We think of the woods as being quiet, but there are lots of sounds, especially as the weather gets warm an the sounds begin to return—peepers, frogs, birdsong. Most of those sounds are still to come-- by the end of this month, it will be a symphony out there--but, for the past week or so, what we’ve been hearing most are chainsaws.
The art colony where we live was originally comprised of three very large farms. I was surprised to learn when I saw a picture of our cottage shortly after it was built, over 100 years ago, that there were no woods. Of course, I thought, the land had been cleared to make pastures for grazing. One of the most wonderful parts of living in these woods, is knowing that they have grown back since the colony was built. The trees have returned.
The colony has been parceled off in the decades since its founding so that the original 1500 acre campus is now about 250 acres with a bunch of private homes scattered throughout.
The parcel next to ours, sort of up and behind us, has been for sale ever since we moved here. One day last week, Bobby came back from his walk and said they were clearing the lot.
“It must have sold,” I said.
I’m always sad when a tree is killed—I know that sounds sort of corny, but it’s true. Some consolation can be found in knowing that trees live on as all kinds of different matter and food for other creatures and life forms.
I’ve been thinking about endings this weekend, ever since I found out on Friday that our friend Debra Kletter died. She was a longtime member of our New York City community. She had a heart attack Friday morning and died. It was her birthday.
There’s something not right about dying with so many other people. It risks making all of the dead merely statistics. And, the fact that Debra died seemingly unrelated to this terrible virus seems sort of—what?—silly? Ill-timed? Unfair?
Back in the day, Debra had been a lighting designer and worked on Broadway, shows by Craig Lucas and Terrence McNally, I think. She was gifted and spent years in the swirling middle of a dynamic group of friends mostly from the world of theater.
She lost her best friend to AIDS, and from what I could tell, never entirely recovered. That was a different time and a different virus, one that didn’t affect everyone and wasn’t really taken seriously until many people had died—lots of them from the theatre, art and design world.
Bobby and I first met Debra at the dog park in Madison Square Park. When Bobby moved to New York to live with me, he brought with him his beautiful, shaggy and loveable dog, Ruby, a magnificent bearded collie. She needed to go to the park twice a day. Deb was, if not the queen, then a sort of duchess of the dog park. Larry was an English Setter, black and white, Deb’s dog.
After The Secret City won an Obie and was written up in the New York Times, lots more people learned about us and we moved to a bigger theater. Debra came to one of the services along with her friend Tamar, also now our good friend and also from the dog park. There’s no way these two are going to enjoy this, I thought, but I was wrong—they became very devoted members, sitting in the same seats for every event, month after month.
Debra knew restaurants, not just in New York: the best tapas in Seville, the little known but excellent dive in Prague, the oldest, most delicious empanadas in Buenos Aires. She knew them all. She was a foodie but bristled at that label.
Debra bristled at a lot—and it was only after she decided to love you—if she loved you—that she became the most generous, loyal friend you could ever want. She did lighting for benefits, ordered food for choir rehearsal or whatever, whenever asked. She was a gem.
Debra and I shared a disorder: Misophonia, a condition where small repetitive sounds cause extreme irritation and discomfort. I have been known to loudly shush people at the theater for rustling their program, to ask a noisy grandmother on the bus to keep her phone conversation down, and to violently glare and anyone snapping their gum anywhere; you get the picture.
Debra and I discovered this shared condition years ago and we kept a running text conversation, a kind of release valve: we could be anywhere, and if we were experiencing a heightened sense of discomfort due to someone’s irritating, small, repetitive sounds, we would text the other to briefly describe the offending behavior and the other person would then write back a fantasy of how that offending person’s behavior, or sometimes life, would end.
It was ghoulish, darkly funny and always helpful—the sharing of a problem leading to its diminished impact. Debra was an intimate person, you’d want to sit next to her at the wedding reception: she shared closely, laughed deeply, saw keenly.
The chainsaws have stopped for now but they’ll be back. And a big new house will be built and a garden will be planted and the soil will be rich from the mulch of the wood. And there may be vegetables and flowers someday. And maybe a hundred years from now the woods will return. And knowing all this is not enough to stop my grieving—the trees, Deb, everything—but it will give me comfort over time.
I was thirty years old and living in LA. I was part of a theater company where we could propose a show we’d like to make happen. I had been acting for half my life but I had always played roles I had been handed. I felt ready to make something for myself. To say my own words.
