WE CAN’T BREATHE
This has probably occurred to you already but, isn’t it one of the great wonders of this time that a virus that impacts one’s ability to breathe and leaves folks on ventilators, with lungs impaired, gasping--leads to a shutdown that then allows us all to witness a black man being held down on the ground with an officer’s knee on his neck while the man being slowly killed is gasping for air, literally saying, “I can’t breathe?”
They say in detective stories that there are no coincidences. I know people who don’t believe in coincidence at all. I’m not an, “everything happens for a reason,” person, but I am always on the lookout for synchronicities, for patterns and symbols.
A friend of mine told me years ago that the breath was where the soul resides--that when a newborn takes that first breath is the moment the soul enters the body. I’m not sure about the soul--not that I don’t believe in the existence of a soul but I am not an expert. I tend to think that anyone who positions themself as an expert on the soul should be regarded with suspicion. I much prefer living with mystery, admitting and honoring the things we don’t know, can’t know.
But, maybe a soul isn’t an individual thing--what if we all share a soul and it lives in us through our breath.
I had a yoga teacher years ago--in Silverlake, he taught out of his apartment which was just a few doors down from mine. This was when you could still get a one bedroom apartment in Silverlake for under a thousand dollars. Anyway, this guy taught yoga, he emptied his entire front room and managed to squeeze about 12/15 people in at a time. Classes were held in the late morning with diffused sunlight streaming in through gauzy saffron colored curtains.
As many of you know, I have issues with yoga. It’s entirely possible that I resist it precisely because I could benefit from it--but my body isn’t one that enjoys holding poses for long periods. No matter how many classes I’ve taken, I’ve never once enjoyed doing a sun salutation. What I feel is annoyed. Can this be good for one’s health? Persistent annoyance? Anyway, yoga doesn’t need me to defend it--I know plenty of people who practice and love it and I’m happy for them.
Anyway, this guy who taught in the front room of his apartment, he was a really loud breather. I don’t know that I’d ever encountered breathing like that before--where you make the inhale really pronounced and you lean into the roar sound on the exhale. Part of my irritation in that class was my inability to understand why he was doing that. I couldn’t relax. I’ve got mysophonia, which means I’m susceptible to small repetitive sounds.
But I often think of him as I lead the daily breathing on these shows, I add the sort of reedy whistle sound to the inhale and then pronounce the roar on the exhale. Part of the satisfaction of that is knowing that we’re all doing it together, so making the sounds pronounced helps. “Oh,” I think, “he was modeling for us.”
One of the last times I took yoga from him, I noticed that he had poo stains on the back of his loose yoga pants, like a really big poo stain, as if he maybe had pooped a little bit while he was doing a pose there with us in the room but didn’t realize it.
It didn’t help make me want to continue my yoga practice. I mean, you’d think yoga would make you more aware of your body, right? So what does it mean if the yoga instructor doesn’t even realize he’s pooped his pants right there in the middle of pigeon pose, or lotus or what have you.
But back to the soul and this convergence of the virus with the image and sound of George Floyd saying, “I can’t breathe.”
If we believe the soul is in the breath then, doesn’t it seem that one of the main symbols of this time is our collective inability to breathe, as a country, as a people, and that might indicate a collective inability to access our soul.
Imagine the nation like a newborn, gasping, desperate for breath to enter its body, to fill its lungs and allow it to live. Breath and birth are very similar words. The breath of a nation. The Birth of a Nation. No, the Re-Birth of a Nation.
Maybe we are reborn with each breath we take? Or the breath of inspiration gives us new life.
Other similarities that are no coincidence: Breath means spirit. Breath sounds like birth, yes, and then birth is a lot like bird, which lives in the air, which is what we breathe, then birds which fly, and bird is like bread, bread is life, and bread is life, and bread is like breath, which is also life.
Like birds, we are all flying in the same air, all the time, we’re all breathing the same oxygen; wherever you go you’re sharing the same breath with everyone else on the planet. What if we could synchronize our breathing, globally, wouldn’t that be amazing? What might happen if we did that? Would the space/time continuum crack? Or like in some Dan Brown novel, would something in the earth unlock, releasing a force for good, a new epoch of healing and enlightenment? Might our entire existence change, in that instant?
If our daily shared ritual--where we breathe together, doing something that we do all the time but together, with intention--if that practice is any indication, then, yes. All of those things are possible. Everyday, we are changed. And we are changing. And we are changing the world around us.
HOW PRIVILEGED ARE YOU?
The other day I took a How Privileged Are You Test online. You start with100 points and then each question is yes or no and if you answer yes, you lose a point. Are you white? Are you male? Are you straight? Have you ever benefited from being the race you are? Did you go to summer camp?
I did go to camp one summer when I was a kid. Camp Fox, hosted by the ymca, on Catalina island, Camp Fox sounds sexy like a camp for swingers with key parties and naughty party games like the one where you have to hold an orange under your chin and then pass it to someone with no hands, your necks meeting, thrusting. Cocktail music playing, drinks being spilled, dirty jokes being shared in the corner.
I could only dream that Camp Fox would be racy like that, but no. Camp Fox was a boys camp. I was 11 about to be 12. If there were any shenanigans going on, I missed them.
