Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Job Well Done

A Conversation About Race 
Among Poets—Part 2

From left: DD, Judith, C.J., Maddie, Betty, and Jack

           I don’t know what moved me more, the ringing applause or the smiles of delight on the faces of my fellow poet-actors as we took our bows last Saturday night, May 16, after our second and final performance of “A Conversation About Race Among Poets.”
            (For background, see Part 1, below.)
            We’d attempted something difficult, and apparently we’d pulled it off. It was hardly noticed, of course, in the wider urban frenzy of things-to-do on a beautiful May weekend. I suppose over the two nights we attracted no more than thirty-five paying customers.
            But they stayed afterwards. They engaged with our poems, they understood the flow of the show, and they shared their perspectives, not just about the show but about race in America, in Ferguson, in New York City, in Baltimore. In Norfolk, Virginia.
            The conversation continued well beyond the last poem.
            And we’d done it. We’d accomplished something worthwhile.
            I find it hard now to put my script away. It’s loaded with nostalgia, after long hours spent compiling it, breaking it down into theatrical beats, finding the staging, learning my own parts, practicing and polishing and practicing some more, my script going with me to work, to the beach, to rehearsal. It was at the center of my life for the past few weeks, a living thing, with all its penciled notes and edits in the margins. I leave it lying on top of the pile on my shelf of current projects. Can it really be over?
            The freshness of this reminds me of some of the early successes I enjoyed when I first began doing plays in my hometown some 35 years ago. At that time I attracted a company of amateur actors, and we went on to surprise audiences with a new kind of communal theater which, however, could not sustain itself, emotionally or financially. 
            Yet it’s such a wonderful, life-affirming experience, that creative excitement, that spirit of selfless sacrifice which infuses the starving artist with exuberance far into the night! How quickly it dissipates as soon as the real world returns to focus. Then you realize you can’t really live on wonderful feelings. You have to have a practical, daily life to return to, where you can renew contact with the source from which that creative excitement sprang in the first place. You have to sit with that for awhile. You have to learn how to re-create as part of the process of creating.
            Boredom can set in quickly in the re-creating cycle, particularly for a white male who’s worked all his life, or at least for the better part of it. I always like to have a project going, and this last one caught me emotionally. That’s because it wasn't just about race. There was a message running under it, about women—women of all races.
            Realizing that, I began to wonder if gender inequality—males dominating females—is an even more deeply engraved habit in human consciousness than race discrimination, or racism. You don’t have to be white to beat your wife or rape your neighbor.
            Actually, you don’t even have to be male.
            Anyway, our project ended on a high note. Everyone was pleased. We got a great review on Facebook. And we fulfilled my criteria for the success of any production.
            First and foremost, we got along well together, making it easier to take creative risks by exposing ourselves to one another’s scrutiny.
            Second, the material was varied, interesting, often evocative, and the performances were well rehearsed and polished.
            And finally, the audiences were stimulated and supportive of our effort, and that made everyone happy.
            Three for three is as good as it gets.
            Now, reabsorbed back into my daily routine, reflecting on what was, scanning my mind for a clue to what’s to come, taking care of my daily chores and responsibilities—not too difficult in my relatively uncomplicated life—I sit, I breathe, I inflate my bicycle tires and bury some compost in the garden. Soon enough it will be time to do another show.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Coming to the Venue...

A Conversation About Race
Among Poets

 All last year and into this winter I kept reading and hearing in the media and elsewhere that America needs to have a National Conversation About Race.
            I was part of such a conversation several years ago, on a local level. It was called Norfolk (VA) United Facing Race (NUFR), organized and facilitated by Bev Sell, who now runs the Five Points Farm Market on Church St. downtown.
            In that conversation we dug a few layers beneath the veneer of polite society, to the point where I realized there was so much more to talk about. But the six weeks were over. I wished we could have continued that conversation for many more weeks.
            I finally got my chance this year.           
            Poets who frequent the Venue-35 Open Mic in Norfolk, including many of my Acting-for-Poets students and graduates, have strong things to say about race and racism. Some of that was aired in our Venue Voices show last November, when my students surpassed themselves in a moving demonstration of their skills as performance poets.
Maddie Garcia in "Venue Voices"
November, 2014
            But as the stories of police brutality and fatal shootings piled up in the media over the past year and more, I wanted to try facilitating a more ambitious project. I wanted to bring Venue Voices together into a multi-racial conversation about race in honest and fearless poetry, written back and forth in response to each other.
            Some friends advised against it. “No one will ever be honest about race,” my most cynical friend said.
            But I stubbornly plunged ahead anyway. In late January I began a workshop which, over the course of a couple of months, I hoped would produce enough material good enough to invite the public in to hear it.
            A lot of poets said they liked the idea, but in the end only five saw the project through to its final weeks. Six, if you count me.
            They are Betty Davis, Norfolk native and retired police officer descended from slaves; Maddie Garcia, Dominican descendant of white, black, and indigenous races; Jack Callan, of pure Irish descent, who recently retired as vice president of the Poetry Society of Virginia;  C.J.Xpression, a Venue-35 poet of Cherokee-Irish-Italian ancestry, and Judith Stevens, a native of the rural South and active member of the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment.
            My own background is in the rural North, son of a liberal mother, and white as vanilla except in the summer when I burn my face to disguise my race.
C.J.Xpression in "Venue Voices"
November, 2014

