Last Thursday we celebrated our 59th anniversary. Cornish hens, a good Chardonnay, a fire in the fireplace, and Elizabeth suggested a challenge: that we each speak of times—make it seven, as something to aim for—when we recall the other being especially vivid . . . something like that.
For me, speech is a challenge. I’m a terrible writer, a great rewriter, but you don’t get to rewrite the spoken word. It’s just out there kicking and flailing. But I gave it a try. I came up with seven gerunds, picked them out of my old leather hat, and hoped for the best.
LOVING – Difficult to speak of, as the hundreds of embraces over the years blend into one embrace whose sweetness amazes. What separates itself in memory is the first. November ‘60 in the back seat of a decrepit Chrysler, Evanston IL, heavy frost on the windows. Done in a minute and lasting a lifetime.
FEEDING – 21,535 dinners on the table or over the cowling of the touring van or in a bowl around the campfire. Well, subtract some where we’re fed by a host or the very few times we eat a restaurant meal. (I do the dishes, at least.) The most vivid memories: in our undergrad days, when she cooks daily for eight fellow students in a summer rooming house. And in our teaching days, laying out a sumptuous after-show meal for our student cast on a South Carolina beach. And conjuring up a delicious soup out of scraps our first night in Poland.
SPEAKING – At Quaker meetings, pagan circles, other gatherings, she would rise to her feet, often with great reluctance, and speak words that flowed from a depth and touched the depth in others. Reluctantly, as afterward she berated herself for “showing off”—a persistence of childhood trauma. Offering gifts is often at a cost, but she offers them.
NURSING – The years I would see my wife giving breast to our infants. Sensing both the pleasure she took in it and the challenge of finding place and time amid rehearsals, travel, performance, and the deadly office work that supported the craft.
MAKING – She’s been the composer, electrician, carpenter, accountant, and general jill-of-all-trades for our complex existence. What I recall mostly are the impossibilities. At the top of a 10-foot ladder, threading electrical conduit among rafters to its fixture. The all-nighter laying out transfer type on a verbose show poster, only to see it peeling up in the dawn. Composing music for 70 songs in three weeks for our 1966 staging of THE BEGGAR’S OPERA. Drilling bolt-holes for a wildly-asymmetrical pipe set for our MEDEA/SACRAMENT. Rebuilding the interiors of our touring vans—well, no, those were pretty straightforward challenges compared with the complexity of a sales-tax form.
DANCING – A rarity, but the memories are vivid. Dragged by another woman into a dance, the two of them circling a candle with madcap ferocity, driving the drummers on and on and on. And a month ago, at a concert by a friend, moving onto the dance floor like the waves we watch in our weekly lunch at the ocean.
ACTING – Dessie, Medea, Liddie, Miss Bleep, Jenny Diver, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Lear’s Fool, Mary Tyrone, the Flounder, dozens of others, all offering vital parts of herself to strangers. And with skills you don’t learn in an acting class: surviving a 12-week tour; coping with a thunderstorm leaking into the center of the auditorium midway through the show; the four-hour setup and two-hour strike sandwiching the 90-minute show; playing a dozen characters in one ten-minute sketch; holding an audience at 9 a.m. in a high school gym; making the five hundredth performance of a piece as fresh as the first.
And she had beautiful things to say to me. A good time was had by all.
I am doing my best to assemble the halves of who I am.
Eighteen months ago I met my mother’s son for the first time, thanks to Ancestry DNA. For forty years I had worked to discover my blood-root, the woman whose womb carried me, and though she had died in 1994 I found her present, mirrored in my brother as she was mirrored in me. After the first dizzying rush of discovery, I learned more about her own family, and it all began to feel like a comfortable glove, something my fingers could fit into and feel a special warmth.
That same revelation in the spring of 2018 opened the window to my other half. After all, like everyone else, I had a father; he had children of his own, and I learned in abstract terms who they all were and are. Now, a year and a half later, it is no longer abstract. I have met my father’s daughter, my sister. We spent a very intense twenty-four hours downloading a pair of lifetimes, finding who we were, who we are now, and how we mirror each other. It’s only the beginning.
