This week was my birthday. I turned seventy-seven. A DJ announced a song by the Indigo Girls. I heard their name as the Evening Overalls. Senility has its perks.
I was born in 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor, of which I was unaware, being politically indifferent at the time—my only concern was nipples. My mom was in Denver, my dad somewhere in Washington state, working construction, and the marriage was soon to dissolve, partly due to my existence. My grandmother took the bus from Iowa out to Denver to be with my mom and tell her how stupid she was.
William Butler Yeats had died two years before, but I’d been unaware of that until many years thereafter. Nor was he remotely aware of me, sorry to say.
About age four, my dog Ragsie died. About age seven, I shot a sparrow with my BB gun. Age eight, I saw my step-dad die of a heart attack. I didn’t actually see him die, just saw him make funny faces and deep tormented snores. I didn’t like the guy.
Around fifth grade, a classmate, Kathleen Bogardus, died of leukemia or something I didn’t know the name of. The class went to her funeral and I saw her dead. She was nice but not popular, and I had no feeling about it, but it was maybe from that time that I knew that everyone would die. Since then, I’ve seen much further evidence.
It takes so many years and calories and missteps, struggles and revelations to create a human being, and then in one breath, the data is lost. Birthdays inevitably bring thoughts of the end-parens. This one spurs me, at least, to clean up my files, take photos of all my puppets, finish the next draft of our new novel, and resolve to go to the ocean every week.
And of course you procrastinate from your sworn duty to die. You keep track of blood pressure, go to the gym, obsess on projects, post on Facebook—every symbolic act that promotes an illusion of immortality.
On October 8th, my birthday, an estimated 151,600 died. I celebrated that I wasn’t included: a day of writing, watching the antics of the cats; going out to dinner; sitting by the fireplace and making love with my collaborationist. Most of the time I have welcomed life and looked forward to more of it, despite my search for a parking place, the chronic struggle to open plastic wrappers, and a perpetual longing for people to be kind—myself included.
So, another year.
Turning upside down in order to center. Doesn’t sound plausible, but bear with me.
When we take our normal picnic to our ritual ocean-bluff spot, we look at the biggest rock out west and see the slim black silhouettes of seven or eight or nine black cormorants perched on the top. We call them “The Supreme Court.” Today the rock was completely vacant, and I couldn’t help empathizing with them
However, my objective in this weekly (or bi-weekly) visit to Mama is to accept her majestic and loving presence and let the shit wash off—pardon my language, but it’s the way to express what is sometimes needed. Like today. No need to let cormorant empathy complicate the process.
After the sushi was eaten, after the hot sake was drunk, after the dessert of dark chocolate and crystallized ginger and pomegranate seeds had pleased us, it was time to sit in silence, in the sun, in the warm insistent breeze, and just be on that bluff, hearing the whump of the surf.
When Conrad felt like going back to the car, he asked, as he always does, whether I’d like to stay a while longer by myself. Yes.
I turned my camp chair 180 degrees to get sun on my other side, slumped down until my neck had somewhere to rest, closed my eyes, and began to let all thoughts drain away. That left more room for simple sensations. The sun was warm on the top of my head, the breeze was a soft cats-paw patting my left cheek, the sound of the waves was a heartbeat in my right ear, and the chair and earth under me were a comfy lap. Sweet.
Then an awareness that wasn’t exactly thought crept in. Earth, Air, Fire, Water. I sank into an image of the compass, but came out backwards. If sun-fire was my south, then yes, chair-earth was my north, but then air, the breeze, should be on my right and the water should be on my left. It wasn’t that way. I wasn’t exactly awake, but it still didn’t make sense.
My sleepy mind explored the conundrum. If Air was on my left and Water was on my right, which they clearly were, then Fire should be at my feet and Earth at my head, which wasn’t the case. If I put Fire and Earth in the right place with respect to my body, Air and Water were in the wrong place.
The stunning solution was that I wasn’t on my back, at the bottom of the sphere. I should be face-down, but since the whole front of my body was open to the elements, there could be only one answer. I was indeed face-down, but on the top of the celestial sphere, facing in. Toward the center.
The state of the world can make it difficult to write a blog. Countless topics offered, but with all the heavy ones—the SCOTUS hearings, climate change, perpetual war—I fear that everything that can be said has already been said: to say more has merely an excretory function. Yet retreating to trivia—deciphering what an Irish supermarket means by “Sale on Washed Roosters”—seems a surrender to triviality. The compromise, perhaps, is to address a topic so foreign to anyone’s interest that it straddles that fine line between bloviation and the runs.
One such topic is theatre. This art has been the focus of my life since age 15—before I even thought of it as an art rather than just a neat way to meet girls—and it continues to torment me. For the 2.5 years we toured our KING LEAR, I thought, okay, this is our last piece, better to focus on the novels. Then came SURVIVAL, and now a new one in the early stages. No getting away from it, though by now I’ve met the girl.
I rarely go to the theatre, except periodically to our local small-town troupe. (I often don’t like the texts themselves, but their productions are astonishingly good.) Seeing a play, I’m unable to disengage my technical mind—the ten thousand things on which I’d give notes—and respond simply to what works. And to spend $25-35 to make mental notes is, to put it bluntly, a bit silly. Better a good meal of raw oysters for half the price.
And yet people do me the distinct disservice of producing—at rare intervals—truly moving theatre. “Disservice” in that it restores a faith that might prefer to die. Recently, two experiences.
In the Milwaukee Fringe Festival, our friend presented a solo show, a narrative of the life and rendition of the songs of Lorenz Hart. He’s spent many years with the American songbook of the 1920’s and 30’s; in that time his voice has matured, and he’s brought his theatrical instinct into the heart of the songs. A deeply felt, deeply moving piece—you could feel his unfeigned love for the work.
And last week in Dublin, we arrived after an eight-day drive around the western coast to discover there was a theatre festival happening. We saw three shows, and the first two—with rare little blips of enjoyment—were dogs. Well-produced dogs, but for me a waste of time except to exercise my diagnostic powers.
The third show (a Polish company), dammit, dispelled my nihilism. Bare stage, eight actors responding to a miked offstage voice. A litany of lines, all beginning with “Michael is playing a man who . . .” “Irina is playing a woman who . . .” Focus shifts to the appropriate actor . . . who does nothing. Or sometimes a shift of posture, sometimes a vague change of expression, rarely a gesture. Sometimes the narrative extends a few sentences, and at one point there’s a lighting change and a more extended story—then back to the litany.
There were structural things I’d change, and it seemed in post-show talk that the cast was surprised at the frequent laughter—a laughter of recognition at the incongruity of our inner lives and our outward concealments. But the great achievement was PRESENCE. They weren’t pushing energy out to us; they were drawing us in.
It’s a stock presumption among theatre people that our art is superior to film in that we’re in live presence with the characters and the story. But how rare tht is! Too much theatre—and I speak of “experimental” as well as conventional—is canned and bottled, would bebetter seen on TV where we’d have closeups and an editor could jazz up the rhythm.
Maybe it has to involve a sense of danger. The DVD of our KING LEAR is good, shows all the elements of the production, but there’s no way it can convey the sweat of two old actors tearing themselves apart for an hour and a half. The company in Dublin took the risk of being deadly boring, but they drew us in. It’s what “comic relief” does in serious work: it opens an aperture, it’s inappropriate, almost as if a raccoon appeared onstage at the climax of MEDEA. But it’s real. It jars us into presence.
A weekly view of the world we
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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