            We six, on May 15 and 16, will perform “A Conversation About Race Among Poets,” a staged reading at The Venue on 35th. After each show, we’ll invite audience members to add their own thoughts to the Conversation by responding to what they've seen and heard.
            It should be lively. We are a bit of a cantankerous bunch, though we agree on many things. We all condemn racism. We all realize that prejudice has long run rampant in our society. Every immigrant group has felt it, every minority movement, every new idea.
            But in America there is no question that race prejudice, or racism, is an evil promulgated by whites on all other races but falling particularly heavily throughout our history on African slaves and their present-day descendants.
            These are the people on whose lashed and bleeding backs America’s economic wealth was built, making the American South before the Civil War the acknowledged Cotton King of the world, as I learned in my research for our weekly project meetings.
            And cotton truly was king for Southern white plantation owners and Northern textile magnates, who became fabulously wealthy from the profits of world trade which then trickled down to many white workers but to no black workers. They couldn’t share the wealth because they were property, like horses and mules. However much money Massah made, the slaves got only what they needed to keep them working.
Betty Davis in "Venue Voices"
November, 2014
            To me, that sniffs heavily of karma. White people today, especially those whose  ancestors were in America before the Civil War, are certain to have benefited, directly or indirectly, from the ill-gotten gains of involuntary servitude, usually enforced with violence. Much is owed that has not been paid.
            So it’s an unavoidable conclusion that in America racism starts with whites. As the dominant American race—and for the record, my ancestors are overwhelmingly white—we institutionalized it when we wrote it into our Constitution. John C. Calhoun summed up the white patrician’s position most succinctly in the 1840s, arguing against emancipation. “We have never dreamed of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race,” he said.
            Using this “Calhoun doctrine” as the non-negotiable principle of traditional white male dominance in America, our group covered a range of topics in our meetings—the genocide of Native Americans, the horror of black and brown enslavement, the Civil Rights movement, white privilege and unconscious racism, the meaning of equality, the militarization of police, and the emotions—the anger, fear, hurt, despair, and sorrow—evoked by experiences of race and color prejudice.
            Here’s an edited sample of an exchange which appears in our completed script:

DD: Look through my eyes,
my grandfathers, all,
and see what’s become
of the world you've passed on,
from the street to the suites
of police-state reprisal.

JUDITH: Intolerance—
an ugly word that curls the tongue.
In Southern forests, bodies hung....

BETTY: The freedom of my heart has been denied for so long.
That is why I could never love in an earthbound way.

MADDIE: The time will come we will be so mixed
there will be no need to check ourselves into a box.

JACK: The last poets line up
To save America.
It’s not about black and white
It’s the story
And we’ve got to tell it right

CJ: Mental bombs explode,
clearing away gray matter
for thought construction.

            Thought construction—in poetry—is what Venue Voices is all about. Our Conversation About Race will be shared, live at The Venue, on Friday, May 15, and Saturday, May 16, at 8 pm. The Venue is at 631 W. 35th St., Norfolk. Admission is $10, all proceeds to benefit The Venue. Reservations may be made at 757-469-0337.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Non-Traditional Casting

Can a White Man Play Nat Turner?