But, my memories are mostly positive—making lanyards, learning to kayak, taking short hikes with the knowledge that there were wild boar in the hills and to not go too far. We had storytelling every night by an old guy named Stew, he wore sport slacks and white loafers, a short sleeve shirt with a collar. Stew looked like he was walking into the showroom to try to sell you a car and not the head of a boys camp on the scrubby back shore of an island 26 miles across the sea from civilization. The kids loved him, I always felt outside of his orbit, wary of him for some reason. It might have been that his stories always had a Christian overtone—they weren’t biblical, I don’t mean that, but they always had a wrap up at the end that was Christian in its message. It was a YMCA camp after all and we all know what the C stands for. I had gone to Sunday school when I was younger but we were not a religious family. We didn’t even attend Christmas service. That would begin the following year when I started attending a Episcopal church by myself—captivated by the music and pageantry, shared ritual and heightened language. For all of my love for that church which I would discover shortly after my camp years, I felt like an outsider there, too.
It’s when I found the theater that a door opened up on a new world. I walked through it with my arms above my head, singing loudly and ready for action. But for all of its magic and power, the theater is also outside of the center, you could say it’s a gathering spot for outsiders, a watering hole where the orphaned animals gather to drink of the deep waters.
This seems to be a key to surviving, finding that place where you belong. I tell this to people all the time so you’ve probably heard me say it before, but on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, belonging comes 3rd. There’s food, then shelter, then belonging. Studies show that people who belong to clubs and churches live longer.
And you might be thinking, well, what about the loners? The iconoclasts? The rebels? Even they long to belong somewhere, maybe in the pages of Rimbaud, or the poems of Allan Ginsberg.
So we need these places of identification and mutual support, to feel like we are on the inside—of a culture, a set of ideas or rituals, maybe it’s your weekly poker night or your book club. So, how do we not then become exclusive to outsiders ourselves?
I don’t know about you but I am terrified of certain parts of our population, I have built a life separate from them. Am I resisting making connections to others? Is my fear of violence or bullies or of being assaulted something I should hold on to and a position I should lead from, causing me to avoid certain interactions? Or is it that I’m wounded and I can heal and I can engage and confront those people who have scared and still scare me?
A few years ago, Bobby and our friend Laural and I were upstate, further upstate than here by about an hour and a half and we stopped at an outdoor antique barn spot with a bunch of stuff outside and an old red barn that was probably full of stuff, too. We got out of the car and within seconds the old guy who owned the place asked us to leave because he didn’t serve people like us. Bobby and Laural got back into the car but I got into a fight with him. He said terrible things, called me faggot this and faggot that. Finally, I got back in the car, shaking. We pulled out of the parking lot, onto the side of the road where I called the police. They came a little while later and I made a report. Did any of that help? My heated ness? Was there something I could have said or done to allow me entrance to his world, where I would be welcomed, safe?
Yesterday we had a troll on here commenting anti gay stuff. I’m not surprised by these people, I’m irritated by having to deal with them, to stop what I’m doing to address him. And, yet, I also wanted to welcome him. Not to let a wolf among the hens but to offer an opportunity to see how wonderful it is in here, to bring a poor stranger in from the outside.
STRETCHING FROM PAST TO FUTURE
Jeremy texted me the other day saying, here’s a song for the Silver Spaceship, which is our supersonic all star party band, we perform here in Woodstock every New Years Eve and the shows are more like ecstatic rites, really, than shows. There are ten people in the band, back up singers, we all wear silver. Jeremy and I sort of share frontman duties. He does most of the musical heavy lifting and I’m more of the host, the captain, if you will. We switch off singing, sometimes share the vocals, and our bass player Jennifer takes three or four numbers herself.
So occasionally when Jeremy or I hear a tune that would be good for the band we send it to the other. We’re looking for songs with a solid dance groove that can help us build toward a head bursting dance explosion.
“Spaceship, question mark, with you and me doing leads?” And the link was to Rubberband Man by the Spinners. Wow. I hadn’t thought of that song in a long while. But it’s a song that carries a very specific memory from long ago.
“I love that song,” it texted back. And I quoted the opening lyrics, “hand me down my walking cane, hand me down my hat.”
I started doing theatre when I was a teenager, first community theater, then high school theater and then I auditioned for a show at the community college within walking distance from my house and got cast. I started doing plays one after another after another. I had found my purpose. My thing. My joy. A lot of the shows were musicals and I was a pretty good singer. My mom played music for us a lot when we were kids and encouraged singing which made an early impact. But I didn’t read music. In fact, one year my mom asked me if I wanted to learn to play the piano and I jumped at the opportunity. She bought an old upright piano from Dr. McKinney, who had an antique shop in the garage behind his house off the boulevard. He wore spectacles on the edge of his nose and whenever we would visit him, the bells hanging from the door would ring and he’d stand up from his desk, removing his glasses and say, “hello, Mrs. Wells, and hello young Master Wells.”
The upright arrived and sat in our family room. I loved to see it there, adding a cheap, old fashioned sparkle to our suburban home. Sitting at the bench I’d noodle and make up chords and imaginary songs. Mom got me piano lessons from Mr. Domingo at the music store on Avenue K. I’d meet with him weekly and he’d work me through scales and then have me begin learning simple versions of popular songs. I started off well, but as the weeks progressed I realized I didn’t the lessons, and never wanted to practice, I wanted to sit and play and make up songs. And I had a good ear, Mr. Domingo would often say that to me, and he had said that to my mom, too, when I first started. “Yes,” he proclaimed, “he’s got a good ear.”
