Lamp posts toppled by the wind,
Mountainsides swept away by simple men,
and we make
the usual careful adjustments
for our eyes to cope with the
full shock of fire and force so
The wondrous passage of time,
The limitless unfolding of memory,
The twin, miraculous trees,
so heavy with potency
that we forget the taste
of anguished dismay
Every day we see the strangest things
Water lapping over the lip of a curb,
The warm features of a carved wooden rabbit,
smooth with years,
And I lose
all of my collected, glowing fruit,
My heart is emptied, exultant
as a tree barren of leaves,
and I forget
how to understand
why I am not with you.
...Physically, the human body is built to sustain extraordinary transformations of all kinds--but never for very long. Those of us who aim to make transcendent change a way of life will always risk serious consequences to our lymphatic, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. In theory, the serenity implicit in the phrase, 'transcendent change' should counter those risks, but I, for one, am too much of an adrenaline junkie to take this for granted....
I now live in St. Johns, and one of my commuting routes is the St. Helens Highway, running north and west of the city, skirting the looming, forested hills on the left and squat, dusty industrial establishments on the right. Run down apartments and occasional truck-driver bars ornament the long, desultory expanse of rutted asphalt. The air is thick with the muted breath of whispering trees and eddying river currents only barely masked by the crumbling buildings lining the road.
Last night there was a high, misted, cold wind coming in from the river, behind the massive oil tanks. A loose wheel-spoke and the strangely fickle disposition of the roadway made for a wobbly, surprisingly challenging ride. For the most part I kept my head down and leaned into the slope of the road as best I could.
There's a long glacis that supports the on-ramp to the St Johns Bridge, some miles north of downtown proper. Rough-hewn stone guardrails edge its downslope side, and ivy-covered trees overhang the upslope. The ocassional streetlamp throws shadows all across the road, somehow managing to inspire both a trapped, almost claustrophobic anxiety, and overexposed vulnerability. It puts you in mind of Dante's ascent of Mt Purgatory, or Kafka en route to the Castle, or Scooby Doo looking for a kidnapped Shaggy.
Last night I was surprised by the quiet, solitary quality that edged through the senses as I was climbing. There was no fear, really. There was only the long, up-climbing slope, and the emptiness of the open road, and the cold wind in the trees. This road was externalizing the small, quiet, echoing cell that imprisons the heart in its most deserted hours, sentenced to bereaved abandonment the way others get solitary confinement.
There are times when the seas of emotions roiling within us--joys, desires, disappointments, hopes, grief-objects, the things we can't bear to forget and the things we can't bear to remember--everything seethes, topping the cliff-edges containing us, and our souls whistle like teakettles. In the natural world, it's something like when icebergs the size of England calve from the side of Antarctica. You feel it all, all at once, fully and utterly. Heartbeats echo in your head like kettledrums.
When I reached the top of the approach, the stars in their endless distances burst through the trees. The high gothic green spires of the Bridge, topped with red lights, rose above the mottled shadows. I could see the constellation Orion and the heavy pearl of the moon, and the answering lights of the city, and the long, empty road below me, and the wind played in my scarf and around my shoulders. Dry leaves swept at my feet. The loneliness fell away; in its place I felt stillness, lapping at my senses like the riverwater far below.
In my recollection of this, much should be attributed to the endorphins thundering with my elevated heart rate, amplified by Irish whisky (what use are endorphins without whisky?, a wise man once asked). But the truthfulness sweeps through the experience, borne along with the dry leaves, rising overhead like the stars on Orion's belt, so helpfully pointed out by the spires of the Bridge.
I'm working a show right now, that's humbled and overpowered my inner life even as it bounds and sparkles outwardly. It's underlined all the usual questions for me, about my Fitness for the Work I've Chosen, about my Process for Choosing What I Consign my Life To, about Who I Want To Be When I Grow Up. Questions that should be raised. Questions I should always be trying to answer.
Standing on the shoulders of the St Johns Bridge, watching the lights dancing on the water and the dry leaves swirling in the empty road, embracing the stillness within the long uphill road of being is a much gentler thing than before, and I've reason, now, to be very grateful for it. The Rocky theme plays in my head, and I can laugh at myself for this kind of soapbox melodrama, but secretly I can't help but genuinely feel such sweeping things. It is such a privilege to work and create, even as it is an unending struggle. Seen from the top of the bridge, the cause I have for gratitude easily eclipses the exhaustion.
