Thursday, October 16, 2014

When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou

When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.


When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.


When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignoranceof
dark, cold
caves.


And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

― Maya Angelou

posted in loving memory of Mark Kuller who died early this morning.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ballyturk

Having this past season read reviews of Bill Clinton Hercules, my play in the Edinburgh Fringe, I am slightly more reluctant to write one.  The BCH reviews seemed to me to say more about the reviewer than the play. What the hell though? It's my blog. It's all supposed to be about me anyhow.

On Friday I saw Enda Walsh's new play at the National, Ballyturk. I felt like I was at the premier of Hamlet. It is a particular and peculiar masterpiece.  So I'm a big fan of Walsh.  Walworth Farce, Penelope, New Electric Ballroom... I am full of wonder at his ability to plumb the limitations of our psyches, see what we are in new ways and show us in his plays.  Damn these Irish playwrights with their wisdom and charm.

Audiences typically applaud heartily at his plays and then turn around to each other and say, what the hell just happened? What does it all mean? What was that blue stuff? It's always hard to exit a Walsh play in a timely manner because people are clumped together excitedly talking.

You can read my review of his Misterman here .

Ballyturk. Spoiler alert.  Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi are in a giant studio apartment/womb/locus of consciousness/monad. They are nameless and they may be two parts of the same person. Or one may be a character created by the other.  Maybe the superego and the ego. The more intensely physical of the two has fits. They are, like all Walsh's characters, and indeed like all of us, are trapped in a narrative - they spend their days playing games involving the people of the town of Ballyturk.

One day Cillian catches a fly, joyful of evidence of an external world. One wall of their studio falls and Stephen Rea appears. He has this monologue about the relationship of his left hand to his right hand that will be a staple of every audition in London very shortly I am sure. Rea may be the fly. He may be authority. He may be reality outside the mind. .  He speaks pure poetry about the magnificence of the outside world heralded by the fly. Life in all its magnificence, he says, demands only one thing, a death. He demands that one of them join him outside. The rest of the play flows from that demand.

The play is shot through with a kind of nostalgia, but nostalgia almost like a high speed train running through the neural networks of the play. Power ballads play from the 80's. Yaz. (Upstairs at Erics was such a staple of my existence in the 80's) The nameless men dance. Rea croons. The recontructions of Ballyturk are Vaudeville.  There is yelling and fear and frustration. Murphy bangs his head bloody against a wall.

Mysterious and primal. In Misterman Walsh has Murphy so steeped in his own version of reality that the sound of people trying to speak to him is distorted. In Ballyturk we get to see inside that reality. It's almost like Beckett's play Not I (which I saw at Cambridge Arts) - it's like being inside someone's mind.

People take refuge in stories, right? They escape into a movie. And that's one level. But when I say Walsh's characters are trapped in a narrative I am being trite and annoying because really, the characters escape there too. They like it there. It is what they know. It must go on. We of course have these narratives too: I am a doctor, a teacher, a mom, a drunk, a loser, a Christian, a Conservative, a Jew. I live in a democracy. America is the best country. My children's safety demands my constant vigilance. It's necessary that air travel is the way it is. The world is basically fair. The world is governed by the rule of law. It is the human condition to have these narratives. It is the work of the very best playwrights to point out how these narratives trap you even as they keep you safe, how they are wrong or incomplete.

Walsh was always up there with McDonagh and McGuiness and now I feel like he's up there with Stoppard.

In my review of Misterman I complain bitterly that Walsh's comparatively least compelling play got a big standing ovation at the National. When I saw Ballyturk on Friday, it was sold out, but no one stood up. No one stood up for the better play. Sometimes that is how it is.
 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Wheaton College 25th Anniversary

This weekend the Wheaton College Class of 1989 is celebrating its 25th anniversary and I am in rainy Cambridge shuffling kids to Kung Fu and trying to help with Latin homework. I am not in Wheaton Illinois. But I just heard the Homecoming Chapel address, and it was given by an old flame. A man now a Bishop of a segment of the Anglican Church in America, Stewart Ruch.

