DVD this coming year).
My land, my earth, my anchor became a semi-estranged partner, an iffy relationship grimed by a lot of guilt. Now I need to do a hard re-set, and the energy to do that requires rediscovery.
Through much of the first decade of 2000, we were part of several groups that used our abundant house and studio space for gatherings, intensive workshops, and over-the-top parties. We were part of a steady raucous stream of events and people, and that fed our souls. Time moved on, things changed, and there was less exuberant traffic. Then the cycle of rehearsing and touring new major projects clamped down on the faucet, and we have moved steadily into semi-recluse status.
For the fiction-writing, that’s not a bad thing. Our daily intensive focus is enlivened by the cats, but mostly we’re at our own work-stations. And the output has been remarkable, but unlike live performing, nobody applauds. These stories clamor to be told, and we love the creatures we midwife into being, but the daily grind of queries and submissions and endless rejection letters make the birth canal gritty.
So, back to basics. I have to kick butt to get myself outdoors, having contracted a serious case of entropy. I go to the gym six mornings a week, and I growl with delight at my refurbished muscles. Now I need to get my soul to the gym, and it’s a hard job. There is something rooted deep in my core, a psychic crabgrass, that kicks and screams against everything that will bring more life and color to my being.
The past may be prologue, but it doesn’t come with a roadmap. I’ve gone nine rounds against this bugger before and come up standing tall, but that was then, this is now, and I need to learn new tactics. Mama Gaia is my partner now, stronger than ever before, and I will listen to her coaching. Just hold on, dirt, I’m coming.
Just before we moved from Philly to Sebastopol in 1999, we did an interview-based radio series called “Weavers.” A Puerto Rican woman from the Philadelphia barrio, Iris Brown, told us something that is still echoing for me. She was working with neighborhood children to give them hope. This is what she said.
I couldn’t promise them a family. I couldn’t promise them an education. I couldn’t say, “Please stay in school, and after you finish high school, you go and get a trade, or you go to college.” So, what else was there for me to promise? In the spring, I planted a garden. Because gardens bring what they promise.
If I dig the soil, plant it, water it, it grows. My children I can promise nothing for certain. Not what happens tomorrow, in the school, in the street, in the headlines. But a garden. Yes, we will have flowers. We will have tomatoes and peppers and all the green. This I promise. What the seeds promise.
A weekly view of the world we
wake into every morning.
Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
Forthcoming, Available for Pre-Order:
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