Now I am finding myself, working hard on putting myself together. It was easy to feel the rush of mother-blood; after all, I am female. Finding the same core in the father-blood is taking more work, so it is a blessing that I have had this time with a sister. I do find a powerful lineage and inheritance (music, electronics, depression), but this is all so new, and there’s a difference between the associations of womb and sperm. I’m groping my way in the dark to come to know him, but he’s in my blood and my bones and my soul.
I stayed overnight in my sister’s house, and as I turned out the light and entered the pathway to sleep, I was becalmed in a swirl of confused perception. I knew a great deal about a mother and a father, and all their ancestors and descendants, but I myself was the only thing they had in common. So who am I? How do I bring this great web of connection into a common focus? I’m working on it.
With Elizabeth and others, I’ve written 50 produced plays (ye gods, I just counted!), over 200 sketches, 40+ short stories, and now working on the seventh novel—not to mention countless press releases and grant applications (another form of story-telling) and five years of a biweekly blog. I remember that when I wrote my first poem at the age of fifteen, I feared I’d never write anything so good again. Mayhap—dread thought—I haven’t?
Many reasons for writing, intermingled. Produce a best-seller and get invited to parties. Live forever. Reside in a quaint New England village where poets live and take morning walks with your dog. Become attractive. Express yourself and get accepted as such. Avenge yourself. Take your place among the immortals who get dessert. Have fun with words. Transform all the shit you’ve endured into rich fertility. Write what you’d like to read—though by the 8th draft you might be sick of it.
Few of us are likely to admit to any of these. Better that we’re trying to save the world, establish justice, delve into the human condition, interrogate the dominant culture, even make people think. We talk about that stuff a lot, and we try very hard to believe it.
But I’m one of those coots who shave daily with Occam’s razor. At this late stage of development, I’ve come to realize that my chief impetus for telling stories is simply the need to tell stories. I have no idea why. Or wherefore, which means the same as why. Before high school, I was a happy consumer of sports stories and cowboy movies. In high school, it was acting; in college, stage directing. I backed into writing like backing into an exhaust fan, and my backside has been in rotation ever since. My only real fear of death is leaving something unfinished, and since I start a new project before the last one is done, I’m not sure how that interfaces with mortality. It’ll be one of those great books that no one’s ever read, though I’ve written a few of those already.
The narrator of our current novel, set in the early Middle Ages, writes in an aside: “At times I shy from this story as our donkey shied from a rickety bridge. Yet storytelling is our heartbeat, and stories our breath. We ask not, Why should I breathe?—we simply feel our lungs cry out like a babe demanding suck. So I string out these words like a merchant caravan, trusting they come to safe harbor before the mules go lame. Our priest scowls on my progenitors, the minstrels and mimes. Yet could Our Savior have endured the dusty roads of Palestine without the rude jokes of the fisherfolk who followed Him?”
Some stories are sacred, some are godawful. With luck, they might offer us what we need for survival: a clue to reality. On the other hand, they can con us out of our undies. But somehow we’re compelled to sail between the Scylla of Truth and the Charybdis of Pleasure, and come home warm and toasty.
Friday, people were already wearing masks downtown; I saw one young woman in a stylish paisley model. The fire was thirty miles north, but the air was already dense. Sebastopol is south and west of the last two years’ infernos, and we have a cooler, damper microclimate that has kept us safe. That was then, this is now.
Saturday we got an evacuation warning, like a weather alert—it means get ready, but don’t panic. So we pulled out a master list and started packing, pulling vital documents, assembling all our backup hard disks, putting together a week’s worth of stuff like vitamins and underwear. We brought the cat carriers into the house, left them open, and sure enough the cats checked out the accommodations.
Come seven p.m., bam, the power went out. We have a short-term battery backup for the computers, so we had time enough to transfer some files and shut everything down safely. Then it was flashlight time. Looking at the list, we were in pretty good shape, and figured we’d finish when we had daylight again. We have a fireplace in our bedroom, so we lit a nice fire and enjoyed some warm quiet time before trying to sleep.
I put my iPhone beside the bed instead of leaving it downstairs, a wise choice. The first emergency alert came around midnight; the phone lit up and let out three donkey brays. No map, and the text wasn’t very clear, but I understood that the town of Healdsburg was under mandatory evacuation. (That’s half an hour’s drive north.) Then there were two more alerts, adding nearer areas. At 4 a.m. we got the alert that might or might not mean that Sebastopol was on the list, so I put on my clothes and went down to the office. The backup battery had about fifteen minutes left, just time enough to boot the computer and search for a map of the fire emergency areas. Yes. We had to get out.