Come see "A Lovely Day". The ensemble boasts of the indefatigable Jeffrey Gilpin, the luminous Lauren Grace, the Gallic Nico Izambard, the incomparable Blaine Palmer, the unsurmountable Ted Rooney, the redoubtable Gretchen Rumbaugh, the irrepressible Kerry Ryan, and the unstoppable Randall Stuart. Go to http://www.upontheseboards.org/ for reservation and location info. It's Free, because I'm just that good to you, baby. 7 more showings: Nov 1, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12 and 16. All at 7:30 pm.
There is also a smaller mechanical device assisting the Yellow Dog against my Unknown Relative. The Mechanical Device is about the size of a shoebox, with two red eyes and a series of antennae capped with round red plastic caps (for safety, as in: "don't poke your eyes out on my antennae, but if you're three years old, and you absolutely must stick this in your face, I come with safety caps anyway").
In my dream, I'm a participating observer of this game.
It's actually not chess. The board has 9 sides to it. There are at least 3 different groupings of chess-pieces on the board. The object of the game is hidden to me. But the game is incredibly important--winning, not so much, but playing well, that's the real purpose. The Yellow Dog is concerned that his scrum of bishops (I counted maybe 8 bishops remaining of more than a dozen to begin with) are being poorly managed by the Mechanical Device's suggestions. My Unknown Relative is smirking behind her sunglasses. Beset with the Yellow Dog's impatient aspersions, the Mechanical Device buzzes and chirps peevishly. I am curled against the enormous bulk of Yellow Dog, puzzled by the game and distracted by shiny objects just outside my field of vision.
I don't know what any of this means, nor am I particularly compelled to assign any meanings. More and more I'm dreaming very vivid, very specific dreams with incredibly detailed characteristics, which I appreciate. It makes me look forward to sleeping (as if I didn't do so already). Once I dreamt that I was on a plane filled with cardinals, who happened to also be the Sikh bodyguards that assassinated Indira Gandhi in the 80s.
The sky is a mirror, someone once said. By which I take it that they meant that the conscience is as expansive and all-seeing as the limitless sky.
I can't stop thinking about the radio towers above downtown Portland, with their gleaming ruby aerial lights trickling like tears down the face of the night clouds. The tops of the hills and the arcing spines of ridges float on the thick banks of mist, counterpoint to the floating lights of the bridges, reflected far below on the dancing river water.
I got her to sit down with me to talk about why she was crying, and for a while, she wouldn't look me in the eyes. She couldn't speak more than half a sentence before her face would flush, and this mask of angry grief would stop her and she would quietly wail.
"I feel everything," she would say. "Why do I have to feel everything at once?" And her high forehead pinches and her fists dig into her thighs, and she bares her teeth, looking for all the world like a caged and cornered animal, a fiercely desperate thing lost in the world.
Slowly, furtively, I get her to talk about her loved ones--the ones that haven't hurt her. By talking, she detaches from the convulsing, consuming emotions. It's painfully slow. I almost have to teach her how to talk. A survivor of trauma and abuse can build the most intractable walls against all comers, no matter how genuinely honest, and the grip of her despair is far stronger than anything I can offer in a few short minutes at the end of my shift.
So it is all the more remarkable to me how the same creases of her face that define the deeply rooted and engulfing grief, can also echo the broad, bursting smile, and her glittering eyes are lost in cheekbones, laughter etched at the bridge of her nose and the dimples on the corners of her mouth.
I've already forgotten what her drug of choice was. She stayed for less than two weeks. She left and came back three times before she left for good. I have no idea where she is now, how she's doing. I'm not even sure I remember her name. But her face, and the way she went from falling-down-like-a-burning-house to glowing-like-a-newborn, especially when she talked about her fiance ("He always says the right thing. I wish you could meet him. He always knows exactly what to say"), these are things I can't forget, thankfully. Through her, I, too, feel everything.
I know how it goes. We have so much cultural artifact that tells a man that 'you are not a man, that it is un-manly, for you to fuck a girl without being on top.' And the other way, from behind, we name that after a dog, and by so doing we slyly call the girl a bitch, to the nervous chuckling of our collective masculine subconscious.