The good ear often meant that I would figure things out without reading the music which required studying. One week, Mr. Domingo assigned me Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, and showed me where it was in the practice book. I went home and some time during the week I sat down at the piano, not opening up the book and just figured out the melody and added some flourishes. Done and done. I was quite proud of myself.
At my next lesson, I performed my own version of Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini for Mr. Domingo. When I had finished I turned to him expecting praise. “You didn’t practice,” Mr. Domingo said. This seemed entirely beside the point to me. But it was the last straw. He told my mother, when she came back to pick me up, that if I wasn’t willing to practice then this wasn’t going to work. So I stopped taking lessons and I stopped sitting at the piano and making up songs and one day I came home from school and the family room was back the way it had been before, she had sold the piano.
So learning parts for musicals took extra work because I didn’t know an e flat from a b minor, didn’t know what key we were in or any of that. I could follow the little black balls as they moved up and down and sometimes figured out by their proximity what the next note would be.
Imagine the thrill then, when I got into show band. Being a theater kid was fun and came easily to me, but being a musician was cool and required skill, how to play an instrument. I was intimidated by the guys in the horn section who sat stone faced in the orchestra pit while we made fools of ourselves on stage.
But I got into show band. Laura Hemenway, who’s my dear friend in Santa Barbara, led the band and gave me a shot.
Not only did I not know how to read music, I had never stood and held a mic and sung in front of a band. Just getting up to sing back ups was terrifying. I also continued my habit of not practicing so often arrived unprepared, not knowing my lyrics etc etc.
“I’ve got a really cool song for you,” Laura said one day when I got to rehearsal. “I want you to sing the lead.” My heart popped and jolted. She handed me the sheet music for Rubberband Man, a song I knew from the radio.
I was to work on it and come back next week to go through it with the band. More terror. Did I practice? Not really. Did I learn the words? Not really.
The following week at rehearsal I was on edge. I knew I wasn’t ready so when it came time to get up and do the number with the band I was quaking and put on a strange sweaty version of cool.
The bass began, then the fabulous horns, then, “that was your cue, Chris.” I had missed it. The rehearsal limped along from there. Not good at all. But I made assurances that I would have it.
At the end of rehearsal Laura announced that we’d booked a gig at the Air Force base in a couple of weeks. So I had a deadline to get it together. Rubberband Man was going to be on the set list.
The night of the gig I drove my dad’s van. Saturday night and since I’d never been to the base before I meant to leave a little bit early but by the time I left the house I was actually late. I drove East on Avenue K and knowing the Valley was laid out on a grid I decided to cut across before the next main cross street and shave a few minutes off my travel time.
It was growing dark when I turned left. This area had retained its agricultural feel more than the west side of the Valley and the road was old asphalt with soft shoulders. It ended at a crossroad so I turned right, the asphalt ended and soon the van was moving sluggishly through soft sand, I began weaving and skidded slowly off the side of the road and came to a stop. The engine idled, I pressed the gas and heard the tires spin without moving. This can’t be happening, I thought. I’ve got a great sense of direction, this shortcut is going to get me there on time, I’m going to sing Rubberband Man even though I still didn’t really know it.
But, none of those things turned out to be true. The van was stuck. The shortcut did not save me time and I never sang a Rubberband Man at that gig because I never made it to the base. Instead I got out and walked, next to a barbed wire fence. I could smell and hear livestock off in the dark. I made it back to Avenue K and found somewhere with a phone. My dad came to get me. We went back the next day to get the van towed and seeing it stuck on the side of the dosed next to a farm I realized how lost I had been. I wasn’t going anywhere.
I guess if there’s a moral to my story it’s: Be prepared. Don’t take shortcuts. And know your shit, the band is waiting.
I was on my walk two days ago, Sally and I had rounded the last bend in the large loop that rings the preserve. I could see a couple ahead of me making their way to the entrance, where you can decide to go one way or another. Up beyond the couple was a young father with two small children. I heard them calling to each other, screaming as kids do, in their excitement to arrive at the park.
As I’ve mentioned before, I love this place for walking. It’s just beautiful, for one thing, but also, you can see where people are and divert your path. I made the mistake of thinking others will do the same thing. See who's coming and go the other direction. The young father was not of the same mind. He and his two kids entered the path and began to walk toward the couple ahead of me. I saw them stop and take a moment to put on their masks. I put on my mask. The couple and the kids, one of whom was on a bike with training wheels, passed each other. The grasses have grown too high in the last week or so to really go off the trail when someone is approaching so they sort of leaned away from the kids as they passed. Once cleared of each other, the couple then di the same lean away pass with the dad and the kids moved toward me, the one on the trike began barreling toward me.
I love the word flummoxed, don’t you? It’s so awkward and rangy. Like a gorgeous ostrich of a word. I stopped pulled Sally gently up so she stopped and watched the kids and their dad approach. I was flummoxed. Why not go the other direction? There was no one that way. Why not call your kids and ask them to wait, let the folks who are about to step off the trail and head back to the parking lot get by first and then hit the path? Or, why not have your kids wear masks when they’re going to pass people, and have one yourself for these moments.