Conrad started the trips to the car, I got some remaining things from the list, then grabbed a nearby cat and got him into a carrier with surprising ease. At last we were just about out of time and had everything we were going to be able to be able to take. Shadow was calm in his carrier, and all we needed was Garfunkel.
Garfy? Nowhere to be seen. That was odd, because these cats are good buddies and stay close together. I know, because a few times one has sneaked past me into a closet and my alert to let him out was a brother-cat standing watch outside the door. We went from room to room with our flashlights, then went around again looking in all the unlikely places, trying to think where we might have missed. No luck. With a growing sense of dread, I agreed with Conrad that we had to set a hard deadline of fifteen minutes. He took Shadow out to the car.
I’d been avoiding tears but was about to lose it—and suddenly had a thought. Our back room has a guest bed I’d built long ago, two modular twin platforms that can stack to make a day-bed. I got down on my knees with the flashlight, lifted up the bedspread, and sure enough, there were bright green eyes back in the far corner. Now what? The outer frame sits low to the floor; the bed itself has space for a cat but is too low for a human to reach in. Push came to shove, we took the beds apart, hugged the large uncooperative cat and put him into his carrier.
6 a.m., pitch dark, we were trying to get out of town to head south, but even our back county roads were bumper to bumper and not moving at all. We reversed and tried a different back-road route. The cats started crying, doubly agitated by being separated and being subjected to a bumpy ride and the low-frequency rumble of tires. Every time traffic came to a total halt I twisted myself around and got my face close to them, trying to soothe their distress with my cat version of baby-talk. It helped a little.
But where to go? Our son in San Francisco was willing, but their apartment is very small and they have two cats of their own. Friends in Vallejo were out of town, and to complicate matters, there was a new fire in that area. We found a little independent coffee shop on the north side of Petaluma, a tiny area that still had power. While Conrad went in for carry-out coffee, I arranged food, water, and litter-pan in the back of the Prius, then freed the cats. We sipped our coffee, comforted invisible cats huddled under the seats, and tried to be rational.
I got out my phone and started scanning the contacts list for any folks this side of San Francisco. It didn’t take long. I called Beth Craven, who said yes, of course, cats and all, and gave me directions. Their part of Santa Rosa didn’t have power, but there was no threat of evacuation. Beth and John are two of the absolute best theatre professionals in the whole North Bay, and we’ve known them off and on for decades. Friends, colleagues, and best of all, only a half-hour from our own home.
I’m writing this on Monday. The wind will get wild again tonight so predictions are impossible. The good thing is that the valiant firefighters have made progress establishing perimeters to keep it more or less contained. Bless you, Beth and John, and the firefighters, and the shelter volunteers, and all those whose prayers have been pouring out.
Yesterday, Saturday, a friend invited us to a National Theatre Live showing of FLEABAG—the stage production, not the TV series—at the downtown Sebastopol multiplex. A solo piece about the performer’s sex life, death of a close friend, death of a guinea pig, etc. Extremely funny and moving, especially so because so much of the performer’s mercurial persona reminded us of our long-long-long colleague Camilla in performance—Camilla, who died this past year.
Returning home after lunch and long talking with our old Milwaukee friend—he was my replacement in teaching at UW-M—I wasn’t in the mood for work, so I watched on Criterion Channel the 1967 Shirley Clarke documentary PORTRAIT OF JASON. Very similar in a sense: an hour and forty-five minutes of one person talking. It’s a gay black man, filmed over a 12-hour marathon, recounting his life, his hopes (never realized), his hustles and cons, with incessant hysterical laughter that tears your gut—not pleasant, yet intensely moving, a film that Ingmar Bergman described as the most extraordinary film he’d ever seen.
At the end of this day of personal testaments, now home with the cats and working on Chapter 25 of MASKS, I feel the tears welling up. It doesn’t have so much to do with the play and the film—both are brilliant, and yet my inner directorial dentist always probes for the flaws—but for the simple fact of mortality. The one is crafted, the other is improvised, yet both embody the bizarre contradictions that our lives embody. For me, they both evoke, in vastly different ways, that extraordinary final scene in Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH where the woman, bereft of her dead baby, gives her breast to the lips of the dying man.