Normal life has been disrupted, for which I’m always grateful. I hate routine: I want each day to dance its own jig, and when I see it falling into gym/coffee/writing/walk-home/lunch/etc. etc. etc., I start fearing death. In our latest novel, the child thinks of death as just lying there with the flies landing on you, and it makes good sense to him why people fear it.
But when routine is disrupted, like this week, I start getting very antsy. Last weekend was Elizabeth’s 80th birthday, a wonderful celebration which left sumptuous leftovers and a fractured schedule in its wake. And realizing I have another 20 months before I’m 80. I’ve been trying to catch up with Elizabeth for nearly 60 years, never quite managing it. Even when I make a mad dash, the months keep getting in my way.
But this week I watched a movie, I went to a circus, I took a mighty load to the dump. I read a very well-written, popular novel that offers all the joy of popping pimples—not my favorite pastime. I ate a vast bunch of leftovers and tried to get back in harness. And I wrote a long political screed, which I decided not to post, though I may do so in the future. Looking forward to 8 months of sleeplessness as we stumble forth to the election.
I feel as if I’ve worn the wrong suit to the Senior Prom. I can’t get my rage factor turned up against my fellow Democrats. My candidate Warren apparently made a stir in the debate by demonstrating the attack-dog skills required of a candidate, but I fear it hasn’t given her much of a bump in the polls. It doesn’t seem enough in this Super Bowl to flex your muscles against the other guys: you need to cripple the members of your team—not fatally, of course, but just hitting their toes with a hammer. Rage is a mark of sincerity.
But that pulls me off track. This week I’ve managed a few snail-cramps forward: finishing the 10th draft of our novel MASKS, getting the first performance of RASH ACTS scheduled, and starting work on a new novel based on an old, old play—five chapters into it but having qualms—while also looking back at an unpublished piece to see what it needs.
So this week I intend to get back into full swing of a routine that revs up my discontent to a degree where I feel part of things. I hate to feel left out.
It feels really good to finally be eighty, flat-out 100% eighty, and not “almost eighty,” as I have been claiming for a while. It’s a lovely number, isn’t it? Round and balanced and substantial. I like it. And the weekend of partying was right up there on the scale of pinnacle lifetime experiences.
Our daughter Johanna flew in from her long-time home in Italy, with a recipe list and an agenda: “Mama, I’m doing the cooking. Get over it.” Her pinnacle product was the birthday cake, one for each of the two days: Google “Russian Honey Cake” if you want a picture, but here’s the Cliff-notes: caramelized honey, butter, eggs, whipped cream, all in many many layers between 9-inch disks of batter pre-baked into a cross between a cookie and a crepe. She arrived on Tuesday, shopped with me on Wednesday, cooked all day Thursday and all day Friday, and staged it all into completion on Saturday and Sunday. More than forty people came over the two days.
I loved the little eddies of conversation amongst people who hadn’t known each other before, the intense tide-pools of conversations that hit a strong bond, and all the ebbs and flows in between. When I was a kid, I loved snoozing on the couch just outside the rooms where the grownups were talking: I was safe, nobody was paying any attention to me, and their voices blended into a lovely music. Here, I could swim among the tide pools, be an intense focus in one place and then just hang on the shore and listen to the music. This was a special occasion, and I was in bliss.
The essential binding element to this was Conrad, our son and daughter (Eli and Johanna), and our friend Flora Coker—she has been a beloved artist/colleague/friend since 1966: she knew both kids since they were a glint in the eye. She spent the weekend with us here, and gave Jo a lot of support, and reminded us how long and lovely a trip this has been.
Now I have a bale of beautiful cards, and the skin-memory of lots of hugs, and a full tank of energy for launching back in the memoir that had to take a week off. And it has been beautifully bordered with the visit of a long-time close friend from New York who flew in to say a warm hello. I spent all day Monday taking him to our special places along the Sonoma Coast and down into the magic land of Bolinas, and it was a gift to me to share what I love with someone I love.
Having just finished the 10th draft of our new novel MASKS—more yet to be done but this is basically it—I’m in that flounder stage. I have an idea of what’s next, but haven’t quite yet chomped onto the earthworm and got myself hooked. It’ll happen soon, I fear, but there’s time for a quick swig of air.
Meantime, I’m going back to what was a frequent practice: daily spans of free writing by hand in my notebook. Most times I have no idea what I’m going to write: I face a blank slate in my head. . . . The cat is trying to bark. . . . I sit beside a stranger I will never know: myself. My handwriting is nearly illegible, and sometimes the content as well, but I trudge on through at least a page, and sometimes I’m amazed at the genius or drivel emerging.
It’s a useful way to break out of the EDIT mindset, that slow stalking of perfection that pervades the later drafts of anything—a necessary stage but fatal at the outset of a project. As with anything, it’s a constant see-saw between Freedom and Control. It’s taken me maybe 60 years to learn that balance in the art of theatre; in starting to write fiction—well, not entirely starting, as this is our seventh novel—the process begins anew.
This new draft, I think, is a breakthru in that old literary saw, Show, don’t tell. Telling is delineating what happened, how your hero looks or smells, etc., and some of that is fine. Show means bringing your reader into the presence of the event—as theatre does by its very nature, except in shows that fall into endless narrative monologs. With MASKS, each draft has made an advance in different ways, but all more substantive than just decisions on commas or finding a juicier verb.