“Wait a second,” I called to the kids and his father behind him, “You’re coming this way?” A dumb thing to say, of course they were coming this way, because here they came. What I was really saying was, “why are you coming this way?” But I was reluctant to say that. They were strangers, after all. Did my tone convey it, perhaps subtly. I didn’t whine or sound exasperated, but just asking it made it clear that I had thoughts about the father’s choice to lead his kids toward us instead of away, maybe I even had thoughts about his parenting style over all.
“Yep,” he called back to me, with a we sure are, implied in his tone. I could have quarreled with him, said something, or decided to frighten the children, that’ll teach ‘em. Let Sally bark and bark at them as I charge ahead screaming, I eat children!
Instead I said to Sally, “ok, let’s go,” and we leapt to the right, over the tall grasses and the small ravine and then up the hill toward the parking lot. This is not advised. As I said, the grasses get very tall as summer hits, it’s a nature preserve so they don’t want you walking off the path. Also, we live in tick country and walking through grassy, scrubby landscape is a prime way to pick up a few ticks, for both Sally and me.
As we pushed away from the path I imagined the kids asking their dad: who was that strange man? And why didn’t he like us?
In William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, picnic, a young, hunky stranger arrives to a small town in Kansas, disrupting the veneer of gentility and upsetting the moral code of the town. American theater is filled with strangers—some are magical: the Rainmaker, the Music Man. Some are dark, evil: Jud in Oklahoma. Films are filled with strangers, too—especially film noir, which emerged in the aftermath of WW2 when the darkness at the heart of our country began to be of interest. We’re we really a land of heroes and good guys? Or were bad guys and crooks all around us? Hiding out in shadowy rooms with Venetian blinds, leaving the scene of. The crime in a long black car with a pistol in the glove box? Guys named Johnny and Rocco and Fats.
When did the first stranger appear? Imagine you’re living in a cave with your people, a small tribe which shares resources—food, shelter—the children are raised communally. The only other animals you’ve ever seen before are the birds in the trees, boards and saber tooth tigers. Animals you eat or animals you avoid. You spend your days sewing pelts together and making paste out of grain which you cook over the newly discovered fire. One day while squatting by the creek to fill a bladder with fresh water you hear a rustling and looking up, you see an animal that looks like you and your small tribe but you don’t know them, you’ve never seen them before.
“Hi.” They say.
“Ungha.” You reply, because your language is different. Are you afraid? Do you reach for your knife? Cry out for back up?
“How are you?” Asks the stranger, stepping forward.
“Ungha wungha,” you reply, uncomprehending their words but understanding their movement. And what you’re saying in your language is, “you’re coming this way?” And what you really want to say is, “why are you coming this way?”
You leap into the creek to get out of the way of the stranger. You swim to the other side without looking back and once on land you run all the way back to the cave. Through heavy breaths you try to get the story out, “ungha wungha, wungha, bungha.”
I saw someone, not one of us. You’re not hysterical but you are in a heightened state. Your tribe elders are concerned. Not sure they understand or believe you. There have been other times one of the tribe thought they saw an unknown animal looking like us but why don’t you go see the wisewoman, she lives in her own cave off by herself.
So you set out, it’s afternoon. Everything in the woods, all around you, causes you to startle. A snap of a twig, the buzz of a fly.
She welcomes you, the wisewoman. Leads you inside, offers you a small stone bowl with water and leaves.
“Oonghawa,” she asks you, which means, “why are you here?” In your language.
“The elders told me to come.”
“Yes,” she says, sitting down next to a small fire. “But why are you here?” She’s brusque.
You say, “I saw someone I do not know.”
“But why are you really here?” She presses you.
“I saw someone I do not…”
“Yes,” she says, interrupting you, “but why are you really here?”
You wait. She waits with you, occasionally stirring the coals, refilling your bowl with hot water.
It’s the first time you’ve done this, sat with a question you don’t know how to answer. You're a person of action, a problem solver. Now you’re aware of a new sensation, a kind of internal movement, toward something you don’t know, something you’re not sure you want but still your inside self moves toward it.
Outside the cave it grows dark and cool. Wolves howl in the distance. You sit gazing into the fire for a long time, until finally you look up.
“Well?” Says the wisewoman.
You speak and your voice is different, less sure, not declaring but wondering as you say. “I saw someone I’ve never seen before, who looked like me, like us, but it was not someone I knew. And it scared me.”
By the light of the fire you see something like a very small smile on the wisewoman’ s face, her eyes soften.
“And so, why are you here,” she said again, softer now.
Leaning forward from her place by the fire, she rests her soft, papery hand in your cheek. “Yes.”
And I made it up the grassy hill and hustled Sally back into the car. And the couple who had been ahead of me on the trail made their way to their car. And the man and his kids went off along the path and between them, and within us all, our stories began to grow.
Pivot. Blech. What a stupid word. No. Stop, Chris. There are no stupid words, only stupid people. No, Chris, that’s not what you mean. There are no stupid words, only stupid contexts. Pivot is a beautiful word, it gleams, sharp, like a tiny metal tee puncturing the tight turf on the links of a golf course.