Around that time, I had worn a robe and crown to a benefit for that same theater company and someone remarked that I looked like The Statue of Liberty. Ha! I got the idea to make a play about The Statue of Liberty, starring me, as the Statue.
I asked my friend Bridget to direct. She was primarily a playwright so, with her direction, she was also giving me a master class in writing. I remember I would come to rehearsal and start telling her all the things I wanted the play to do, to contain and convey and Bridget would always reply, very positively, “Great! Go home and write that.”
I was always slightly irritated because I wanted to talk about those things—but talking is different than writing. In talking, words float up and away, lost to the wind. Writing makes our words real, powerful. If words can become solid, it is by writing them down.
Liberty!—the show—had many iterations: workshop productions, a new play festival, a full production at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. Fred Cassidy played music for the show and Julie Rowland was the Stage Manager.
Over the course of developing the script, two primary characters emerged: The Statue of Liberty, who was on the run, lost in America, in search of freedom; and a boy, named Freedom, who dreamed of becoming The Statue of Liberty when he grew up. The play became a bawdy, raucous, theatrical investigation into the ideals of Liberty, and the reality of freedom. With patriotic songs!
It’s funny, when you announce that you’re into something, people start sending you things. I know people who may have said at some point, “Oh, I like frogs,” and then for the rest of their life, they receive frogs for their birthday. Or Christmas. Or, because I just saw this and thought of you.
I got bombarded with Statues of Liberty—magnets, nightlights, miniatures—you name it, I received it. I liked these gifts—and during that period in my life, I learned a ton about the Statue. What was harder to study, and what has continued to this day to be central to my life’s work, is how to know Freedom. What are Freedom’s souvenirs? I’m sure they differ for each of us. Mine might be a photo of me in drag or the tunic I wore in my wedding to Bobby.
As Americans, we like to think we have a corner on the Freedom market and it is fundamental to our country’s nature. Movement, expansion, leaving one place to arrive at another, sometimes with no idea what that other place will be.
During my many road trips around the country, I’ve stayed in so many motels run by foreign-born people: motels in the flat stretches Oklahoma or in the wilds of Western Pennsylvania—and as they check me in,, I can smell the food of their country coming from the kitchen of their private quarters, and I always think, how in hell did you end up here? And is this freedom for you?
How in hell did we end up here?
I sometimes compare my life to that of the villager I would have been in some random ancient time and place, how I would live, what I would do for work—I like to imagine myself as the shaman, he who brings visions and tells stories to the villagers wearing ceremonial robes and headdress, but I might just as easily be the janitor or the guy who cleans up after meals.
About ten years ago, I spent a week at a monastery in upstate, NY. I was feeling sort of overwhelmed and strung out and the idea of simplicity and quiet appealed to me. My favorite part of the experience was the bell that would ring at 5am, inviting us to rise in silence and make our way to the temple where we would meditate for an hour. I’m no monastic, I’d be like Maria in the Sound of Music: a problem. But I felt deeply grateful for those mornings.
One detail about my time at the monastery, at meal time, the monks always go to go to the buffet line first, only after they had all gone could the nuns go up—even in a society dedicated to the pursuit of freedom, they were trapped by rules from the past.
In my writing workshops, I encourage folks to make as many decisions as they can, not to keep them all but to burn through them—to arrive at a more distilled place, clearer about what they’re making, what they want to say.
Also in those workshops, people will say, “I want the play I’m writing to have a musical number!” Or,”I really want my book to convey a feeling of mystery.” Or, “I want my story to be really funny.” And I say what Bridget said to me so many times, years ago—“Great! Go home and write that.”
Art making--plays, songs, poems, stories, collage, books—whatever freedom I have gained has come from the act of creating. So here we are, all of us, at home—and I mean this metaphorically, but for those of you who write, by all means: let’s start writing.
Imagine this: I used to be even more defensive than I am now. Back in the day if anyone impugned my intelligence, I’d take great offense--“How dare they? Don’t they know of my brilliance?”
With age comes wisdom, or at least we hope—we can see our flaws and our foibles, the petty concerns of our days, the silly worries and resentments.
Here’s a list of some of the really foolish things I’ve done in my life:
--Once, in my twenties, hustling in LA to scrape together a living, I bought a four hundred dollar shirt to go on a date.
--I liquidated an IRA my folks started for me so that I could go to Europe for the summer.
--I moved to New York when I was 38 with $600 to my name and no job.
--I started a non-profit arts organization with no knowledge of how to do that.
