Letter to S--, 24 April 2012

Dear S,

I hope this finds you well and happy in Firenze.  Please say hello to Brunelleschi's dome for me, and to the stern ghost of Savonarola.

Portland is blooming right now.  Little false summers strip away our layers with delectable warmth, only to dissolve overnight into the familiar overcast pallor of Portland's perpetual no-season.

I'm super busy with on-call shifts, PlayWrite, dragonboats, tech stuff on the side, and building a solo show.  It would take far too much time and paper to convey a fair sense of each of these bits of me, so I choose one facet arbitrarily for you to share:

Yesterday was my first experience tilling (that is, steering) a dragon boat.  I'm part of a team, the No Teachers Left Behind team, which is a sweet collection of yoga-athletic and yoga-paunchy middle school teachers, a smattering of their partners, boyfriends or roommates, and then me.  Last year I painted their faces in Maori war-patterns, and we took 4th Place in the 4th Division (the last which qualifies for medals).

I'm a regular paddler, and I signed up to be a backup tiller.  Yesterday's practice I spent half paddling, and half tilling for the first time.  It was a perfect day on the Willamette, with some occasionally stiff breezes and currents, but otherwise warm, bright and everything buttery and splendid, like a Maxfield Parrish painting.

Steering a dragonboat requires surprisingly strenuous effort and cunning.  It's like being the puppeteer of a self-propelling runaway train, but on water.  There are 8 benches of paddlers, with 2 paddlers per bench, plus the caller who sets the pace, and the tiller.  And the boat itself, which is a plywood-laminate dragon, wayward and fussy to steer, liable to catch cross breezes on the elaborately sculpted head and tail.  All this translates into surprisingly profound motive power and momentum.  Turning this monster, while balancing on the exposed aft deck, using a big cartoonishly heavy steering-oar, requires poise, river-wide awareness, and the kind of physical strength that unites thighs, shoulders and arms in week-long soreness and stiffness.  All of this is ridiculously fun.

At one critical point, I was maneuvering us around a massive construction barge (which created an artificially narrow passage), when no less than 4 other dragonboats, two fishing boats, an outrigger kayak and a big stupid luxury boat all decided to converge on the same narrow passage, from different directions, all at the same time.

You'll be surprised to learn that I didn't sink anything, nor did I nor anyone else drown.  The paddlers pushed us through the treacherous wakes of all those bigger and faster boats.  The sea monsters dwelling in the deep sensed our collective valor, and chose to hide their gruesome heads even deeper in the murky ooze.  The mayor called, asking to decorate the bridges with spotlit portraits of our dragonboat team, but we modestly declined...

Come home soon, dear S.  There are gallons and gallons of chocolate milk just waiting for us to joyfully imbibe.




Letter to B.--

A very happy Easter to you, too!  Thanks so much for your letter!

I did in fact observe the vigil this year, for both the Western and the Eastern dates, but in both cases I was up all night for work here at the homeless youth shelter.

I'm sorry to hear of the physical obstacles you face; it's true that if you were in town, I'd be happy to make time to attend both our respective services with you.  Easter Vigil was always my favorite service when I was an acolyte, both for the spiritual magnitude, and for the unabashed theatricality of the ceremony.

This time of year, from just before Roman Easter to now, tends to be hard for me.  It's the anniversary of my beloved Grandpa's passing.  In my life, unlucky things have tended to cluster around this date--relationship problems, trouble at work, car accidents.  It always requires an effort on my part to remember to look for the good and the lighthearted, particularly at this time of year.

This year was no exception to the pattern: here at work, one of the youths staying at this shelter nearly overdosed on heroin while I was on shift about a week ago. We called an ambulance in time to keep him from dying, but it was a close call, and his addiction has made him extremely difficult to deal with, in the aftermath. In my one of work I've found that I have endless patience for those who have self-awareness and humility, even just a little bit.  I have absolutely no patience for smugness and obliviousness, even when that's due to their addiction itself.  It's definitely a problem I work on, both professionally and personally...