It’s true, though, that pivot makes me think of sports. And I hate sports. No, that’s not exactly right, I don’t hate them. I hate the people who like sports. Wait, that’s not it either. It’s that sometimes sports and the people who love sports make me feel certain things, unpleasant things, like being in high school and feeling like sports were where the mean guys congregated, like a club I didn’t want to be in because the doors were slick and swung too fast. The games were sweaty and moved as fast and as dangerously as the doors. The commands, “Hey, hey, pass me the ball,” and, “hustle, man, hustle.” “Come on, big guy, get the lead out!’
The only sport I liked was tennis. Something about the clear rules, the court with its well drawn lines, its foundations as a gentleman’s sports, and, yeah, the shorts, the short sleeved shirts, the white terry cloth wristbands that so kindly collected sweat running down the arms but also, when wiped across the forehead, sucked up the emerging wet.
It was summer, I was, what, 12? Someone was offering a makeshift tennis camp for kids. I signed up.
In town was an old farm house which sat perpendicular to the road, meaning its front with porch and walkway, faced the yard and the side of the house faced the road. This placement, unlike all of the recent homes— built in tracts and all obeying the rules of facing the street, with the two garage out front, and stucco walls in various shades of beige—let you know it was from another time, before the town had transformed from agricultural to suburban, built well before the 70s when we moved to the area. Two story and large with gables over the second story windows, the house was made of wood which had gone unpainted for many years, it’s sides and trim faded to a uniform brown grey, a bit darker than the quail that lived in the dunes at the end of our street. And yet, the place retained an air of graciousness. The porch was deep and shaded the length of the ground floor. Elm trees towered over the lawn, which was hemmed in by a weathered picket fence. The land surrounding the yard was bald, still clear from whatever crops grew there in previous years, alfalfa most likely, the major crop of the Valley, before aerospace came along, growing planes and missiles and military supplies instead of almond trees and poppies.
Behind the house was a stand-alone garage with two wide doors and a row of small windows at the top of each, grey and dusty. Even if I could have reached them to peer in the dust and gloom wouldn’t have let me see in. What was in there, I wondered, an only manual lawnmower, a model T Ford? And then, next to the garage, the purpose of our visit: a tennis court, faintly lined cement with a gently sagging fabric net. A low chain link fence surrounded the place. This is where we would be playing tennis for the next several weeks, a group of boys I knew from school.
Up until then I had played tennis with my dad out at the college on weekends when the campus was empty. New courts with a high cement wall on two ends and double tall chain link fence on the side. Dad wasn’t much of an athlete but he was fit enough and strong. Like me. “Good forehand,” he’d call to me across the court. I loved those games, the sounds of our sneakers on the smooth cement—shuffle, squeak, flap.
This court looked like something out of a scary movie, a haunted tennis court where a bunch of boys go and one by one they disappear. Maybe they hit a ball over the fence and when they run to retrieve it they never come back, maybe they get tied up inside the old garage, maybe there’s an old lady peering out at us from behind the lace curtains of the second story window.
We piled out of the van, Skinny, wiry, athletic boys, in short white shorts, their slender hairless legs in new tennis shoes. Scott Embry squinted in the sun, Doug Scott, the astronaut's kid, had popped the collar of his white izod and carried a new and gleaming metal racket.
I was shy, or no, nervous. I think I felt the time we were living in, not the era but the specific place along our developmental line. it was that moment right before boys decide if they’re going to be this kind of boy or that kind of boy. Before they go their separate ways and begin doubling down on the choices they’ve made, each act, each friend, hobby and pastime, confirming who they were going to be.
The day was intense, loaded. Every choice, who’s going to play first, who’s going to work on their serve first, who’s going to show us their backhand first. It’s not that I couldn’t do these things—I was a fair player—but the eyes of the others made me self-conscious, it took the magic of play out of it for me. I didn’t want everyone watching how I did things. I wanted to be in the doing of the things, unobserved.
I had waited to get out there but finally I was out on the court. We were going to be playing doubles. Doug Scott was my partner. It was my first serve. On the old cement court, sun pounding down. I had two balls in my pocket the way I had learned from my dad. One on this side, one in the other. I reached into the right pocket to pull out the fluorescent yellow ball—a brand new idea then, before that tennis balls were white but suddenly they had became fluorescent, unmissable— and a searing pain hit my hand at the tender web of flesh that connects the thumb to the forefinger. I screamed.
Looking down I saw a bee stuck into my skin. I must have smashed it when I put my hand in in my pocket. It buzzed once, loudly, like a lamp going off, and moved slowly and then fell to the ground with a tiny bounce.
I held my hand in my other hand and felt it come, the thing I was known for at home but always tried to hide when out with others, especially boys—hot, massive tears, my face enflamed now, crying from—what? It did hurt but what came up was deeper than that.
The boys circled around me, and looking up I could see their confusion, for as the pain subsided and the shock of the sting lessened, the tears did not reflect those changes. Rather, they increased, I began to so . How could I just stand there and cry like that? Sure some of them probably cried, too, but at home, in private, into their pillows.
The shame, the pressure, the discomfort—all on display. I didn’t want to be there playing the game in that way. I didn’t want to be like them, for whatever reasons.
And so the division was made. Writing this story I see now that those boys didn’t leave me, I left them, and began the doubling down of my own choices, who I was going to be, the person I wanted to become. .
A pivot is a tight sudden turn—the titanic did not pivot. But we can, turn, swiftly, toward what we want to be.
