I'm still afraid. There's so much potential to do something worthwhile. Growing food and feeding people, for instance. Teaching folks about inclusive performance and play, and how those activities intensify the bonds within local communities. Forming economies of trade and mutual generosity. Moving across the earth to learn about different peoples; dispersing those experiences by the simple act of traveling to the next place and striking up a conversation. So much possibility.
Yet I remain afraid to unmoor myself from the steady job that accomplishes none of these things. I keep thinking: next year. Or someday. When the means present themselves, perhaps. But when will that be? Or, probably the better question: will that be? I suspect the answer is no. Without some sort of radical leap, it will not. As long as complacency – as long as fear – hangs in the air, there can be no momentum towards anything. So…how does one find the courage to leap?
I think of Joanne as my second acting teacher. Skip, the first. Really, though, she co-taught that first class – Shakespeare – right along with him. That first class about acting that changed the course of my life in inexplicable and lasting ways; lessons that go on informing what moves me, and orienting me in the presence of critical decision points all these years later. When not knowing is an insufficient alternative, the choice that gets made might, if we could trace such things, very well wind back through relationships and neurons and labyrinths of previous choices, back and back to adolescent experiences during six short weeks in summer of 1988.
Skip enjoys pride of place in my memory because his teachings were overt. The exercises and explanations spoke largely to who we were already. He knew how to have fun while imparting knowledge to us. His teaching felt seamless; a natural extension of our identities. Joanne, however, aimed her work at who we were expected to become. Namely, self-directed performers responsible for our own growth on stage and, more, our meaningful communion with others. She wasn't about fun, and we were all terrified of her because of it. Learning from her felt like work. She generated within each of us something akin to the trying relationship that a reptile might feel for its body as it sheds dry, clinging, catching skin.
Part of the resistance surely was that her activities felt obscure; minimally connected to playing a character. What I know now is that she was encouraging us to engage something far more complicated than a fictional being. Joanne was getting each of us to grapple with a self: the deep core and wellspring beneath truly purposeful acting. She was trying to show us how to pose useful questions, and to creatively provoke our hearts and minds.
So there we all stood one warm afternoon, in a circle in a darkened classroom. The chair-desks used as a matter of course for conventional classes during the school year now all shoved and stacked at the margins. The only light coming from the sun, but filtered through a canopy of leaves and then diminished by tinted windows before reaching our strange ceremony. We were supposed to keep our eyes shut. Nobody was doing that very well, thanks to equal parts defiance and boredom. Whalesong echoed as clearly as it could from two meager speakers attached to a boom-box at the periphery. Besides not peeking, our objective was to join the haunting echolocation with the hum of our own voices. We weren't charged with anything as complicated as matching pitch or following rhythm. “Just sing with them.”
I don't know how I slipped from trying to conform to my peers' mockery of the moment, to keeping my eyes persistently shut. I'm not sure in what second my jaw dropped and allowed breath to carry my voice unhindered into the space. But at some moment I joined, and the floor and the walls and buildings around the walls and the few young years that accident upon accidental happening brought me to this place and nothing short of time itself…it all bent and then gave way. And maybe I breathed for the first time since I'd stopped breathing, as humans do when they acquire language. Now I had breath and a language both. I took the one in deeply and let the other out readily, without suppressing – without forcing – either direction.
As my heart rose up, my body stumbled with wooziness. I puzzled at my clammy palms and humid brow; my arteries pumping forcefully into my ears. Yet my eyes remained dark and my voice available up above, until the moment that my legs began to crumple down below. Destined for the cool floor. But I didn't hit the floor. Joanne, who in my recollection could have been doing nothing other than anticipating my collapse, caught me. She pressed a bottle of water into my hand and, whispering so as not to contradict the whalesong, instructed me to sit and drink.
Thereafter, when my teenage cohorts complained about the worthlessness of Joanne's time with us, I said nothing. Skip charmed me with his endless passion. But Joanne earned my respect with her conviction. Although I think of the former first when thinking about my life with in theatre, in truth they are together my first teacher.
This is not going to be specific. It’s a persistent feeling and doubtless vague. It also clearly represents an era as I perceived it from the vantage point of a particular age. I don’t care. I’m going to say it anyway and not worry about the need to justify it. Here it is:
We’re all going to be much better off as soon as our psyches can escape the 1980s.