Whatever. If we both like it, if that's what she's hungry for, that is enough, I always thought.
But with this one, it's much different. With this one, the rhetoric is reversed.
She is the sky, the towering, over-arching, limitless and dominant sky, her breasts the heavy fulness of ponderous moon and all -eclipsing sun, her skin the soft endlessness of pale clouds, nipples that color and sharpen like stars, hair that echoes the wind in the trees painted by the setting sun.
Dominate, in this sense, is as much a reference to a soaring dome, as it is to ownership. If we follow in this vein, the brown of my skin and the impenetrable tangle of my dark, coarse hair is then the mysterious, fearsome and captivating 'feminine' darkness to her bright, clear, overpowering and 'masculine' light. Dark, brown earth, bright, clear sky.
That, too, is a myth and a trap to be wary of; to be fixated on details like this is to be voluntarily shackled. There's always something more.
It's like an endless sitcom: there's the Pretty One and the Funny One and the Angry Guy and the Wise Mother, there's the One Who Always Messes Up and the One Who Keeps Hoping and Planning, and whenever one or several of them fuck up and kill something, they all meet in the afterlife, collectively smack their foreheads, and agree to wait around or keep going through the rebirth cycle until That One Guy Who Keeps Getting Reborn as a Tiger can catch up with everybody and then they can all move on to the next level.
The legend goes that, as time went on, the village kept unconsciously growing, until now it encompasses the entire world, and we're all getting reborn into the same world together, because we've all agreed to keep waiting and trying to live noble lives until we can all move on to Nirvana together.
In her novel, "The Ten Thousand Things," Maria Dermout describes a funerary rite from Indonesia.
The body is carried out to a ceremonial proa (a kind of galley with an outrigger and sails like wings). Family and loved ones gather in the water. The proa will sail to the other side of the horizon, where the rowers will bury the body on an island, if there is one, or at sea.
As the rowers prepare to sail, everyone sings a long, ancient song of the "Ten Thousand Things." It is a litany of everything and everyone that the beloved had ever known, which they sing so that s/he will remember them when their journey ends. As Dermout describes it, it's a deeply moving experience, sung to the rhythm of the lapping waves and the muffled drumbeats from the proa's musicians (who set the pace of the rowers), improvised specifically for every person. In colonial times, the songs had to be sung very softly in the middle of the night, so that the Dutch officials and the missionaries wouldn't get all imperialistically peeved.
Recently, I witnessed a death at work. A client had been smuggling drugs onto the floor, and he overdosed early one morning, just as I was coming on shift. The paramedics were already there and working to save him, and they worked for over half an hour, but his lungs had filled and he was gone.
As I helped the medical examiner search the room and the body, I couldn't stop looking at his face, masked by breathing tubes, tape and frantically placed IV lines. The caked blood looked like scratches of dark dirt, not the rich red stuff of life. I had known this man--not well, and not for long, but he had kind eyes, and spoke softly, walking the floor with a distant and distracted look, like he was hardly there. Save for that last bit, this body bore no resemblance to the living man I'd known.
When my Grandpa died, I'd watched the death happen, felt the pulse fade, watched his eyes dull and his cheeks drain of color. I was able to see the operation of Death that transforms us, so that the living person I'd known and loved did remain alive in my heart and my memory, while this physical person became an object, a relic, truly detached from the identity of the person. Seeing this actually happen in front of me unmasked the exoticism of Death--I do not fear what I have seen and held in my hand, felt with my fingers and my heart. Even if it is inevitable, and will come to me, too. Because I am convinced that it cannot touch the Ten Thousand Things. I am convinced that my Grandpa was not the one whose cheeks yellowed, whose skin turned cold and waxy; I am convinced that he, and the one with the kind eyes and the faraway voice, had already left for the island beyond the horizon when their bodies became objects and messy relics.
So now I can say 'death' knowingly, and without the capital 'D'--and this opened my eyes to the immortal part of us all, that soars undying above the stars, as Ovid says.