Anyways, I should close this letter shortly, as my shift ends soon and I have rehearsals to prepare for...

Thanks again for your letter.  It's great to hear from you, and I wish you a joyous Easter season...




Letter to S, 13 April 2012

Dear S--

Hello! Thanks so much for your letter!

I appreciate the effort it takes to reach out, across time and space. I'm glad these last few years have done so much good for you. It's daunting to realize the thickening currents of change that have pushed these years through us both.

I was startled to realize, as I opened my trusty old PO Box, that it's actually been some years since we've exchanged letters, much less seen one another. It amazes me, frankly, that such time has passed, looking even just at myself. 2005-2007, for me, was an entire epoch, and yet the distance of time since 2007 feels like just a short season, certainly nowhere near as long as 'five years' sounds. I think of the debilitating, inexpressibly long and tumultuous stretches of time just six months represented, when I was in high school, and I'm at a loss to understand how this happens.

I'm doing alright, all things considered. I'm writing from the tail end of an awful, busy 12 hour overnight shift... The last 4 shifts in a row that I've worked here, I've had to send residents to the hospital, 4 different residents for 4 different reasons...

This job is better than my last, which was similar but working with juvenile sex offenders in a different residential program. Consistently for the last 5 years, and off-and-on for 5 years prior to that, I've worked these 'line staff' positions at a depressingly comprehensive number of Portland's social services agencies...

I struggle with feeling trapped in this world. I can do this work well--and, in crisis, particularly well. But it's a false idol. My adrenaline and my courage and my blood all get up, I feel the surge of emotion at DOING SOMETHING, being somehow engaged, in the profound, unending dispute with the voices of hopelessness and rage at large in the world. But this DOING is only illusory, or transient at best--rather like performance. Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost. Or gained. Except that, over the course of these long and terribly busy shifts, and years, I know that my emotional body grows knotted and scarred, and fraying the way paper frays after being creased over so many times that the fibers start to part.

Tonight I had a heroin addict who had relapsed and was OD'ing, curse and kick at me for calling him an ambulance, because he thought that meant that the police were coming to revoke his parole. Yesterday, as I was about to start teaching with PlayWrite, one of my writers picked a fight with another street youth, on the sidewalk immediately outside the building we were working in. I came out and split them up, which worked only long enough for them to mutually agree to meet up again two blocks away (the perimeter of staff competence, an utterly arbitrary perimeter), and continue the fight then. They refused medical attention repeatedly, though I could see already that they both needed it. After they strutted off, I had to go back inside to check in with my colleagues and document details for the all-important Incident Report. Too late, I was then sent off to find the writer and maybe bring him back to the workshop, in which quest I utterly failed...

...But I succeeded in finding about half a dozen other current and former writers, clients, residents, etc., of this and other programs I've worked, all the way back to a homeless man I recognized, in precisely the same apparent condition as when I first met him 20 years ago...

As I wandered the downtown core, soaking in the arm rain, footsore and tense, visited by all these ghosts of my recent past, it struck me that this is what Homer must have felt, and Virgil, and Ovid, on their lonely, unfinished, endless journeys...

...so conceited am I, that not only did I just compare myself to those three, but I am furthermore creating a solo piece built of my long experience with the Iliad, incident reports, sacrifices, and the aftermath of trauma and sex crimes. Dates and a venue have been secured at the end of July and the beginning of August...

Between now and then, I'm rehearsing and then performing in NW Children's Theater's production of "El Zorrito: The Legend of the Boy Zorro," a bilingual musical opening on 4 May. I play El Berserker, who is basically the matador/Mexican wrestler version of Tybalt. I'm so stoked.

I'm also in the running to join the staff at a wilderness/rehab/outdoor school for at-risk and recovering teens in central Oregon. They're hiring youth counselors who can tutor during the week, lead hikes and mountain climb on the weekends, and live in the cabin onsite with the students. Their schedule runs 8 days on, 6 days off. For the first time since when I worked for the Library, the pay scale is nominally enough for my expenses, plus medical coverage, too. In all this, and more, I live in hope...