Not to say that the era didn’t provide some great times. Of course it did. Culturally it often projected bliss. Back to the Future and Culture Club and Knight Rider required no critical thinking whatsoever. The Cold War was scary to consider in detailed terms, but we rarely thought about it in detailed terms. And when we did, at least it made everything seem polarized…and bi-polarized…which is a lot more pleasant than things seeming infinitely deconstructible and individualized. Envisioning life with Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is somehow much more comfortable than contemplating a free-floating existence on McCarthy’s Road. Our political representatives postured and proclaimed back then, but if push came to shove we knew that we could all co-exist in that bomb shelter just fine. Even the repellent aspects held some modicum of allure. The self may have been as complex as ever, but we could always find our way like metal shavings clinging to the magnet if we needed to. Nostalgia for that level of moral, cultural, political, and social clarity is how we get so seduced by the 1980s.
We need to let it go. Blind unity at that scale is not coming back unless some global catastrophic event occurs, and let’s not invite that degree of devastation upon ourselves. We can do this. We can live as a world of radically diverse peoples and persons. We don’t need to be defined by a nation or a president or a god or – perhaps least of all – by a celebrity. We can cluster and re-cluster into groups that help us make sense of our identities. And those clusters should least of all be determined by what we reject. Hopefully they can be determined by what we rejoice in, and the energy we can generate through optimistic social mass. We don’t need the simplistic categorization of the 1980s. We don’t need categorization at all! Our political structures are desperate to hold on to the myth that association with a core group automatically aligns all aspects of a self. But you and I and each every other else is more complex than that world view allows for. We need to experience. We need to live. And listen. And converse empathetically. Consolidation of power by a very few depends upon generalized complacency. Hence, the 1980s. But we’re grown up now. And we can do this.
“Go back!” my friend, Nathan, and I used to scream with instantaneous delight, whenever something extra super funny happened while watching a pre-recorded show. “Ahhhhh! Oh my god, go back!” We’d back that bad boy up maybe have a dozen times before our glee was satisfied enough to go forward again.
More and more these days, I find myself engaged in some activity on my iPad while inning after inning of the baseball game unfolds, unwatched, in the background. Only when the commentators’ voices achieve a particular tenor do I look up at the screen. By that point the event is usually in its sunset, and I reach for the remote control to reverse all the little bodies and witness for myself what happened.
We’re so accustomed, in our technology-infused era, to exercising god-like power over time. Sometimes I wonder about the implications of that ability. It may be the difference between someone who drinks Shakespeare’s language as it is spoken, and someone who mentally gropes for the pause button just as Mercutio gets fired up. The difference between the person who looks forward to the next home run, and the one who finds a thrill in reliving the last home run from ten different angles. Puzzling though something by turning page after physical page forward, and puzzling though something by navigating backwards and forward through a strange continuum of web pages.
There is undisputed value in being able to contemplate images, events, and ideas slowly and repetitively. Exceptional knowledge has been borne of intense study into activities that used to arrive and evaporate in a veritable sensory blur. Yet has part of that transaction included a sacrifice of presence? Does each of us tend to be less attentive because we can always seemingly “go back?” And if we are each moving back and forth in our own disconnected presence, what does that mean for communion in time? The moments replayed and replayed and replayed some more by Nathan and I certainly used to bring us together. Yet that collective experience was an experience of only two. And more often than not it was an experience of one. Dominion over time has granted people great power and capacity. Unfortunately, it can be a very lonely reign.
“Things will turn.”
“The market will turn.”
“It feels like things are so close to turning.”
I have heard these comments and dozens similar over the past twenty months, at least. Here’s what I can’t help wondering lately: will it? Will it really turn? Does anyone really believe that, and if so, what proof do they have? Or is this where we are now? Is this the new order that we must resign ourselves to march bravely forward into? Without turns.
I know that New Zealand is waiting. I know that goats make amazing cheeses. I know I might have some strange and resonant work within me to write. Worrying about return value may bring nothing at all. Comfort breeds anxiety. There are more books to be read than spare time to read them in. Tai Chi is challenging yet possible to master. Unwelcome work may bring more unwelcome work, but pursuing delight may cause flowers. Death is going to visit whether insurance is available or not. Somewhere there is a road.
What if it turns and we still don’t know who we are?