He told a narrative of sin and redemption in his still charming style.  When he and I arrived on campus twenty-five years ago we were hungry to learn and grow and we both - separately, because we didn't meet right away - recoiled at the simplistic culture and specific nature of worshipping Jesus we found on campus. In Stewart's testimony in chapel, this was his sin. See, his chapel address/life narrative wasn't the usual old-fashioned unfolding of (1) drinking/gambling/slutting it up (sin) (2) finding Jesus and repenting (3) happiness and recruiting for Jesus (4) asking for money. This was much more sophisticated, as befits a mind like Stewart's. His sin was that he did not embrace the simplistic, particular nature of Christianity.  He employed his critical faculty. He wrestled with truth, and truth was hard to find. It required great energy and great struggle and it made him raw. That was what he did wrong. And as in every good testimonial, it made him very unhappy. He used the word despair. And twice he repeated the soul-crushing, hell-inducing insight that both the church and places like Wheaton are by their very nature "utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken".

Of course the end of the story was that he was set straight by his elders, told that his insights into human institutions and quest for the truth and other such intellectual things meant nothing to Jesus, Jesus merely requires your blind faith. Stewart was seeing and now he is blind and he lives in the presence of God, well into stages three and four.

Well, over here in East Anglia I am still in that sinner stage. I am still raw. It simultaneously sucks and is more fun living in that difficult terrain of being uncomfortable and uncertain all the time. I seek truth and enlightenment, and for that I have to learn things and change, and change means I leave my comfort zone and that means I am not comfortable. But if I accept each moment with love, love of myself and acceptance instead of judgment, I can grow, I can learn through the pain of the discomfort and sometimes it is totally fun. Plus I think I'm getting smarter. Not smarter, exactly, but more capable of real love, love that is found in ourselves instead of sourced in an external God named Jesus. So if you are thinking of becoming an anti-intelllectual in the wake of Stewart's somewhat (sorry) pre-Fascist speech, I write to ask you to think again.

I believe it is preferable, if you are strong enough as a human (a human who may or may not be in service to Christ, (may we please leave that as an open question?)), to stay in that place of uncertainty. 

I want to defend the sin that Stewart repents so strongly of. That period of decadence was actually kind of fun, not that decadent, and good for our humanity.  And we were developing a critical faculty, a faculty I value and will defend. It is true that all our human institutions are "utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken" and I think responding to this truth by telling yourself to stop thinking and just submit is not good.

The more I employed my critical faculty, the less I could believe in the particular claims of Christianity. I was the student in the New Testament class raising my hand every five minutes asking what would happen to all of the Muslims under strict Christian doctrine. It took me to a terribly sad period of mourning.I think a living relationship with God is something that I have. And yes, life is still uncomfortable. But this lifetime of devotion to truth has brought me closer to it than I think Stewart is now. So I'll put my testimony out there too. (I thought it was so interesting that when Stewart was testifying about the depths of his moral depravity he said he was a fan of anarchy. I'll get to that later.)

Wheaton College in the mid-Eighties had an intellectually lively and artistically vibrant community. I loved learning there. Hanging around with Stewart was the best. It was intense. In retrospect we were tortured souls but we were really alive. Pushing through those literature and philosophy, theology and physics classes and thinking so hard about what was the core, what was the core of what we believed. And we fell in love with the greats, with Joe McClatchey, with high church action... Frederick Buechner was on campus that Fall; his subtle and intensely human Christianity and wisdom drew us both in. Funny. After Stewart's talk I recalled Leo Bebb.

Around the end of the nineties I became more and more aware of the fact that what I believed was just and true and loving in the world and Christian doctrine had drifted apart. Not completely. I still went to Episcopal churches.

When I went to law school I taught Sunday school at the church Governor Weld attended. I didn't know the Governor was at church until a series of oddly specific Prayers of the People were uttered ("and when Bill 5422 passes the Governor's desk this week, we pray oh Lord that you give him the wisdom to sign it").