There are tons more—my life is threaded through with foolishness. I’m keeping some of the really dumb things from you because I don’t want you to think I’m a total ass. And, yet, isn’t that foolish in itself, thinking we can control how others see us? Think of all the things people don’t do out of fear of seeming foolish.
Years ago when I was doing a play at the Actors’ Gang in Hollywood—it was a production of The Imaginary Invalid by Moliere, now there’s someone who knew a thing or two about fools. Isn’t satire a beautiful thing?
This night, after the show, the cast was all upstairs in the dressing room, laughing and taking our clothes off as actors like to do. The stage manager came in and picked up a piece of clothing from the floor, “You guys,” she cried out, and the room got quiet, “every night I come in here after the show and have to pick up after you. That’s not my job.” She could have left it at that but she added, “I mean, what do I look like?”
After a perfect beat, someone in the cast said, “You look like a jackass.” It’s one of the funniest moments I can recall. I still say this line, just in the way she said it, and it still makes me laugh. “You look like a jackass!” Sometimes I say it when I catch myself doing something lame, like getting irritated at a stranger at the gas station, or at people driving too slow. You know what you look like, Chris? You look like a jackass.
Life reveals us, doesn’t it? Like this moment is revealing all of the flaws and cracks of our shared lives—our busted healthcare system, radical income inequality—we’re living under a magnifying glass caused by a pandemic. An acting teacher I had in my 20s said something I think of all the time, “The truth falls out of everybody, just watch, when you’re waiting at a stop light and someone crosses the street, you’ll see the entire truth of their life just fall out.”
The fool is the first card in the tarot—he is pictured as a happy fellow, dressed for a trip of some kind, he’s taken his first step but, his foot is in mid-air, it hasn’t landed yet—what he can’t see is that the ground beneath him, where he’s about to place his foot, is uneven; in some decks, he’s stepping off a cliff.
If I knew what it was going to be like starting my life over in New York City when I was 38, how hard it would be, the grief I would feel over the life I left, the many terrible jobs I had to work, the extreme hustle I had to get on—would I have done it?
Foolishness is a gift—it permits us to do brave, ridiculous things, things that pure reason would prevent us from doing.
We are in a moment of incredible danger but also great hope—we must guard against being romantic about this time, guard against idealizing the future that hasn’t come yet. And yet, for many creative people, in this global crisis and the shut down we’re in, we see a blank page, an empty canvas, a new story waiting to be told. We can’t help ourselves from having bold visions.
Thinking back on the many times I’ve left the house in search of adventure, and the many times I tripped as soon as I set my foot down—suddenly lost, in the wilderness, under dark of night, how often I have wanted to turn back or just give up—I see how incredibly foolish I have been. And, I see how many of the richest aspects of my life are the result of foolish actions.
In many cultures, the fool is revered, the trickster who knows that nothing is certain, who understands the wisdom in disruption, tricksters are playful, sly, upsetting your well made plans. It strikes me that we are in a profoundly foolish moment: Take that! Silly humans.
Those of you with open hearts, with dreams and plans for great new things, you may be ridiculous, but your courage will guide us.
I can’t believe I chose habits for today’s word. It was Bobby’s suggestion. I get it—it’s a time when we are being confronted with our habits, individual habits and collective habits. But I am not a very habitual person—my days are marked by inconsistency.
One of the blessings of our relationship is that Bobby has brought me structure-- If it weren’t for sharing my life with a very regimented person, would I eat at the same time every day or follow a set schedule at all? Hard to say. Have I learned anything from the past thirteen years of life with the son of a Marine Colonel?
Some people move in circles, I don’t mean time-wasting circles, but in circular motion—they progress in ellipses and curves, either eschewing or incapable of adhering to the straight line. Linear progress is anathema to them—or shall I say, to me?
When I first started writing for The Secret City, I couldn’t figure out how to just put words down in an orderly fashion—ideas came from everywhere and when I wanted to move in the direction of my target, I found I couldn’t go directly there. Imagine an arrow that moves wildly in its trajectory toward its target. I have learned over the years to accept that and let my writing loop and swirl.
Mine was not a family built on habits—the same circularity pervaded our home. Perhaps it was my own inner self, perceiving it that way—did I enter the world with that circular way of thinking, of moving?
We can learn habits, of course, but are some habits written in us when we get here? Part of our DNA? Remember The Bad Seed, that wonderful B movie from the 1950s? Patti McCormick plays, Rhoda, a bad little girl whose badness was in her from birth, inherited from a bad father. It’s just occurring to me that the word seed in the phrase bad seed, must mean semen.