A couple of weeks ago, while lolling in bed on a late morning with our dog Sally, I heard a soft, hollow plonking sound. Looking out the window, I saw a robin standing on a tin pipe that attaches to the roof’s gutter. The pipe is under the eaves, and drains the water from the gutters off and down to the side of the house. The bird’s orange breast was bright in the shade of the eave.
Sally paid it no mind. Birds aren’t really her thing. She’s a rat terrier, so rats are supposed to be her thing, but I don’t think she would pay much attention to a rat. Chipmunks occasionally grab her attention but it is bugs that drive her into a frenzy. If there’s a flying bug in the bedroom at night before going to sleep, she cannot be calmed until the bug is removed.
Watching the robin, I realized I had seen it or its mate or a member of its family, sitting there a few days before. Maybe more than once. You know how when you see something clearly, really notice it, you then realize you’ve seen it before?
The bird hopped along the pipe away from the eave until only its tail feathers remained in view. From the movement of its back end it was clear the bird was busy with something.
A nest, I thought, I bet there’s a nest just out of view, where the pipe meets the side of the house, under the eaves, a place of protection where they could start a family.
It’s said that spying a robin is good luck, they’re a symbol of happiness or freedom, of new adventures.
Scientists found that birds are singing more softly at this time, as the world has been quieted by the covid shutown. Imagine how loud they must have gotten, just to be heard over the airplanes and the oil wells and all of the people everywhere endlessly talking.
I can’t even hear myself, the Robin would sigh at the end of a long day of singing that felt more like screaming, and flying that felt more like battle.
Birds and crocodiles are the only remaining dinosaurs. Birds are species miniraptora which have adapted over millions and millions of years, their wings originally were legs and it is believed that becoming flying creatures enabled them to survive when nearly all other dinosaur life perished.
It’s understandable, then, that throughout human civilization we have worshipped them, turning them into gods or messengers of the gods. The Aztecs and Egyptians; Greek and Hindu mythology all have revered birds or looked to birds for answers. Think of the totem poles of the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. The Old Testament warns of partridges and ravens, the New Testament has its dove.
Birds are the animals closest to the heavens, capable of mimicking many other animals, they symbolize magic. Through the mystery of migration, they have the ability to survive seasonal change—disappearing for months at a time until conditions are right for them to return. But it is their ability to fly that captivates us.
When did I stop having flying dreams? Are flying dreams for the young? When we dream of leaving the nest, breaking free, entering the wider world. I had a flying dream last year, the first in a very long time and when I woke up I was so happy to have experienced that delicious surprising feeling, that my body could lift and lift and lift and then move through the skies, powerful yet light. And then I was sad when I realized I hadn’t had that sensation for a long time. No matter our age, we all hunger for freedom, look at all the millions of people in the streets right now.
The day Bobby and I got married it rained. We had planned our wedding to take place in a beautiful old apple orchard on friends’ property near us. We imagined guests entering the orchard, taking their seats between the rows of trees, we would walk down the aisle of trees. Watching the weather obsessively for weeks, the forecast began to change, the little sunshine icon started to have little clouds over it. Then the sunny icon disappeared altogether, replaced by the fluffy cloud icon. Soon the fluffy cloud icon had little blue lines coming out of its bottom. And our dream of the orchard wedding became a dream of a wedding under a tent. We had the tent rented already for the reception; we’d just have to do the ceremony and beneath it, too.
As often happens with significant days—like weddings, and opening nights—we were lucky and everyone agreed that having the ceremony beneath the tent made it more intimate than it would have been out in the orchard.
The ceremony was filled with magic and love. It wasn’t a torrential rain but you could hear the drops falling on the tent during our vows. After the ceremony, Bobby and I walked up the aisle and out of the tent, the rain had stopped and as all of the wedding party and then the guests began to pour out from the tent, someone said, “Look!” And we all looked up. A beautiful white heron appeared, swooping low over the gathering crowd. We cheered, and I cried, even more than I had during the ceremony, knowing we had been doubly blessed.
I moved to New York City at thirty-eight to pursue my acting career. Then, when I turned forty, I stopped acting and started The Secret City. Then in 2010, I won an Obie Award. For The Secret City. The irony of giving up acting to start a community arts organization and winning an Obie Award for it is not lost on me.
Bobby and I almost didn’t go the ceremony. The Ace Hotel was the new hip hotel in our neighborhood and they were celebrating their first anniversary, so they had a Mr. Softee truck out front and gave away free ice cream. Bobby and I caught wind of this, and at about six-thirty, we strolled over and found the truck. We joined the crowd of happy ice cream–eating people. We each got vanilla with chocolate syrup.
It was seven by the time we got home. The Obies were at eight. I said to Bobby, “I wish we didn’t have to go..”
But I had RSVP’d and didn’t want the Obie people to think I was rude. The invitation had come two weeks earlier: asking if I would be their guest.
Bobby and I decided to get it together. And we walked to Webster Hall; entering the building, we met up with Liz Levy, an early supporter of The Secret City.
“Hey,” she asked, “Are you up for an Obie?”
I laughed. “No.”
For a moment I had a tiny fantasy: Wouldn’t it be great if I were here to accept an award for this strange work I made for myself? But, I’m not even acting anymore so… Then I caught myself: Oh, Chris, why can’t you just be present for this, enjoy it. Stop fantasizing!