            Back in the mid-1980s, when I landed my first living-wage job as an ensemble actor at the venerable Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, PA, non-traditional casting, as it was called, was encouraged in professional theater. There was an Asian-American in our company, for instance, who played parts written for Caucasians, and I myself played an Asian buffoon in one of the productions.
            Later, as a director myself, I cast African-American actors in a variety of non-traditional roles. Among other considerations—like availability and talent—I stood behind the policy of making more choice roles available to good actors who didn't happen to be white.
            But something I never considered before last weekend is how rare it must be for a white actor to be cast in a role written for a black. In fact, without a background in non-traditional casting, I might have shied away when Patti Wray called at 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 4 and asked me to play Nat Turner in “Nat’s Last Struggle,” her one-man play scheduled for a staged reading before a live audience at 7:30 that evening.
            She’d had a black actor cast, but she’d just found out that he was sick and couldn't make the gig.
            How could I say no? Patti is my friend, and she’s also my boss at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk, VA, where I’m artist-in-residence. I told her to email the script to me. We joked about doing the role in black face.
            The script came around 5 p.m. I printed it out and began reading. Though I’d seen the play before—in fact, written a review of it in 2009 in Thinking Dog Reviews—I remembered little about it or its protagonist except that George Davis, the black actor who played Nat, turned in a powerful performance.
            I read the script through carefully twice, making notes to myself in the spaces and margins. I dressed myself in somber shades, ate a slice of Jala’s nutritious, freshly baked quiche, and we set off for The American Theatre in Hampton, just across the water from Norfolk, where the reading would be held.
            We arrived around 6:45. Aside from artistic director Jeff Stern, Patti and her Venue co-owner Lucy White, and Kaitlin Koch, the sound operator, no one was there. I checked out the lecture room. Not many chairs were set up, but not many people were expected. The Lighthouse Series, as it’s called—this trial relationship between a well- appointed professional touring house and a local playwrights’ group—had yet to draw much audience.
            What chairs there were faced a playing area along one wall of the room, where props were arranged at different stations. The actor originally cast presumably knew when and how to use them, but I didn't. I asked for a music stand to be placed center stage, giving me a base from which I could expand—or not—as the spirit moved me.
            I got some notes on sound cues from Kaitlin, then I sat down in a chair on the set and began reading through the script again.
            It was about 7:15 by then, and two or three people had drifted in. As I read, still making notes, more people arrived. More chairs were being set up, more people arriving, still more chairs. By the time we started, not long after 7:30, the chairs had overflowed into the halls. Most of the people, by far, were black, and some of them were looking at me through furrows of doubt.
            Jeff introduced the evening, explaining, of course, what had happened with the original actor, though I don’t think he ever actually uttered either the words “black” or “white.” For my part—naively but fortunately, as it turned out—I saw no reason why I couldn't read the script with sufficient conviction and authenticity.
            The play begins with the prerecorded voice of a judge ordering Nat Turner to stand, which I did. My reading glasses in place, I moved to the music stand to hear the judge sentence me—that is, Nat—to be hanged by the neck until “dead, dead, dead.”
            I've always had a fascination with the whole process of execution. What would it be like, after committing some heinous crime, to hear that sentence, absorb the finality of it? Of course any of us could die at any time, and often do, but to know the date, the time, and the method, then be led away to wait until they come for you, gives me a very weird, primitive feeling of damnation and hell and longing for redemption. In that sense a death sentence offers the opportunity to enter a  sacred space where execution is transformational, the door to a delirious freedom.
            I tapped into that emotion as I absorbed Nat’s death sentence, and when I began to speak a voice I hadn't rehearsed and didn’t quite recognize in my repertory of voices boomed forth in an accent I wasn’t sure I could control, and I launched into the play—an approximately 40-minute monologue—feeling a bit like a white-water rafter shooting forward through unpredictable rapids.
            But my audience went with me, offering an example of the validity of non-traditional casting. In the talk-back, which customarily follows these staged reading events, a good bit of time was spent on the credibility of a white man playing Nat Turner, especially before a crowd who expected a black man and, whatever their reasons, were not so ready to accept non-traditional casting in this instance.
            But before it was over—in this instance—they did. That was the consensus, and added to it was the fact, surprising to some of them, that the playwright is a white woman.
            There was a full Moon that evening, culminating a holiday season of much sectarian and racial tension. But in the lecture hall of The American Theatre there was a palpable relaxation of that tension. Everyone was surprised, everyone turned on by an evening that started out as a predictable disaster.
            I don’t know what lesson to take from it. But I can say for sure that I’m glad on that particular night I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Unlucky Luck