I wonder if addiction is a response to feeling unmoored? We crave something to hold onto, don’t we? Habits can do that for us. Especially when it gets stormy. Last night in my newsletter I used the word ballast, I was writing that these daily writings have given my life ballast. Ballast is what is placed in the bottom of a boat to give it weight—ballast can be water that the boat holds—or lets go—as needed.
I like the idea that I could take on habits and let them go as needed. I’d make my bed regularly, plant bulbs every spring, go for daily walks—and when I had tired of these habits I’d release them and take up new ones as they appealed to me or as required by age.
This moment has revealed the truths of our society and our own lives—we can see how we live so clearly right now, can’t we? Like the water you see pictured these days, lake bottoms are visible, streams are sparkling.
When I looked up the word habit, I was reminded that habit is what they call the robes word by a religious person. Looking further I learned that habit originally meant the clothes you wear.
About ten years ago, while still living in New York City, I was visiting the Neue Museum, a beautiful small private museum dedicated primarily to German and Austrian art from before WW2. They were showing several paintings by Gustav Klimt, which had been stolen by the Nazis. After years of legal battles, the paintings had been returned to the family who owned them. One of the paintings was the extraordinary Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer, or Lady in Gold. From 1907, it had been commissioned by the subject’s husband.
On the landing outside of the gallery was a large photo of Klimt, standing on a narrow path outside his studio. On that bright sunny day, he held a paintbrush in his hand and wore a beautiful tunic made of heavy linen. If I recall correctly, the museum even had one of his tunics in a case, because he had many of them. I have been obsessed with this tunic ever since. I buy tunics when I see them in hopes that I will find it. I’ve gotten close. I think I need to just have one made. But can I tell you how many tunics I have in my closet right now? 12? 15 maybe? I do love a uniform, but it’s the symbolism of my self in search of habits that im thinking of now..
Here in my office, my desk is a perpetual mess. I’m looking right now at a loose collection of my father’s watches that my mother sends me in the mail, one at a time, after his death. I got one just the other day. These watches lay on my desk unused, unwound, inaccurate. What private actions are collected in them—how my dad spent his days, his worries, his triumphs, what small details of his life have been forgotten by time?
Habits are private things, intimacies—we keep them close, like amulets--even those of us who like to believe we don’t have any, which isn’t true, of course, we just have grown accustomed to seeing ourselves more wildly.
Hi al—it’s Chris. Ever since the COVID-19 crisis began to get real, so about three weeks ago–The Secret City/I started holding daily gatherings on Facebook Live, the following week they expanded to Instagram These live events are about 25-30 minutes, and designed to help people feel connected, a sense of community and, if we’re lucky–maybe even inspiration in these incredibly uncertain times. The gatherings are called Quarantime: Daily Artistic Inspiration for Troubled Times and take place at 9am pacific/12noon eastern.
The events have been wonderful–and folks have been coming daily and telling their friends. I write a new piece everyday, inspired by this moment, and I read the pieces during the gatherings. I publish them here on my personal blog.
Rob Weinert-Kendt,editor of American Theater Magazine, reached out last week asking if he could publish one of the pieces. This is Looking at the Rings and I’m humbled to have it included as part of their series on artists responding to the coronavirus crisis.
Wishing you all safety, health, love–and for those who must be out in the world right now, tremendous gratitude for all you’re doing to make the moment more humane. –XChris
I’ve always been a curious person, “You’re so curious,” my dad would say when I was a kid. And I came to see curiosity as an asset. Curiosity leads to searching, to learning, to growing, maybe even to wisdom; But can a person be too curious?
Lately I notice that I’m consumed daily by a desire to know more—and yes some of that is driven by this crisis we’re in but it’s also just a need to read articles, to look up facts, to confirm something that might come up in conversation—“Oh, yeah,” I’ll say, reaching for my phone, “I was wondering that.” And I’ll dive into a mini research hole.
I don’t use my cookbooks anymore, I just enter a handful of ingredients in the search bar and ask what I can make with it. I even read on my phone—the app for Bobby’s and my shared library is on my phone. This is not a rant against phones—I am interested in education, in how we learn things these days. And how we become educated. Who was it that said education is what is left after you’ve forgotten everything you learned? I’ll have to look that up.