I wrote my law school thesis on the verse from Luke- "Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you do not lift a finger to ease them." My thesis was that religiously motivated political involvement is an inescapable phenomenon. Evangelicals want to be in politics. There is no point telling Christians that the liberal humanist philosophy in our Constitution does not want them to pass laws in accordance with their doctrines. So a better strategy - the one that worked for me - was to look at the heart of Christianity and see whether that heart would be better served by ensuring freedom. Freedom to choose or reject Christianity. For certainly Stewart would agree that a coerced Christianity is not a true Christianity. Wouldn't you, Stewart? So the laws must find us free to fail. To not hear when Jesus stands at the door and knocks. There is nothing less than a theological justification - Jesus's own justification - for civil rights laws. The sacred space of the human heart and the human self must be autonomously given, and those choices should be honored and respected by the government (evidence on this point runs more along Antigone lines).

I make this digression because Stewart's church is somewhat famously anti-gay and I wonder what he would say about this point. One man's cloak of certainty about Jesus is another man's burden hard to bear. See, e.g., the stories of OneWheaton.

I don't write to challenge Stewart's doctrine on the point of LGBTA people particularly - I guess I wrote to challenge the whole philosophical underpinnings that got him there. I challenge the certainty. I challenge the set-up in Stewart's talk - the solipsistic assumption that those who disagree with him are denying the one truth. There are many truths that must work together.

My Christianity fell away in 2001 and I mourned. I really grieved. I missed the unfolding Christianity of the mid-Eighties -what Stewart referred to as his decadent period. (Consistently in my life there are two themes in conversations (1) I never thought of it that way before and (2) the time I was living/working/friends with you was a decadent period.) It sounds completely douchey to say this but my search for truth continued and was amplified by the birth of my children. .

That doesn't mean - well, I don't know what that means. When I was at the steps of St. Paul for Occupy it was like what I imagined the early church was like. An undeniable reality, just like when people laid hands on Stewart in his talk. But my reality makes more things sacred, our bodies and our earth, our governments. And for that I will stay raw and even listen to the anarchists. And the responsibility for revolution is something that I feel now. Because I think Jesus would want us to do something about the fact that our institutions are utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken

And that's where I am going to leave my testimony.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The World War III Version- Bill Clinton Hercules

When I was in college, the drama society put on Jail Diary of Albee Sachs. the true story of a white South African lawyer repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for his anti-apartheid views. Real triumph of the human spirit stuff. Great play and great performances. It sticks in my memory mostly for a comment made by Jim Young, the artistic director for Wheaton College theater at that time. When asked if he was satisfied with the performance, he said he would be satisfied when the audience was so overwhelmed that they held hands and cried, and then all got on a plane to South Africa, vowing never to depart until apartheid was dismantled. When apartheid was actually dismantled, he would be satisfied.

I have truly come to admire his high standards.

It is boring and wanky to write about what it means to be an artist and what the process is of art. This surprised me: I would complain to my friends about the small difficulties I experienced in Edinburgh and they would say in all earnestness (because these are European friends I am talking about) that they empathized with the artistic process. As if the suffering were mandatory. At this I would shake my head. Maybe an eye-roll. I don't believe in that stuff. I'm here to cut to the chase.

What play do I write that gets people holding hands and crying, and promising to each other that they will stand up for justice and democracy? What play is that? Because I need to write that play very quickly. I'm getting stressed out.

I don't know about you but I am completely freaking out here over ISIS, Ukraine, Gaza, Scotland, Ebola, NATO, the Ministry of Justice - like I can't even be on Facebook for more than a second before it all gets too much for me. World War III is in the air. People are terrified.

In this panic, in this deference to leaders and to war that I am sure is upon us, in the scourge of racism and fascism consuming England, I want to do the right thing by my children and I know you do too. I want to build a better world for them. For decades the middle class have looked only inside their own houses, to the welfare of their own children, the size of their own extension (I just had planning permission granted)... but now blood and tears are spilling out of Eastern Europe and out of the Middle East. It may be that we will not have the luxuries of our consumerist decades in the future. It may be that we will be forced by circumstance to look outside our own houses. It may be that we still can better the world. It may be that justice is possible.