A Reflection at Christmas, 2014

            It’s been a long time—not since the end of Lent this year—when I've had the urge to sit down and work an idea into a coherent essay.
            But now that it’s Christmas again, the mind finds time to give to itself, and with reflection comes coherence.
            I've just finished my ninth season of “The Concise Dickens’ Christmas Carol.” It was a rattling experience, to say the least, and led me to question many things. Like, what the hell am I doing?
            On December 1 I got hurt pretty badly in a bicycle accident. The first two shows of my 2014 season, on December 5 and 6, had to be canceled. The details are unimportant, except for their comic potential, but as my bike went down into a 10-foot-deep construction ditch I went over the handlebars and landed on my forehead on the street.
            I could have been killed. I could have been broken in countless places. But I only broke my nose and tore the flesh off one of my arms. It was ugly and hurt like a mother, but it didn't incapacitate me, though I did have to put off the show’s opening for another week.
            (The bike was undamaged.)
            So I could say I was lucky. But how lucky was it to ride into a ten-foot ditch in the first place?
            That’s a paradox that confounds me. Somewhere between having the accident at all and not getting hurt badly enough to cancel my ninth season lies a gap of ambiguity. Why did it happen that way?
            I've read—and tend to agree—that all any of us can do in life is follow our natures, wherever they lead. My nature, I’ll admit, has a certain reckless streak, a devil-may-care spark of independence. I try to follow the rules politely, but sometimes I just can’t. It’s not deliberate defiance. It’s my nature. I can’t do otherwise, and so I create experiences for myself, some pleasant, some not so much.
            Can I change my nature? Or at least alter it? Is my bicycle accident a message that I need to do that? If it is, where do I start? My life’s work, such as it is, hinges on that attribute and where it’s taken me. “The Concise Dickens’ Christmas Carol,” which has received spontaneous standing ovations from scores of audiences over its nine years, depends on that very same trait that plunged me into the ditch. On the one hand, it produced a bewitching hour of stagecraft for many people, and on the other a foolish wreck on my bike.
            There’s no separating good from evil, as far as I can tell. They are like Siamese twins, joined at the hip, with only three legs between them. Embrace them both, or neither—you can’t have one without the other.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Photo-Journalistic Poem

No One To Blame

We’re getting new infrastructure on our street.
It’s hell out there, not just inconvenient.
We’ve got to drive over people’s lawns
to get through all the noise and the mess.
Our modest, residential, neighborhood charm
has become for us all a stress test.
Our Street

Fortunately for my boo and me,
we don’t live right on the street.
We’re back a shaded lane, half a block away.
Our landlord owns our infrastructure,
all the way out to the city pipes,
so no one’s digging back our way.
Our lane, from the other side of the street.

In our hide-out here by the woods,
we aren’t much bothered by the daily roar—
the metallic bangs, groans, and screeches
of straining, earth-grappling machines.
We don’t hear the rhythmic chug-a-chug-a-chug
of engines pumping liquid waste
through temporary hoses day and night
while new pipes are laid to final rest
in graves twelve feet below the street.
Machines, men, and The Pit

So long as we don’t drive out,
we can live in our own world back here—
our yard, our garden,
our two contented cats,
our shrubs and flowers in their pots,
while all around the shade of the wetland trees
creates the illusion of deep woods.
It’s easy to forget, back here,
how much of our ease and comfort in life,
not to mention making a living,
depends on our city’s infrastructure.
Water. Sewer. Electric.
Cable. Wifi and phone.
Garden and Woods (photo by Seb)

I walk out to the street one evening.
I look at the crater chiseled deep in the ground.
I see the machines at rest in the twilight—
a back hoe, a bull-dozer, trucks parked in a           row,
flatbeds and steel molds to fit down the holes
where hard-hatted men, soaked in sweat,
struggle to couple new pipes with the old,
dodge collapsing cascades of mud,
dig away dirt on their knees with bare hands
to locate another utility’s pipeline
and avoid crossing lines with the law.
All day in sewage they tromp and they wade.
I only hope they’re well paid.
Men in The Pit

And each morning the engines start up,
more dirt is gouged from the Earth,
a few feet more of pipe line prepared,
a few feet more of our block is repaired.
If it goes on like this,
I won’t complain.
I’ll stick around ‘til they’re done,
understanding it’s best for anyone
to anchor in port when the world’s gone insane.
What can you do? There’s no one to blame.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Our Earth Day

“What the Hell's Goin’ on Here?”