I wish I were more disciplined—I don’t keep a journal, I don’t write letters. I have often thought it would be cool to keep a list of every movie I’ve ever seen, wouldn’t that be an interesting way to tell a life story? Or every book? Partly this is because I have poor retention. I can’t remember things I’ve read very recently. Or movies I’ve seen not that long ago. Something about the voraciousness with which I consume things.
What I’d really love is to make a list at the end of everyday about all the things I learned that day. A journal can give you some of that but that’s more of a record of what you’ve learned over time, emotionally, spiritually, about being a human. What I’m taking about is the minutiae of each day.
Just off the top of my head, here are a few things I’ve learned in the past few days: the word sagittal, referring to the seam at the top of our skulls, which divides the two halves of our brain. I’ve learned some of the early history of Mary Queen of Scotts. I’ve learned that I spend way too much money on $5 coffees.
What prompted the word education was when Julie Rowland reached out after Friday’s live show and asked if I was open to some suggestions about the breathing we do here. “Oh god,” I thought, “I can’t even breathe correctly!” And then I thought, “Oh, Chris, settle down, I know you don’t like to told how to do things but this is Julie and you love her and maybe this moment is about learning to be teachable.”
Part of my voracious curiosity leads me to think I know everything. I don’t mean in an arrogant way, not like a know-it-all, ok maybe a little bit like that.
The spirit of the beginner is beautiful, a beginner is vulnerable, alive to possibility. Some of us adopt that all-knowing approach to life as a survival mechanism, my knowledge is so great and far reaching that nothing will ever jump out at me in the dark, nothing unforeseen will happen to me, which of course is not true. Another great word: delusion.
Julie and I set a time to speak she was great, reminded me of some things I had forgotten about the diaphragm and the three-part breath. And I realized it wouldn’t hurt me to learn from someone, to say thank you, to take instruction. I am safe enough to begin.
Here’s something I learned just this morning, someone I know in New York City has now lost 5 friends to the virus. One thing we learn in life is loss. And we learn the distance between those who are fighting for their lives and those who are stuck at home, trying to stave off boredom.
I’d like to learn French while on quarantine. I took French in high school and then went to school for a year in Switzerland where I was supposed to become fluent. Didn’t happen I’d also love to learn Italian, for that trip Bobby and I are always talking about taking to Italy and Greece.
But, really, am I going to do that, listen to foreign language lessons right now? My brain is electric, the world is abuzz, if I have a hard time retaining a book, how am I going to ever remember a bunch of foreign verbs?
The best learning for me right now is to seek calm, to pay attention, not to the outside world so much, but to really look at my day, how the light changes, determine what do I need to take care of myself right now, honor those who are lost and struggling, maybe even acquire a modicum of grace.
Education comes from educe, to bring out or develop—I’d like to develop my capacity to be human.
In my late 20s, I had the vision of moving to India, a place I knew almost nothing about but the dream of disappearing appealed to me and what better place to do that than in the sub continent of subcontinent of Asia.
I stopped in Europe on my way, figuring I would wind my way to India—not exactly sure how one winds from Paris to Bombay but I was young and believed just by wanting something to happen it would.
I traveled by train. In terms of what I saw—fields of sunflower in Northern Spain, the gorgeous hills of Lisbon, an exhibit of Eric Fischl paintings in some small town in France, climbing the tour in Bruges, visiting the Hague—it was glorious. But I was so lonely. I had been so focused on getting away from my life that I didn’t realize how much I needed it. Friends, theater, LA, COMMUNITY. Why did I always think my life was inconsequential?
I sometimes think of life like a huge cruise ship—not a great symbol at the moment owing to our recent knowledge of cruise ships and illness and being trapped—then again, maybe it’s perfect. For right now, let’s say the cruise ship is your life—everyone you know and see and the places you visit and shop are on this ship. One day you realize someone is missing—they’re nowhere to be found. Disappeared. We think things are solid, but they’re not, everything is fragile, temporary. Anyone of us could just go over at any time and be lost to the sea.
When I got back from those months in Europe, I began to rebuild my life. I got a job at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in West Hollywood—a legendary place, originally dedicated to books about Buddhism, it became a central part of Los Angeles’ new age boom in the 80s and 90s. It was the place Shirley MacLaine wrote about in her book Out on a Limb—she had been standing in the stacks when a book flew off the shelf and hit her in the head. People must be into that because folks began to flock to the store—in search of parts of themselves they had either lost or wanted to find for the first time.