We walked in just as everybody was asked to move upstairs. We got swept up in the crowd, which felt like one of those historic moments when a city is evacuated — the Saigon airlift, the fall of Havana, the village of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof. You know what I mean: people moving en masse, with a level of panic rippling through the multitude. But this was the Obies, so instead of frenzied families bearing furniture and candlesticks with tied-together bundles of clothes, it was drunken actors clutching $14 cocktails and iPhones.
I looked at our tickets, we had assigned seats on the main floor, really close to the stage, fancy, I thought.
I turned to Bobby, and said, “I’m happy we came.”
As the show unfolded, I sensed that something might be going down. The Obie committee was introduced, and three of the names were people who had been to The Secret City in previous months. And I thought, Maybe I’m going to get an Obie tonight. That quickly turned into: Oh, Chris, why can’t you just be present for this. Stop fantasizing!
A few minutes into the show, an actor was given an Obie for sustained achievement. He got up and said, “First, I want to say hello to the balcony because that’s where I usually sit, so I knew when they asked me to sit on the floor that something was up.”
Oh god, I thought, I’m going to get an Obie Award and I am not well groomed; I needed a haircut; my pants were kind of tight.
However — here’s how the mind works — I talked myself out of what I knew to be true: Chris, why can’t you just be present for this, enjoy it. Stop fantasizing!
The next presenter walked up to the mike, and said, “It’s a salon, it’s a sanctuary,” and something in my stomach went knock. I started to cry. I turned to Bobby, who was totally checked out. “Bobby,” I said, but he seemed fixated by the molding in the ceiling and the architectural details of the room.
The presenter continued: “It’s part ceremony, part community gathering . . .”
“Bobby,” I repeated — this time he turned to me — “they’re about to give me an Obie Award.”
“What?” he mumbled as I said, “They’re about to give me . . .”
And when the presenter announced, “For The Secret City, Chris Wells,” Bobby’s mouth fell open. I know that’s a cliché, but his mouth actually did fall open. Like, it was closed one second, and then the next it was wide open.
I stood and hitched up my pants, but I was convulsing with sudden emotion. And this was causing my belly to jiggle. I walked to the end of the aisle and bumped into the wall all the while making whimpering sounds. I thought, I have got to access some dignity before arriving at the podium. I thought of Cicely Tyson and took long, slow strides to the stage.
In the emotions of the moment, I forgot to say that Bobby Lucy is the reason all of this has happened. It took true love entering my life to remind me what my values were, that I’m here to do something specific, maybe even special.
The Secret City is devoted to this pursuit: the quest to remember who we are and what we’re here to do. Creativity is the work of everyone whether we identify as artists or not: we’re here to create and to re-create, and in so doing, we make the world over and over again. And when your people help you do your work, that is the very best of all. It’s like great sex with Nutella added in.
Good morning. What a night. The terrible unrest continues. And the woeful lack of leadershjp makes us all vunerable.
And today is blackouttuesday, which began as a music industry initiative encouraging white folks to stay off of social media and allow other voices to be heard.
It began last night on instagram and by this morning my entire feed was little black squares. And I thought, should I not do the show today? Would it be inappropriate to be online, here, doing this? On several of the posts I saw, the call to action was to stop business as usual and focus on community.
But what if your business is community? And what if your job is to speak to your community about what’s happening? Right now? That’s been my aim with these daily shows from the beginning. Not as an expert, but as an artist, or an art leader, sharing experience, providing insight, or maybe just reflecting what everyone is going through. And what if you announced yesterday that the word of the day would be protest?
I decided it was better to gather with you all and to address what is happening, and hope to be of service to the community—that’s all of you—and to be of use to the movement, the moment. So here I am to talk about protest.
Protests scare me—wait, that’s not entirely true. I love the idea of protests, I dream of revolution, riots, the overthrow of power structures. But, the reality, the on-the-ground reality scares me. What if someone gets hurt? What if I get hurt? I’m a big guy but I’m also a reactive personality. I find it hard to let things go, as I’ve mentioned before, I have zero chill. I get in squabbles at the grocery store, the gas station, I work on this, try to not respond to every little thing. And, what is happening right now is not every little thing—it’s every BIG thing.
I still lived in New York City when the Occupy Wall Street actions were happening in downtown Manhattan and I so wanted to support those peaceful and hopeful gatherings but I knew I would get into it with a cop and something bad would happen. Some people aren’t meant for the front lines. Some are better sending letters, writing postcards, calling our congressperson…
I think it’s safe to say that we all want to be on the right side of history. And if this isn’t a historic moment, then, well…
I guess my invitation to all of you here today is to find the way of protesting that works for you. Not something that let’s you off the hook, “I’m protesting by taking a nap!,” but something effective that suits you, your talents, your nature.
Last week, I started making phone calls to people of color who are my friends, and who are members of this community. I don’t tell you this to virtue signal, as they say, but rather to tell you that for me, someone who never wants to talk on the phone, these efforts were intentional and they took me out of my comfort zone and they were wildly moving, powerful, great exchanges. Exchange. They changed me. The task I set for myself was to ask the person, “How are you?” And then, to the best of my ability, to listen. Now, those of you who know me know that I like to talk. I mean, I’m a great listener, it’s what makes me a good teacher and a crucial aspect of writing is to listen to words, how they sound, how they ring—but, I’m also a big talker.