Untitled, by Jala Magik

     Almost a year ago I posted an entry of sympathy for the thousands of drivers who are stuck in traffic on a nearly daily basis on their way across the bridge-tunnel between Norfolk and her sister cities on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay.
     I remarked that this had never happened to me, though I’ve lived in Norfolk since 1994. I said I didn’t know how people could bear the paralyzing gridlock, day in and day out. I advised them to find work closer to home.
     Well, on Earth Day this year it was my turn, and I must eat my words. I got stuck in traffic like any other poor fool, making me more than late for a long-standing engagement. In fact, I was forced to cancel.
     It was disappointing. It was humiliating. But it was beyond my control. And one thing I said in that previous post I still stand by. It was a nightmare.
     We’d just paid a mechanic a costly amount for a new water pump. The repair seemed successful. Judging by the temperature gauge on the dashboard, our ‘97 Chevy Cavalier had never run so cool in the eleven years we’ve had her. The needle stood just shy of half-way to hot, as we drove her about town. We were pleased.
     Meanwhile, I had a poetry performance at a retirement home in Newport News at 7 p.m. I knew the bridge-tunnel traffic could be problematic at that hour. But I didn’t anticipate how problematic. And, foolishly as it turned out, I hoped for one of those days when traffic would not back up too much. It sometimes happens. Honestly, it does.
     Jala comes along with me on these gigs. She likes the show—I call it “Oceans of Feelings”—and helps me with setting up and welcoming audiences. She arranged to get off from her work early so we could leave at 5:30. It’s only a 25-minute drive, ordinarily. We thought we were allowing enough time for any back-ups we might run into.
     How wrong could we be?
     I listened to the 5 o’clock traffic report on public radio. The news was not good. On every expressway in the area, including the one we needed to take, there was a wreck, bringing traffic just about everywhere to a standstill.
     We should have left at 3. If we’d had any idea of how bad it was going to be, we would have.
     In any case, as planned, we left our house at 5:30 and headed for the nearest access to the expressway. We never made it. Several miles away from the highway ramp we encountered a stationary line-up of vehicles—two lanes of red brake lights stretching ahead as far as we could see. Soon a similar line-up fell into place behind us. We were trapped, inching ahead now a few yards every minute or so.
     “What the hell’s goin’ on here?” a guy in a truck yelled to us from the right lane. Good question.
     It was 6:15 by then. I suggested Jala call ahead to the retirement home on her cell phone to tell them we might be late. Even very late.
     But her cell phone service had been blocked after she’d reported the phone missing on Easter. She’d lost it at church, and though she’d recovered it that morning she’d forgotten to have the service restored.
     Shortly after we realized we had no phone, I noticed the needle of the temperature dial on the dashboard rapidly rising. That’s when the nightmare became real.
     I turned the engine off. When the car in front of us moved, I turned it back on, crept ahead a few yards, stopped, turned it off again. But clearly this was unsustainable. Somehow, some way, I had to get us out of there.
     We were in the left lane. Not too far ahead in the right lane there was a junction with a street we could take to the shopping center serving our greater Ocean View neighborhood.
     I managed to squeeze into that lane, and, alternately shutting down the engine and starting it back up, we crept along a few yards at a time until we reached the intersection, made the turn, and escaped the nightmare. Or at least that segment of it.
     As I drove at a normal speed toward the shopping center, the needle of the temperature gauge fell back to the center of the dial. I thought there might be some way we could still get to the gig if traffic on the expressway started moving again. Jala thought it was a crazy to think so, given the conditions we’d just left. She wanted to go home and call from there to cancel. But I wanted to call from the shopping center, close to the expressway, in case the traffic cleared and we could still arrive, better late than never. I couldn’t accept the obvious—that I wasn’t going to make my gig.
     We stopped at the video store where we’re well known to see if anyone had a phone we could use. Predictably, none of the clerks we know were on duty, but one fellow kindly surrendered his phone, and we called the retirement home.
     The woman who answered knew nothing about a performance. She was in another unit, and all office personnel had left at 5. But she said she’d try to get someone to call me back, and after a few minutes the activities director who had hired me returned my call.
     This gig was originally scheduled for January but was canceled because of snow. Was I now telling her I couldn’t make this rescheduled date because of hopeless traffic and an overheating car?
