Friday, September 30, 2016

stage three

Keep it 100.
-- Larry Wilmore

Happiness floats.
-- Naomi Shihab Nye*

My new doctor is very encouraging. She has a lot of information for me. Many options, many tests, many possible treatments, some of them not invented yet. All this will take time. There's time. That's her subtext.

How kind of her to say I am a young man. Part of the plan is to ensure, during all the years before me, that I don't have too much bone loss. All those years. Informative and encouraging, she is.

I've lost a little weight, enough for women to notice, and after my morning stretch and my pills I go to work without symptoms and free of pain. (Some men have noticed my loss of weight as well, but it doesn't affect my vanity in the same way.) I feel pretty good for a sixty-nine year old overweight arthritic man who takes six meds, one of them very expensive. Very expensive. I've got my aches, my good days and bad, but haven't felt this strong in years. Some say I don't look sixty-nine, and I take it very kindly. Those who think I look my age keep their silence, and I take that kindly as well.

Larry Wilmore doesn't have a TV show any more, but he used to say we should keep it 100 and not cover up our truth. The new information, if held away from light, would make me less than 100. It's come back, this fight between my body and itself, not responding neatly to the first treatment, so I'm at the second, the third option. Nine years ago a doctor told me I was cured, so I've been a survivor for nine years, but the organ in question has practiced its designs on my life for thirteen. Quite a story, already complicated. It will be complicated. The complications will take a long time.

Until now the word "survivor" hasn't felt right. I didn't feel that I deserved it. I felt lucky. My previous treatment was too easy. I didn't suffer at all. And then the doctor said, "You'll die of something else," which was his way of saying I was cured, but I didn't feel I had survived anything.

As it turns out, that doctor wasn't exactly right. But he got me eight good years, and he made me wise. We're all going to die of something, if not of this now, then of something else later. What's unusual is that I know its name, and I'm far enough along in the count of years that I feel its presence. I feel, as a poet said whose work I learned in school, "the always coming on, the always rising of the night."**

The new stage, though it changes nothing, changes everything. I see, hear, the same things I always did but differently. It's like walking a high wire: there are thrills and chills, delights and terrors, in high definition, very bright. I become, as I said before***, permeable. And I haven't got time not to pay attention.

Attention to work, to people who work with me and people for whom we work.

Attention to the one whose patience with me now approaches half a century.

Attention to the old and to the young, in their opposing fractions of past and future.

Attention to silence and to noise. Attention to music and to words. Attention to the joy and the terror. Attention to the heart and to the head.

I will of course fail to pay attention, but I owe attention to my screw-ups as well as to my tiny triumphs.

Sometimes I'm asked how an actor becomes a chaplain. Actors and pastors chase authenticity. When they do it well, they're authentic.

Or rather, inarguable. Herbert Blau wrote about the inarguable in the theatre: not the good or the bad, the pretty or the ugly, but the thing you can't tamper with, that can't be changed without becoming something else.

When the song passes through us, it's inarguable. You don't say "no." You don't say "yes but" --  It passes. We have to be ready. To be ready is to be what we are, where we are. And I am a sixty-nine year old man in the middle of what my friend calls a "health journey."

I won't die soon, not of this at least. It's prudent to assume I have time to live and work and love authentically. I look forward to the rest of my life.

I first shared this knowledge at a table of colleagues. I paired it with Nye's words about floating happiness, and they said I looked happy, as if relieved of a burden. I said, yes, at this moment I'm very happy.

I've been given a gift. So this is me chasing authenticity. This is me keeping it 100.

*"So Much Happiness"
** Archibald MacLeish, "And You, Andrew Marvell"
***"subway music," June 13, 2016

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

september eleventh

My heart is moved by all I cannot save.

-- Adrienne Rich

We'll build our house and chop our wood,
and make our garden grow.

-- Richard Wilbur*

Dan and Bronwyn's garden
My friend of long standing, who played chess with me in the choir loft of my father's church even before we were day-boys in the local prep school, begins his eighth decade today. For the last fifteen years, the day of his arrival on the earth has been marked as a day of violent departure for many others. He's handling it. There has been music, food and booze, and dancing on the village green. And in his Vermont outpost he and she grow their garden.

My friend declares that "Eeyore was an optimist," and the end of civilization as we know it has already begun. I know there is evil in the world, and I fear for my country's self-inflicted wounds, but I am unable to join him. Every generation has wondered if they lived at the end of the world, and all generations so far were disappointed. My friend makes plans for his city to be carbon-neutral in another fifteen years;** and his garden grows.

I've never written about that day before, or posted on its anniversary. Fifteen years ago today I was a few miles outside Grand Island, Nebraska doing humble showbiz. In an outdoor sawdust arena, in a small town that boasted named streets and infrastructure but was populated only three days a year, a farm equipment company engaged me to present their latest inventions while dodging tractors and combines. Six times a day we presented this ballet, and our public schedule would begin at 9:00 AM. I had driven to the site early for a 7:30 Central Time rehearsal. The first plane hit the north tower at 8:46 Eastern Time, a few minutes after we began rehearsing, so we knew nothing of the violence.

Then the rumors started. One plane, two planes. One tower, both. A tower had fallen. There wasn't Wi-Fi fifteen years ago. Nobody carried smartphones with apps. Someone said a booth across the street had a TV, and there I saw in pre-digital imagery a tower come down, but my brain could not interpret the data, it didn't look the way I thought it should -- not a toppling but a swarming cloud that hung in the air, impersonating the building that had evacuated itself -- then in street-level images a wall of white, grey, black ash, and people running as if they were in an Asian monster movie.

I went back to our trailer and asked myself if anyone I knew was in danger. I assumed that cell phones would be jammed, and started sending emails. In those days an international agricultural equipment company relied on dial-up internet; strangely enough after squawks and groans I got through; my family and my friends in New York, who were engaged for much of the day in reassurance, reassured me.

The first show was canceled; but then the rhythm of commerce resumed at our arena, as with other companies, business and exhibits. The farm show happens only once a year -- the companies must display their stuff, the people must come to see it, and decisions must be made.

The first night, I left the television on and fell asleep to images of flame, smoke and collapse, with wild overestimates of death. When we finished our three days in Nebraska, none of us who had flown there could return home: all flights were grounded. I had engaged a car for the tour, and as I drove the interstate to Ohio for the next week's schedule, there was an American flag draped on every overpass. On the radio I heard Leontyne Price sing "America the Beautiful." When she got to the verse about alabaster cities that gleamed, undimmed by human tears, I pulled over at the rest stop. My eyes were fuzzy.

I don't have anything wise to say about this. Everybody has a September eleventh story, full of details they alone will remember. Perhaps we can learn that it doesn't take two to make a fight, because if someone's trying to kill you, you're in a fight whether you like it or not, and the only question is how you will conduct it. Perhaps we can learn that in asymmetrical conflict a simple plan can overcome complex defenses. But it's hard to know, in the face of deliberate slaughter on a large scale and conducted with personal cruelty, how to respond in a way that begins to heal the massive injury.

For fifteen years my country has fought two wars that have cost us dearly and accomplished nothing much to the purposes of peace and stability; these places may be hell on earth, but we don't seem to have a grip on making them better, no matter whose side we take. "Democracy," said John Oliver recently, "is like a tambourine. Not everyone can be trusted with it."

But if history makes us look like fools, perhaps it is not escapism to turn away from its grand stage and concentrate on its back yard, to heal our cities and chop our wood. So to my friend who on this day becomes seventy years old, I say dance bless you, drink, sing a song and make your garden grow.

*Candide (Leonard Bernstein composer)

**Net Zero Vermont (

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