Originally, I'd started writing this mass e-mail as a means to send you a copy of a picture of me in this year's Bridge Pedal, of which I am always inordinately proud. But in the writing of this, I've come to realize that every one of you are yet another of my Ten Thousand Things, and that I hope to be of yours. I hope you do not mind too much the mass sending. Please accept my thanks and affection, as this continues to be a long and difficult piece for me to process, and I could not write through this without you. By way of thanks, below is a link to an image of transient earthly glory and triumph.
"We-e-ell, su-u-ure, Paul, I can do that, I gu-e-ess."
It kind of breaks your heart to have to ask this guy to pee in a cup in front of you, but that's a routine part of his treatment program, and he doesn't really mind since he doesn't get an opportunity to use drugs while staying here, anyway, so for him--as for most of the men on the floor--the routine urinalysis test is little more than a nuisance.
But asking any grown man to pee in a cup in front of you can be a humbling experience, for all parties involved. In this culture, it is unseemly to witness another person's bodily functions. It's rather a transgressive act, it makes you aware of the fragility of our pitiful physical substance, it's a forced intimacy, it's cooties for grown-ups.
My job is like managing an oversized kindergarten class with much, much higher stakes.
A___ looks at me with pointedly sad, sheepish eyes, hides his hands in his pockets and shuffles along behind me.
I have days where it seems I'm living out a long pageant of an exercise in humility and gratitude, where I'm privileged to witness unbearably courageous and generous works done as a matter of course, and I begin to believe that I live in a world brimming with miracles. Those days must as a matter of course be swiftly chased with days of gripping disaster, anxiety and stupidity, where my fingerprints leave smudges of cataclysm on everything I touch, and even my deodorant smells like regret...
Okay. I'll start by saying that I'm dreadful at keeping on top of my email, and I hope you won't hold that against me.
Secondly. I have no formal training as a dramaturg. In town, there are precious few resources available, although what little there is, is impressive. Mead Hunter runs an excellent program over at Portland Center Stage, both a playwright group and a dramaturg seminar. Unfortunately, I don't have a whole lot of information on it, but I know that it's accessible and that others have benefited tremendously from it.
I look at dramaturgy as being the director's wide-angle lens, so to speak. We provide the deep context, we give perspective on source materials, inspirations, derivations, what came before the writing of the play and what came after. A classic dramaturg, closer to the German model, views themselves as an incarnation of the playwright if the playwright is unavailable. The Royal Shakespeare Company employs legions of post-graduates whose job it is to know the differences between Gielgud's Hamlet and Olivier's Hamlet, down to the different inflections they gave to the same lines, the different buttons on their doublets.
In my view, a lot of the information a dramaturg provides isn't intended to directly inform an actor's performance; it's more useful for the director, and for the show as a whole, the better to craft a complete vision of a production with informed intentions. For example; today, this information is anachronistic, but a Jacobean audience would've been aware that St. James/Sant Iago was an important patron saint of several Catholic military orders. One of his titles, in fact, was Santiago the Moorslayer. The diabolical cunning of Iago is thus identified by Protestant rationalist thought as another incarnation of Catholic militant prejudice. That's a degree of nuance that modern productions of Othello can easily overlook, and not necessarily to their detriment. But an informed production simply has more options to play with than an ignorant one, and little factoids like the above will always start interesting conversations for actors, designers and directors struggling to find focus.
In the Portland theatre community, my experience has been that there just isn't enough time or energy to put a lot of effort into dramaturgy. There's a lot of theatre here that wants to exist in a vacuum, or that can't be bothered to do it's proper homework. A lot of theatres here assume that since they're performing modern work or devising their own pieces, the dramaturg element is unnecessary, and this is a valid decision, given the exigencies of Portland theatre these days, but I argue that dramaturgs for modern pieces are just as essential. A dramaturg provides a useful and a unified voice of opposition to a headstrong director, someone to bounce ideas off of without worrying about the power dynamic, the way an actor or stage manager would. One of the great drawbacks of our fabulous Do-It-Yourself aesthetic, is that it's rather amnesiac, and everyone ends up re-inventing the wheel a lot.
By the same token, this means that there's a lot of opportunity to provide creative insight for directors and productions that are struggling to identify the vital aspects of their work. My advice is to see as much theatre as you possibly can, identify the theatres that most resonate with you and be bold, send more emails, meet people, keep talking about work that you are passionate about.