     “This is the second time,” she said.
     “I know,” I said.
     “This is very disappointing,” she said.
     “Maybe if the traffic clears, we could do the show later this evening,” I suggested.
     She said there are alternative routes around the traffic jam. Why hadn’t I tried one of them? I said I wasn’t familiar with any alternative routes. There are at least two, she said, through one or the other of two tunnels downtown, bypassing Norfolk to reach Newport News on another expressway. But those tunnels were forty minutes from where we live, and there were accidents tying up traffic on that expressway, too, according to the 5 o’clock news. I couldn’t risk getting into another back-up with a car that was overheating on a route I was unfamiliar with.
     But there was nothing I could say, finally, except, “I’m sorry,” over and over, which wasn’t enough to satisfy her displeasure. I hung up feeling completely diminished. Clearly I’d never work there again.
     When we got home I tore up the check I’d been holding since January and went out on a bicycling meditation.
     (A bicycling meditation is like a walking meditation except it’s on a bicycle. Walking meditation is described in my tenth Lenten Diary post for April 15, “Only My Cats Were Missing.”)
     Eventually, sitting by one of the tidal waterways that lace their way through Norfolk’s neighborhoods, I realized that this set-back was nothing. The impact of its emotional stress would soon pass, remembered only as another laughable anecdote in life’s litany of crossed wires.
     From there I began to think about why that activities director might have been so cold. Maybe she was at the end of a stressful day, not unlike our own frustration at being stuck in traffic. I felt her pressure at having to fill an hour she thought was covered. I wondered if she might have to answer to someone for hiring an unreliable poet. I reminded myself of the current planetary configurations which are challenging us all, to say the least.
     By the end of the evening Jala and I were laughing over the absurdity of the whole situation. Our Chevy saved us from an enormous hassle, we concluded. She got the message before we did that this gig was a lost cause. There was nothing we could do about it. For whatever reason, we were not supposed to do our show at that facility. Period.
     But there was another, more important element to it all, which became clear to us the next morning. We’d just come off our Buddhist retreat on the Eastern Shore, as described in my last two Journal posts. We were consciously attempting to adopt the practices we’d solidified there into our daily, non-retreat life. The real-world mess we’d run into the evening before, including the activity director’s unsympathetic response to our dilemma, was an opportunity to apply those mindful practices, including patience, forbearance, calm mind, attention to the moment, and acceptance rather than resistance in a situation in which all that could be changed was our attitude.
     How’d we do? we asked ourselves.
     Answer: Not too badly. Give us a C, or maybe a B-minus—definitely room for improvement. For instance, the depression and lowered self-esteem that we nurtured in the aftermath of the whole mess, while understandable I suppose, was out of proportion to our sincere intentions. We really had tried. That counts for something.
     And, looking more deeply into the situation, what might it be telling us about ourselves and our lives?
     Maybe it’s time to trade in our old car for a more road-worthy model, if we want to travel around this area and beyond. That’s an easy conclusion, but it ignores the greater reality of gridlock.
     Should we consider giving up a car entirely? Does it really serve the common good to pollute the air we all breathe for the personal convenience of driving? Jala and I live by the tidal wetlands. We’re witness to the struggle of the trees and other vegetation against the noise and fumes from all manner of motor vehicles, including screaming military jets. Struggling with the trees are the song birds and other furtive wild life, hungry and scared in a scruffy wooded ghetto, all that’s left for them after development has pushed into their habitats as far as politics will allow.
     Is there really any excuse for participating in the polluting, daily gridlock of motor vehicles that poor urban planning has loosed upon our cities? Isn’t there a better alternative than the current transportation agenda coming from Richmond to build more roads and tunnels and charge people tolls to pay for them?
     Maybe it’s even time to retire from this dead-end life as a low-paid theatrical performer!
     These are the sort of considerations, personal and societal, that remain in my mind after our harrowing Earth Day, April 22, 2014.
     In all of that, I remind myself that it’s not important I missed the gig—or lost the money I thought I needed from it. What really matters is that I don’t get fooled again into thinking that it really matters.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Lenten Diary 11