My own search for self deepened at that time. This has been a lifelong endeavor that hasn’t felt as much like a spiritual quest as a quest to be whole and sane and to not self destruct, to be present for my own life. To not fall of the cruise ship.
While working at the Bodhi Tree I started seeing a dream counselor. Her name was Mary and she had a cluttered office on the second floor above a Hasidic print shop on Santa Monica Boulevard. In the movie of my life, the role of Mary would be played by Jean Stapleton from All in the Family. She was charming, absent minded and sort of ditzy. She spent a significant portion of every one of my visits trying to find her glasses, which were always on her head.
Her office was nothing like what you’d expect a dream counselor’s office to look like—no crystals, no rich textiles, no incense or chimes, no posters with inspirational sayings. She had an old grey metal desk piled high with legal pads and files, she sat in a black rolling desk chair, I sat in a beat up padded chair on the other side of the desk from her. It felt more like I was sitting with the secretary waiting an appointment for a low-rent private eye.
But she was kind and keen—her ideas of dreams were in some ways very simple: if you dreamed of a store that’s what was in store for you, if you were driving somewhere, that’s where you were headed. I learned a lot from Mary—if nothing else, than to pay attention to what I was seeing every night, look at it, think about it. Dreams are important messages.
Yesterday I got an email from a cruise ship company—I swear, it’s true. I laughed out loud. Are they seriously going to try to sell cruises right now? Ships Ahoy, read the subject line. Inside it began, “Ready to Sail the Seven Seas?”
My life has been driven by visions—the world I want to live in, how can I make that? The art I want to experience, how can I bring that to life. And though my nightly visions aren’t directed like that—there are clear symbols and powerful messages.
What my waking dreams and sleeping dreams have in common is this: whoever I am at the moment is looking for freedom, the freedom found not in escaping but living. Staying on deck, not going overboard.
My dream is to inhabit this life.
Here’s the thing. I’m funny. I’m not one of those—oh, man that guys such a character like kooky funny but I can make people laugh. Most people who have this ability grew up with it—funny doesn’t stay hidden for long. Many of used cultivated this skill as a survival tool, though we may not have known it.
When I was a teenager and first started acting, I was cast as the funny guy, the comic lead or what they call comic relief. And I was good at it—I learned quickly how to supplement my natural gift with the tools of performance: timing, delivery, the whole deal.
Because of this skill and also due to my size, I was often cast in roles playing men who were thirty, forty to fifty years older than my actual age. I would put on the pale pancake makeup, add heayy lines using an eyebrow pencil, then powder the whole face to give the illusion of age. The dressing room air was thick with Streaks N Tips, the common spray-in hair color at the time. For a distinguished look, you’d spray just a little gray at the temples; if you were playing full-on grandpa or, say, a mayor you’d spray your whole head.
Being able to make people laugh is a great skill, and highly praised ability. It can also be an invaluable weapon and, in addition to the community theater I was doing at the time, I was known to use it in classrooms and in jobs.
I liked making people laugh—and yet, late in adolescence I remember thinking, why can’t I do those other things? I was never cast as the romantic lead, never the boyfriend-- Wait, that’s not true. Ha! I just remembered that I was cast as the boyfriend in the musical The Boyfriend! I had to learn to tap dance for that one—a purely joyful artform at which I did not excel.
To be taken seriously—remember how important that was when you were a teenager? As if you had to carve out a place for yourself in the world, fight to be seen, struggle for every bit of attention. And for some of us, it was like that. For others, that was simply how we perceived the world. Some still do.
I came to see my gift—laughter, joy-maker, bringer of happiness—if not as a burden then as a cage. Funny people have power but they often want a different kind of power. Think of all of the big comedians who long to be taken seriously? Jim Carrey comes to mind. Sometimes these attempts are sweaty—we can see them working. But then I think of Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People and I remember that humor is often a cover for a deeply serious person. And that the skill required to humor people can be deadly when applied to a dramatic role.
In my twenties I was still fighting to get out of the funny cage.
But, here’s the thing: My nature was bright. It felt odd when I tried to dim it.
I had an acting teacher back then who suggested we study the work of others, watch as much as you can and really figure out your casting—I bristled at this assignment. “I can do anything,” my thoughts went. But, when I started doing commercials in my thirties, I was often cast as young dad, beer drinker, wearing football jerseys.
Walt Whitman wrote: “I contain multitudes.” However my closet has never contained a football jersey.