Dramaturgy manifests in multiple ways beyond the formal position. Sometimes you're the weird actor in the ensemble who brings dozens of books. Sometimes you're the Assistant Director who photocopies the script and gives actors little secrets for their characters. Sometimes you're the house manager who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows how to tie a knot in that special way that one speech in Act 3 keeps going on and on about. Truth is, dramaturgy is a fluid discipline, and you have plenty of freedom to make of it what you want.
I hope this helps. Let me know if you have further questions.
The moon had very red, very full lips, and it was mouthing words to me that I could not hear. Surrounding houses all had walls where doors and windows should have been. The streetlamps were colder and dimmer than in real life.
I've just had a birthday; without any real sense of alarm or dismay, I'm tracking a vague, unsettled place in me that remotely feels or remembers this old dream in my waking life today. Now, I'm thoroughly engaged and up to my elbows in my world--a lover, work, some scattered projects, a life--but something most definitely does feel sequestered, held at bay somehow. I don't know what this means. I don't know if this is just ordinary birthday melancholy, or the stirrings of a familiar deeper monster, or something else altogether. We are all of us at sea, I think, and I struggle to remember that it is a minor miracle that any of us make contact with each other at all in the first place.
At work right now there's a nasty bout of bronchitis-inducing bugs going around. At rehearsals, a number of castmates have been fighting their scratchy throats for quite some time. At three weeks from opening, things look healthy, but there's plenty of work to be done and time keeps ploughing ahead. This week alone has clipped past me faster than I've been okay with. I look at the March calendar racing away and I tremble.
When I'm at work, the shifts drag long, punctuated by short sharp shocks of frenzied activity. I get home and sleep hits me, and hits me, and hits me again before I can say stop.
It's nice to be able to laugh as much as we do during rehearsals. Truly, in my experience, tragedies work only when you don't take things too seriously all the time. All in all, I'm having great fun learning and rehearsing some of the most complicated fight choreography I've ever had.
I walk down the street and I can instantly size up potential opponents, prioritizing the targets on their bodies, gaging whether they'll lead with their sword- or their dagger-arms, how many steps it would take for me to close the distance. It's great.
And to top it all off, we had costume fittings yesterday. They've got me outfitted in a sumptuous metallic doublet, a cape, tights and a skirt. A skirt! And a cape! And rapiers and daggers! All I need is a mask and then I can really fight crime at night!
Generally speaking, my long silences here can be attributed to a number of reasons:
- I'm very easily tossed about by events. Oftentimes, literally so (see previous post).
- I tend to take on the tenor of my environments. Specifically, when I'm beset by rather sad or intractable people or places, my own composure reflects the same sadness and intractability. This often then plays out in
- My growing aversion to "Processing Things Verbally," as it were.
Let me explain that last bit: I have mentioned this in posts before. Lately I grow more and more impatient when I feel the impulse to mope or whine about something and then not have something constructive, something purposeful that can be drawn from my moping and whining. It feels repetitive and pointless to, first, experience something negative and then spend time describing and essentially re-living that negative experience. See, even writing that here, I'm squirming and rolling my eyes impatiently (while typing, yes, because I'm just that talented). And then? To make it worse? Inflicting it on other people. Why be miserable when you can make someone else miserable too? Thus my reticence.
I've started yet another new job. Because serving chocolate and espresso, while certainly gratifying on some levels, rather starved the greater part of me, and didn't pay very well, neither (nota bene: EVERYONE PLEASE TIP YOUR BARISTAS. They make a pittance for working their butts off and they always deserve more).
Now, I'm a Treatment Counselor for a chemical dependency treatment center here in Portland (I am not and will not be so stupid as to breach confidentiality requirements by naming anyone or anything specifically, don't you fret).
I. Love. My Job. I'm part of a crew of staff that are here 24 hours a day, dispensing prescribed medications, charting the progress of clients' recovery, watching people pee in plastic cups, escorting folks on smoke breaks, talking people down or through the rough patches and generally managing the day-to-day business of their recovery from chemical dependency. I used to work at Hooper Detox, the local drunk tank, so I've a fair background in this kind of work. The difference is that these days I'm far better prepared and able to be of use, and this environment is much better structured than my previous experience.