And whether it is unrealistic to imagine the scourge of war, surely it is a sound use of time to imagine a better world, to plot against the panic, to see our way clear to the standards of democracy and justice set by our mothers and fathers. Remember our heroes. Remember the rule of law that stirred our hearts in law school. Show trials? Secret courts? Mass surveillance? This is what we have now? What choice do we have but to stand up for what we believe in? No one is more surprised than I am that this is the message. But it is the message.

If I'm not mistaken, we are all sleepwalking into WWIII. I hope I am mistaken, but it is a dim hope. I want like Jim Young for people to hold hands and cry.






Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Magicians

So I am reading and re-reading and re-reading some more the Lev Grossman trilogy - The Magicians, Magician King and Magician's Land. There is a part I keep re-reading, where the hero, the magnificent and geeky Quentin Makepeace Coldwater graduates from Brakebills - the real upstate NY Hogwarts - and Dean Fogg talks to the graduating class about magic. Putatively magic. Actually, maybe, I hear Grossman talking about writing.

"I have a little theory that I'd like to air here, if I may. What is it that you think makes you magicians?" More silence. Fogg was well into rhetorical-question territory now anyway. He spoke more softly. "Is it because you are intelligent? Is it because you are brave and good? Is it because you're special?

"Maybe. Who knows. But I'll tell you something: I think you're magicians because you're unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. Hefeels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.

"Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Playwright notes: Bill Clinton Hercules

This play accurately recounts President Clinton’s early childhood as gleaned from his autobiography My Life. He really did memorize the I Have A Dream speech, he really did shake JFK’s hand, his first memory really is his mother on the train platform. His daddy died before Bill was born and his mama had a bust of Elvis in the kitchen.
The events during the Presidency and governorship actually happened except there is no evidence that the Chinese navy went to Los Angeles to take out the cast of Friends.  There is an eleven-foot statue of him in Kosovo.  President Carter did send the Cubans to Arkansas (but a great unsung hero of his administration, Gene Eisenberg, spoke to Clinton). There was a trashed hotel suite in Iowa after President Clinton had a phone call with Senator Kennedy in 2008.  There really was a bearded hippy Bill who gave a heartfelt speech.  The events of the 1996 shutdown/snowstorm are condensed except it really was one week between President Clinton going Odysseus and the shutdown being over.
He is close with George Bush Sr.  He does not to my knowledge have a problem with Leon Panetta and Alan Greenspan.  He has never said in public that he would do anything else but support Hillary utterly in her political ambitions.  He did say some very encouraging things about Occupy when asked by reporters. 
He re-reads Seamus Heaney’s Cure at Troy every year.  Why does he read it every year? What does he find there? How does it feed him? I think it is the joyful ending when the world is a better place.  The miracle of changing people’s minds.
The dream at the end of the play is mine. I dreamed at the beginning of the Arab Spring, asleep in Washington.  I took it to Occupy and my dangerous sign that got me kettled in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral said Justice Is Possible.
I was just picking salad in the garden when the thunder rumbled. Look to the world stage. A storm is coming. Governments collapse (Iraq, Syria). Cities fall into desolation (Detroit, Mosul, Gaza City). Fascism looms in Europe. A Taliban arises in America,  armed with corporate  religious beliefs out of the reach of the rule of law. A despot dismantles the NHS.  Police states replace democracy.  Wars rage. No one speaks for peace.
Except Bill Clinton Hercules.  This character – this play – is a creation that merges Clinton’s best self with Rachel weeping for her children.  He speaks for peace and freedom.   His grasping for life can be yours too. The heroism of Hercules is your heroism.   You are like Bill Clinton who is like Hercules started:  a human with a mother.

I quote Thomas Paine, the man from Lewes who wrote Common Sense. “When my country, into which I had just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir. It was time for every man to stir.” Now is the time to make real the promises of our democracy.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Oranges

Oranges by Gary Soto 

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted -
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickle in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickle from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
About.

Outside,
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.