Even in my thirties when my acting career began to flourish and I was working around the country as well as making my own original work with companies in LA, I always sort of downplayed my abilities. Maybe some of that was garden variety low self-esteem—sure—but it also was a lingering sense that being a comedic actor was somehow less important than being a dramatic actor.
When we started The Secret City, the events were intimate, small in size and rather quiet in nature—we were looking for the creative spirit and our beginnings took delicacy. But as word got out and the events grew and more and more people started to attend, the energy began to, not change, so much as expand.
The services became radically joyful—the word joy was written into every event and hitting that high note of joy--heart open, body energized, feeling fully alive--was common, and what people came to expect.
Here’s what I learned—Joy is a spiritual quality, and if you can bring people to a place of joy, you have done a great service, you lifted them. Earlier this week someone used the word elevate during one of the shows—I think it was you, Nancy Perlman. Even if the joy is just a moment, you’ve contributed to elevating the vibration of humanity. Joy is serious medicine.
In the work of somatic experiencing, joy is prescribed as a fundamental tool in healing trauma. When you find yourself taking the offramp to a place of terror or despair, try to access a moment of joy—anything that brings that bright spark can stop the slide into trauma response.
When I think of the times in my life when I have felt most alive, I’m laughing with people, making something beautiful together with others, dancing in clubs, getting married, being with dogs—the sadness of my life falls away. Mine has been a truly—and thankfully--joyful life.
I sometimes wonder if I am a fool—and, indeed, in some ways I am, and a fool is not such a bad thing to be, in the world of archetypes, it is the fool who embarks on great adventures,—but I mean, fool, as in dumb, incapable or unwilling to see the truth about a given situation. I say this because I am determined to find value in things that others may just think are shitty.
Being fat, for one. Is that something anyone would wish for?
I’ve been overweight ever since I hit puberty. Even writing that is a an irritant—I hate the word overweight, it makes me think of excess baggage you have to check at the airport, for which they make you pay extra.
I’ve written a lot about the whole idea of fat, what it has meant to me, how it has impacted my life—and also how it has protected me, given me an armor made of excess flesh.
I was messaging with a friend the other night, she had said it’s a nervy time, then asked how Bobby and I were doing. I wrote back, “Yeah, it is a nervy time. We're ok. daily life is much the same on the surface but there's an undercurrent of sadness and a persistent heaviness. Still lucky, fortunate, all those things--but it's heavy.”
Heavy comes from the Old English, of great weight, it came to mean, hard to carry, and is related to the word heft, also, to heave…this makes me think of the word, burden. One of the great words of our language. Burden. A heavy load.
The word grief--from old French--means to burden.
Several years ago I was having a difficult time, I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I reached out to someone who works with highly sensitive people. I asked if I could speak with her.
During our talk she said something profound--You know the handful of things you’ve heard or read that stay with you for years sometimes for life? This was one of those.
She said, “You’ve been carrying a burden, and the thing about a burden is, you think if you keep carrying it will get lighter but of course, that’s not the case.”
As she spoke, I saw so clearly that image of a human—myself, carrying a huge load on his back, wandering through a wilderness, in the darkness, perhaps it’s a rocky terrain, storms lash at the poor human but still they push on, their back bending lower with each mile. “I’ve got to keep going.”
And, hey, tenacity--wonderful--dedication, consistency—all of those qualities that allow us to complete our tasks, are great.
There was a moment in the evolution of The Secret City when I started wearing colorful, ridiculous, outfits. Soon I started wearing fewer clothes, the outfits became revealing—so many years I spent performing, finding the right thing to wear, the slimming jacket, the pants that wouldn’t split, the shirt that was long enough to keep my belly covered, the concealing suit. But suddenly, I started to let my gut hang out, totally uncovered, I even danced foolishly and made it jiggle. And I understood that the weight, my large belly, my big arms and legs, that’s not what was the burden—it was all of the baggage around it. The fear of being seen. The elaborate games I played to make it seem that I wasn’t the size I was. These games didn’t work but they allowed me to believe I was hiding it, or at least, I was complying with the unwritten rules that we should hide what is unacceptable about ourselves.
It is a heavy time. The moments are pendulous. I’m reminded of when my father died several years ago. He had been sick for awhile, so it wasn’t a surprise. But still, when he died, they came, waves—that’s what it felt like. When you’re standing in the ocean, not very deep, maybe up to your knees and then, a swell appears and hits you, full force, right in the torso, throwing you off and under.