Generally speaking, clients here are much more personally responsible and invested in their recovery than at Hooper's Sobering Station (drunk tank). Back there, people were brought in by police and placed under civil holds, in effect a form of arrest where they had no choice about where they could go until they sobered up. Here, clients arrive either voluntarily, or under court order--but even so, they must make a specific choice between here or facing incarceration by choosing not to be here, or giving up visitation rights for their families, or any number of other consequences. The distinction may be subtle, but I believe it to be crucial.
And I'm very much drawn to the thumbnail-sketches of epic lives that I'm encountering here, on a routine basis: the Slavic immigrant who deftly eluded INS officials in three countries while setting himself up as a petty drug-lord; the smooth-talking Latino father of three who just proposed to his girlfriend through a payphone; the tall, stooped man with broken glasses who gets up at 6 am to attend his AA meeting, with a Measure for Measure quote taped on his door; the mom with four kids, whose youngest son visits with his father to play with the mother here every Sunday, and she weeps for hours after they have to leave...
There can be as many as 50 men on one floor and 30 women on another, and my shifts rotate between the two. The terms of the program stipulate that while here, everyone is monitored at all times; clients regularly receive passes to leave the building for medical, legal and housing or job hunting appointments and family/support groups, but even these are strictly scrutinized. While here, clients receive counseling and classes educating them on the nature of their therapy and various life-skills to assist in their recovery. The program lasts on average for about 4 months.
All this structure serves two functions: first, the legal requirements, whereby many clients are serving sentences that specify this kind of accountability; but more importantly, it's an introduction to the kind of vigilence and diligence that they themselves will be exercising over their own lives from the moment they accept what it means to be in recovery.
There, now. I've gone on quite a bit about my new day job and what it is. You may infer from the above that it gets rather busy often enough; there's also opportunity to catch up on letters and read delectable books during the graveyard shifts. No doubt this, too, plays a part in the general upswing of my temperament lately.
And finally, it helps that I'm spending a lot of time playing with rapiers and daggers in rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet at NW Children's Theatre. Playing Tybalt is wonderfully straightforward and gratifying. I can take the button off a silk shirt with just the point of my rapier, and with the thrillingly intricate and poised stage combat choreography we've been drilling, even I'm convinced that Tybalt could do it.
People fuss over me, my bike and my bag are pulled over to the sidewalk. I spend the next few moments getting my bearings, urging people not to worry. Then, as I'm calling work to tell them what's happened, no less than two patrol cars, a motorcycle cop, a fire truck, an ambulance and a construction team all show up, lights and everything, the whole bit.
Apparently someone had called in that I'd gotten hit by a car. It's actually very reassuring to see the full might and panoply of SE Portland's emergency services coming out en masse for the sake of a biker. We go through the usual bit of incident reports and medical preliminaries, I reassure them all that, while bruised and embarrassed, I'm pretty much fine, everything's okay and they can all go back to their ordinary days.
I shoulder my badly contorted bike and limp home, climbing back up the long slope, laughing at how painful walking has become. Because it's such a beautiful day, I was looking forward to a productive and busy day, and now I'm home painfully sitting on my bruised and aching butt. My boots, helmet and down vest all look pretty scrappy, now. I'll need to replace my front fork on my poor bike. I've got a good set of cuts on my hands and some bruises I can feel beginning to bloom all over the place...
The last time I went over my handlebars, there was a girl involved and I was in high school. It's nice to know I still got it.
This was going to be the Winter of Capulets, since Blue Monkey Theatre had also offered me a part in their upcoming R & J, opening in February, but, unfortunately, their opening conflicts with 3rd Rail Repertory's "Number 3," which is about to open and closes on the 11th (I'm doing backstage run crew for the latter). (The scheduling math is all very confusing, I know.)
Which is sad, but bearable, especially since I account it an honor indeed to be cast at all, much less on both ocassions. All things being equal, I am quite content.
This New Year quite frankly jumped up and bit me. I was dozing in my armchair with a blanket and a stack of books when the digits turned over, no doubt a fair indication of the degree of festivity with which I will continue to observe these seasons to come.
A minimalist narrative of the ball-drop moment, as experienced by myself:
[blink.] [sip tea.] [look at clock.] [shrug.] [sip tea.] [reach for whisky.] [blink.]
Happy New Year, everyone. Health and thunder-love to you all.