It is not beyond the realm of possibility, that I might get my shit together and somehow contrive to visit you, much the way the Mongol horde visited central Asia, or the plague visited Egypt. I say possible, but many kinds of things are possible in June, and I must await the ripening of certain possibilities before I could possibly say, with any certainty, whether California has cause to dread my approach, whether it's time to start digging trenches and evacuate the non-combatants.
Truly, by this point in 2010, I'd hoped to be far better grounded than I yet am, to have a firmer grasp on things. But I continue as impoverished and uncertain as ever before, though I am at pains to remind myself that I'm rich with evidence of the worthiness of my decisions.
Thus, my days are brimming with good things. I spend too much time sleeping, and I wish I were more assertive and more thorough in my works and days. But the core of it is true: I have the rudimentary tools necessary to be of use to my friends and my community, and if I'm not in action as often as I'd like to be, at least those few actions are memorable ones, and there's a great deal I can point to that would be worse for my absence.
I'm writing to you now, having just seen a production of The Cherry Orchard at one of the new little repertory theatres in town. It was a fair-to-middling piece, but I don't necessarily hold that against anyone. The production carries a number of dear friends and colleagues--though I'm happy that so many work so often, it is wearying to see the same tactics employed repeatedly to unvarying effect.
But neither are my friends helped by the script, even in this new translation of Stoppard's. Surely I'm not the first to remark that Chekhov simply wrote the same play over and over again; or, at the very least, our contemporaries regrettably keep designing, directing and performing roughly the same structure, just with slightly different verbiage. I can certainly understand how this state of affairs came into being; actors, but particularly actresses of a certain age practically groom their own social circles to reflect the family and class dynamic reiterated repeatedly in Seagull, Vanya, 3 Sisters and Cherry Orchard. All the more frustrating as I'm certain that each of those scripts are authentic and expansive enough to be capable of fresh discoveries, if only we could free ourselves of the oppressively predictable Stanislavsky legacy.
No doubt I'm shamefully neglecting Chekhov's real achievements, and the context in which he worked. And we all operate in reaction to our immediate predecessors. It is of some consequence, I expect, that during our time Chekhov ranks as worthy either of emulation or reaction.
The night before, a dear friend gave me an extra ticket to see Maya Angelou at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall--which, in spite of its primarily concert function these days, is in fact a close contemporary of the Geary in San Francisco in all kinds of ways. An epic space in the old style, back when they designed prosceniums--proscenia--with diligence and affection, before the ruinous influence of amplification. The space was absolutely packed, as to be expected. I was apprehensive, at first: my fuzzy memories of Clinton's first inaugural are of a splendid voice, resonant with first-hand experience of all the salient points of 20th century America. But when I read her poetry, even when I was very young I thought her work simplistic and maudlin.
I'm happy to say that I was much impressed. As a presence Angelou is worthy of the space, even if she doesn't technically fill it. (It's a surprising and saddening effect of amplification, I believe. Surprising because I would have thought a broader range of artists would've developed a likewise broader range of technique by now. As you and I know well enough, it's about so much more than mere volume, and even if shackled to a page, the tactical possiblities for connecting with an audience are myriad.)
But Dr. Maya Angelou is now roughly 80 years old. If she wants to sit onstage with a mike stand the whole time, and some nice Stickley furntiure as a backdrop, I'm down with that. As to my impression of her poetry, I found that her mind and her heart animate her work the way the sould does the body. She herself delivered a very telling remark: she is not a writer who teaches, but a teacher who writes. It is no wonder, then, that I found so little to be moved by on the page.
More even than her own work, Angelou spoke of the poetry that saved her life, poets and writers that convoyed her through terrifying times. It was all deeply inspiring. Throughout I was conscious of the fact that she is among the last of the living generation that ended Jim Crow; she told us of the six or seven large white men who tried to lynch her uncle, mirrored 40 years later by the six or seven large white men in crisp uniforms, sent by the first black mayor of Little Rock, to escort her to that same uncle's funeral with all due ceremony.
She said something very important to me: she said that we've all been paid for. We wander our lives with these massive burdens of ignorance and shame, we brood and worry against the impossible debts we live with. And those are real debts, to be sure. But the only way to lend any meaning to centuries of slavery, violence, pogroms, autos-da-fe... is to own them all as our ancestors, all those innumerable and forgotten victims. "I am a human being," Terence says. "Nothing human can be alien to me." Whether lovely and glorious or terrifying and worse, the roots of all that suffering extend into each of us, bequeathing us with equal heritages of hope and horror. And the only possible meaning this could have, is to decide that all that sacrifice means something to us, for us. We've been paid for. Our time here is the only gift they could have given us, from out of the terrible reach of all that trauma.
And it is a gift, for it removes the question of owing anything to anybody. Or if we do, it is only to convey the limitless balance of our own redemption forward to those who come after us.
In writing this all out--and it's important to note, if it weren't altogether obvious already, that these are my own faulty and incomplete glossings of what Maya Angelou said--it strikes me that the rhetoric reflects no small amount of St. Paul and St. Augustine, but bursting the prism of Christ into endless refractions of sacrifice, not one Son but countless Stars illuminating all of us.
The current Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith, which is what used to be called the Holy Inquisition, is a prelate named William Cardinal Levada, who was previously Cardinal Archbishop of San Francisco, but before that Archbishop of Portland. When I was an altarboy it was a fading distinction to serve at the Masses he celebrated, for he was always a dour and grumpy, self-involved cipher, and people seemed to have neither understanding nor regard for ceremony in my day. It is an interesting question, if the grumpy Cardinal, now effectively the Grand Inquisitor, had been even a little bit kinder in his orthodoxy, then maybe today I might not be so wholly heretical.
For it's true that, as far as Maya Angelou goes, I lovingly embrace my heresy. And that anachronistic distinction between heresy and orthodoxy, for which otherwise intelligent and godly people tortured and burned one another for 20 centuries, still endures in the stigma of mental disease, in the which paradigm I am like the agnostic masquerading as a Dominican in my line of work...
...wow. I really had no intention of wandering so far into my lapsed Catholic consciousness when I began this letter. I blame your infernal influence, and my growing awareness that June is already destroying all my time and money, which of course feeds my growing, lapsed-Catholic guilt at failing to visit those I love. But Maya Angelou says I'm paid for, so fuck you, Cardinal Levada.
Congratulations on opening Opus! I should like to hear more about it, and of your no doubt sterling work. When next you visit Portland, there will be a whole battery of fresh discoveries to convey to you: midnight waffle carts, a new apartment and roommate, how best to crack a bullwhip.
I am so happy things go so well with you, in just about every quarter of your world, as far as I can see. Except that, once again, you've abandoned your partner in the middle of a hell of a case, chasing down your damnfool crazy-ass hunches while the real detectives do all your work for you. Chief says nobody wants to partner with you ever since you 'accidentally' shot that state trooper last year. You know that poor guy still has to wear a poop bag because of you? They put him on the dispatch desk so he could keep his pension. Chief keeps sending me down there to make nice so the staties don't jam up our caseload. It's like hanging out in an overturned portapotty. I hope you're happy.