Shortly after moving to New York City I was working with a counselor at the Actors’ Fund, her name was Patch and I loved her. I was new to the city and broke and underemployed and afraid all the time, and worried that I had made a terrible decision by uprooting myself from my sweet art life in Los Angeles.
One day, in the midst of a session about my qualifications and my skills Patch said, “Well, you’re a verbal processor,” as if it was something I already knew. But, I hadn’t ever named it. And yet, yes, I always have needed to talk to figure out how I feel and think.
This past Saturday afternoon, after getting off one of those calls I thought, listening, really listening to someone, might be the most generous thing one can do. And, maybe it’s even a sort of protest. In a world where we are surrounded by screaming and shouting and advertising and TV and all the noise around us all the time, what if we all just listened.
On one of those calls, my friend said, “If every white person would pick up the phone and call someone they know, a person of color, and just ask them how they’re doing, it would change everything.”
I thought today’s show would be worth if I could give a call to action. So, how’s that? The call to action is to white folks to call—ask someone in your life, a black people who are dealing with the ongoing violence in our country, Asian Americans who have been targeted because of the covid/china ridiculousness, Latinx who are suffering in far greater numbers than their white counterparts and often working in conditions that are unsafe and unhealthy, Muslim Americans who are always under threat, Native Americans whose communities are being ravaged by the virus--all of these people who are far more vulnerable than whites. Ring ring, hello? I’m calling to ask how you are? How is all of this affecting you? And then—with love—shut up.
In my late twenties, I was living in LA, living in a group house, doing theater and scraping together a living at my part time job at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore. All four of us living in that house worked together, too. It was a fun time. Three fabulous young women—a poet, a singer songwriter, a writer/actor--
One day, Jamye said someone had come into the store asking for help on behalf of a friend, an elderly woman, who was legally blind. She needed someone to help out with bills, reading, correspondence. Jamye had been going for a few weeks but didn’t have as much time as the woman required so she asked if any of us in the house wanted to take a day.
I was always broke—where did all the money go?—so I said yes.
We drove from our house in Elysian Park on the east side of town, into Hollywood. She lived at the Alto Nido, an old school Hollywood apartment building from the 1930s, designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Originally an apartment hotel, for years it had housed actors who arrived by bus to the greyhound station down just a few blocks away on Cahuenga; kids from Iowa and Kentucky, Florida and Ohio—all in search of stardom. Over the decades, residents included Fatty Arbuckle, Claudette Colbert and George Cukor. The building’s greatest claim to fame was when Billy Wilder used it for its interiors; William Holden’s Joe Gillis was living there at the start of the movie, before he moves into Gloria Swanson’s mansion on, yes, Sunset Boulevard.
Alto Nido means High Nest in Spanish, and the 5 story buiding sits at the top of a hill above the flats of Hollywood. When it was originally built, the Hollywood freeway would not have been right next to it and its prominence would have been greater.
By the time of my visit, although the place had exchange its glamour for something closer to seedy, I still thrilled to walk up the street to the famed stucco building, rich in history and ghosts.
Terra cotta tiles in the lobby, a wrought iron sconce and hanging lamp, all alluded to the bygone days—the hallways were carpeted in what might have once been a low, red pile but by then were darkened with years of high heels, spilled drinks and gum shoes.
I wish I could remember the woman’s name. But the years have wiped that away, along with so many other details. Now when I dive into the past, I often enter vague, waters. I do know that as we waited for her to answer the door, Jamye said, pointing to an apartment door just a few feet away, “That’s the door of the apartment in Sunset Boulevard.”
The door opened and a tall woman with short white hair stood before us. Jamye and she were friendly with each other, she was so happy we had come. Introductions were made as we entered. It wasn’t exactly a disaster, but also not surprising that a person who could barely see lived here. And, the place was small, a studio. Thankfully there were large windows on two sides, it was a corner unit, and one window looked out over the freeway, across which I could see the Vedanta Center. Home to many of Hollywood’s greatest spiritual seekers.
We sat, or tried to. Jamye over there, I took an old leather club chair which had pamphlets on the wide armrests. The woman sat on the edge of her bed and, to give you an idea of the cramped quarters, by leaning forward she easily handed me a pamphlet.
“Here,” she said, “This is what I’m working on.”
I opened the tri-fold pamphlet to find a painting of Christ on the cross at Mt. Calvary.
“It’s the largest painting in the world, it’s at Forest Lawn, and I’m helping to get it restored.”
I was silent, looked at Jamye who nodded slowly. I gathered she knew about the painting.
“I’ve never seen it,” the woman said, “but this is my work, I want to help.”
A woman who could no longer see wanting to help restore a painting she had never seen, at a place she couldn’t see even if she could get someone to drive her there.
The job was helping with her correspondence, sending out fundraising letters, petitions of support.
I never went back—I was torn, she was a dear person, and it was the kind of strange, wonderful thing I would be drawn to. But admin’s not my strong suit, and I don’t think she was paying.
I’m not a religious person, but I long for that kind of faith. To work for something so meaningful to me, something so beautiful that, even if I never see it, I’ll keep the vision alive.