The days and weeks and months, really, following his death, I don’t remember being sad, not really, but a drug-like fatigue would come, unannounced, another wave and I would go under, I’d have to lie down. I realized grief was physical, perhaps even more than emotional. The person who’s occupied a foundational position in your life is suddenly gone and the body is thrown off balance.
This time is like that I find—I’m not overly emotional, or not most of the time—but the things that hold us up are gone and the waves keep coming. The sea is stormy and we are small swimmers.
A burden doesn’t become lighter the longer you carry it; the reward you seek may lie in putting it down.
In the late 90s this book came out, it was called the birthday book. Each page had a different day of the year and it was designed to explain how every day of the year impacted the person born on that day.
One side of my family leans toward the mystical—Great Aunt Ruby, whom I showed you pictures of yesterday,—was an astrologer, a palm reader and practiced numerology. On my grandmother’s bookshelves were books by Madame Blavatsky and Edgar Cayce, Krishnamurti and Manly P. Hall.
So I’m familiar with the world of the unseen—and on days I completely believe it, and on others I am a certified pragmatic materialist.
But, this birthday book. My page revealed several things about me, along with other people who share my birthday Ethel Barrymore, Edna Ferber, Napoleon and Julia Child. I like to tell people I am the spiritual love child of Napoleon and Julia Child.
The most telling detail of my page in the birthday book was that I was, more than any other day of the year, driven by the will.
Now, I don’t know about the rest of the days of the year but I I have an inner machine that keeps me plowing ahead, often against logic or reason. The things I do, I do full steam, no second thoughts, no hesitation.
When we started The Secret City, I could see it, the thing I was moving toward, and everyday I would sit down and apply myself to making it real. When I was a teenager and discovered theater, I dove in, head first, and was consumed by the knowledge that it was what I was supposed to be doing.
This drive can be a gift, it helps me make thigns. But I can also be like a mac truck, a steamroller—mowing down any obstacle, impatient with slower people, I don’t have time for questions about the why, I am focused solely on the what and the how.
Ever since this crisis began to be real, like real real, when I got back from LA two weeks ago and Bobby said, “This is happening,” and we bought a bunch of groceries and began holing up here at home, I saw that what I needed to do was spring into action, will something to happen in response to this crisis. I started making these shows to provide ways for us to be together, and it’s been incredible, truly—and I also see how I operate. Stopping is hard for me. And there’s a lot of value in the midst of what we’re going through, to being idle.
I’ve had a lot of addictions in my life, booze, cigarettes, money, food, sex—probably a few more if I stopped to think about it, but I think now that the thing I’ve been most addicted to has been adrenaline. The hormone that is secreted by the adrenal gland, which impacts the body’s systems and prepares us for battle.
In recovery terms the term putting down means quitting a certain substance or behavior. The putting down of adrenaline is—what?—not impossible, no, difficult.
It’s telling that the root of the word pause, from the ancient Greek originally meant, to stop. Our understanding of pause today is that it’s a momentary stop, a break in the action. But, for me—and maybe some of you, if I pause, the world will stop, my work will end, my energy will dry up—I’m sure, because I tend toward the dramatic, as do so many of the fine folks who share my birthday—pausing equals annihallation. Like certain sharks, I must keep moving or die.
When I was starting to learn how to act, I was doing a lot of musical theater, which I loved. Occasionally I would do what is called a straight play. What I never was asked to do was Pinter—for those of you who don’t know, Harold Pinter was a British playwright whose work revolutionized the theater. One of the things he is associated with is called the Pinter Pause—a device he used in his dialog which proided actors with pauses, written into the script. In Pinter’s world, the pause was as important as the line. When we speak, we often pause to find the right word, or to get clear about what we want to say.
Pinter was dangerous, it was a different kind of performer who could actually stop talking in the middle of a scene. The confidence! The selfishness!
My life has been driven by the directive to pick up your cues, no space between lines, keep the pace up. How could I hold an audience’s attention if I stopped talking? What would keep people coming back if I had nothing to say? Like so many things in life, I suppose what I’m getting at, is love, and what that means is what I’m getting at is, trust. How could we possibly be loved if we are idle?
I’ve lived enough to know that pauses can be beautiful—the rest between notes in Chopin, the moment when a dancer holds before moving again, the fermata in music, asking the player to hold, letting the note hang in the air.
That’s what this moment is, right? A global pause. Not everyone is reading the same script but for those of us who are, let’s revel in the permission we’ve been given to stop, to hold, to be.
Something outside of our control--something surprising--might happen.