It occurs to me that my life has been a series of redrafts. Nothing as dramatic as the crash-and-recover that pervades movie stars’ bios or as cliched as staid-prof-finds-new-love, but still fairly dramatic in my own Midwestern way. It may be that all stories are about redrafts of lives and the slow, lifetime discovery of your own true voice. The two of us have been blest in having each other as mates: somehow accepting that process of change in one another. We weren’t born that way, and some of our quarrels have been more volcanic than anything we’ve done on stage. But somehow we’ve stumbled through the jungle and the pigpen and the maze toward that concept from Robert Heinlein: Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.
I’m trying to take myself seriously. I was astonished that I could finally get into a responsible routine of physical workouts, and going to the gym 6 days out of 7 in the morning is a complete 180 from my previous inability to stick to anything. The current challenge is to do this with writing the memoir. I have an Everest confronting me here.
Conrad writes like a demon, day after day, on a clear schedule. It’s daunting to imagine constructing something like that for myself, but if I don’t, I’m gonna crap out on this important task.
Conrad has a writing problem: he has an itch. He can’t write in any one place for very long. His current strategy is to go to the gym, then to the coffee house with his homemade cannon-ball muffin, then maybe to the library for a while, and finally home about noon, acompanied by his trusty iPad.
A couple of years ago, he constructed a very elegant desk retreat for himself on one side of our studio. Big trapezoidal desk, office chair, lamp, the whole nine yards. It never took off for him. But now it’s become mine.
I took my pink Himalayan salt lamp out there, set up our tiny Lear speaker system in tandem with my iPod, and set a little space heater at the corner of the area. When we created Frankenstein I made some backstage lights that used very low-wattage bulbs, like night-lights. I grabbed one out of storage and set up a ghost-light. This is one of the most romantic images I have of theatrical stages, the solitary bare bulb on a stand at the center of the stage that is left lit when everybody goes home. Finally, we have a ghost-light in our studio.
So I’ve gotten through one whole week of writing in the studio from 10 to noon. Big deal, but it’s a start. There’s something about the ceremony of entering the pitch-dark space with that tiny amber ghost-light in faithful attendance, setting a small thermos of hot water beside the laptop, turning on the audio (currently ancient Armenian music), switching on the little floor heater, and sitting down to write.
I had an interesting span of dreams stirred up by inviting old buried memories to surface. Some mornings I wake up in a hot sweat, but others leave a complicated glow. The world around me is increasingly surreal, and I hope to put page after page into a path toward being grounded.
[Note: If you are yourself at death’s door, or know others knocking there, you should read this only knowing that I’ve lost recent friends. I speak of this with humor, but a humor born of pain.]
A number of people have died. That’s been going on a long time, and the human race has mostly come to accept it. With age, you realize that either you watch your loved ones go west or they watch you, and there’s grief either way. Unless you’re such a sonofabitch that they’re glad of it—though your dog may be sad for a bit.
But if you’re reasonably lovable, you’re likely to have friends and relatives who won’t be happy about it. So you have two problems: them and yourself. For them, you can offer directives—cremate me, get drunk, bury my heart at Wounded Knee, etc.—and you can try not to leave a big mess. Not so easy, though, to make your campground as clean as you found it. There’s the money and property, of course, though that may be simpler than the vast mass of trinkets, correspondence, photos, books—or in our case puppets, videos, scripts, music files, blog posts, stage props—that you can’t bring yourself to get rid of . . . until somebody has to do it for you.
That’s one problem I start to face at 78. I like to plan ahead, and I have an almost pathological sense of Responsibility—but I’ve still got a number of projects on the table and probably will continue to have until my heart or kidneys decide it’s time for a break. So the big mess is almost inevitable.
(Might be the up-side of atomic warfare is that it gets rid of you and also your boxes of crap.)
The other challenge is to clarify to myself what I think about death. To a degree, the “clean-up” compulsion is a way of dodging the issue. Like a grunt in the trenches, if you focus on picking fleas you might stay sane through the night bombardment. But that gets me only so far. Eventually the bombardment intrudes on your concentration.
For many, the prescription is belief in life after death—from economy-size metempsychosis to jumbo Heaven with all the trimmings. To each his own, but for me that’s never been credible except on the mythopoetic level—to which I take frequent vacations.
And yet . . .
It’s the subject—the required course—that we all face. Some avoid it through accumulation of power, money, or other symbols of invulnerability. Others, like myself, curl into our sardonic cocoons, talk of “kicking the bucket,” “taking the flop,” “buying the farm,” “going west”—the standup comic blatting on until his mike goes dead.
In fact, I strain hard to imagine a world without me. Shouldn’t be that hard, as before my birth I couldn’t imagine a world with me so I’ve at least had nine months of trying to imagine the impossible. There’s refuge, of course, in finding peace through Buddhist focus on impermanence, but while my prefrontal cortex may grok that, it’s harder to convince the voters on the cellular level.
The best I can do right now is to create a kind of story in my head involving a hero who’s left the party and never shows up again. Hopefully, I’ve still got some years to rewrite this first draft.