Breaking Old Habits

Thich Naht Hahn
     As I write this on Thursday evening, April 17, it is a week since we arrived at the Oak Grove Plantation on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and settled into a three-day retreat designed to concentrate our minds on the practice of mindful living in the Buddhist tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.
     Michael Ciborski, our retreat teacher, is especially qualified to lead such a gathering, having spent nine years as a monk at the Plum Village monastery in France, headquarters of Thich Nhat Hanh’s world-wide mission. He left the order, but not the teachings, to marry, and is now an ordained lay teacher of Buddhist thought with a home base in Keene, NH.
     And he’s good. That, at least, is my relatively uninformed opinion, which I suppose means that I got a lot out of his teachings. I also liked the guy and found we had more than just an interest in Buddhism in common. But I digress.
     When Jala and I arrived that first Thursday evening, I was not in the best shape. I was bothered by chronic pain in my hips and—a recent development—an aching shoulder. In addition, for some reason I’d slept poorly the night before, clocking three hours at the most, though I’d gone to bed early for me, around 1 a.m.
     But I thought that might be for the best because the retreat schedule called for us to go to our rooms at 9 p.m., observing “Noble Silence” through 9 a.m. the next day, which started with wake-up at 6, group meditation at 6:30, and breakfast at 8. This was a nearly 180-degree turn-around from my normal schedule, with bed time closer to 3 a.m. and wake-up as late as 11. I could only hope, short on sleep as I was, that I’d be ready to go to bed at 9.
Our Cottage, shared with four others.
     That turned out to be a false hope. I couldn’t sleep Thursday night. I couldn’t sleep Friday night! But finally, by Saturday night, bone-tired as I was, I adjusted at last to the early-bird schedule and slept like a happy baby Buddha.
     And that was just one of my less-than-ideal habits broken over the weekend.
     Another was consuming too much world news, which is a great molder of depression. It’s a habit left over from my days as a journalist, but it also runs in the family. My mother literally depressed herself to death with CNN on the television all day, and I guess I’d become her heir as town crier, staying informed and alerting others to all the evils of the world going down.
     To make matters worse, Jala and I were in the habit of eating dinner in front of the TV news. We’d usually turn it on at 5:30 to catch Charlie Rose on PBS, then switch over to the CBS Evening News, then back to PBS for the Newshour. On Fridays we’d extend the session with Washington Week. Usually I’d doze off at some point during this marathon, absorbing the toxins subconsciously. We often talked about turning the TV off at dinner, but we never followed through.
     At the retreat there was no access to news, and meals were taken in silence as we followed the dharma—the teaching—to eat mindfully. That means slowly, with deliberation, tasting each bite, chewing it fully, swallowing, taking a pause before lifting the utensil to gather the next bite.
     We ate our meals outside, with the vast sky above, meadows and forests surrounding us, and birds chirping and chattering in the trees on every side. It was the ultimate relaxation, in large part because no one was on the spot to make conversation. Many of us were strangers to each other, yet we got to know one another anyway, in silence, connecting with eye contact, smiles back and forth, and primitive sign language.
     Everyone had an assigned job, which helped create the harmonious communal environment I’d hoped for but was too immature to pull off in the 1960s. My job was in food preparation, where silence was observed except for minimal consultations about the work at hand. Jala helped with keeping order in the meditation hall, where we met two or three times a day to sit on our cushions or chairs for meditation or to listen to Michael’s insightful dharma talks on aspects of mindfulness, some of which I described in my last post.
     Each afternoon we had two hours of personal time, giving us the opportunity to visit the sheep in their pasture, cross the wide meadow from the house to the inlet opening upon the Chesapeake Bay, romp with the ground-keeper’s black Labrador retrievers, or whatever we fancied.
     I got a big kick out of the sheep, who aren’t shy. They lumber up to you, stick their noses in your belly if you let them, and can knock you over if you’re not braced against their  considerable mass.
     But the Labs won my heart completely. They pegged us at once as the dog lovers we are. One in particular followed me up the gravel road to the cottage where we were staying, waited for me while I went inside, and came back to the main house with me, as if he were my own dog.
     He wandered off then, and I lay down on the grass in the warm spring Sun to catch a nap if I could. But, without warning, a heavy tongue slavered over my lips and nose. I opened my eyes to see my Lab buddy’s big jokester face an inch from mine. I couldn’t resist his advances, didn’t even want to, and he washed my face like an English nanny—from neck to ears to hair line and back again. Then, for good measure, he lathered my arms and even my arm pits before he considered me done and trotted away, leaving me laughing in the grass, the happiest I’ve been since before we lost our beloved boxer Athena a year ago.
     I think at that point I fully grasped one of the key mantras of the retreat and of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings: “I have arrived. I am home.” Not at the Oak Grove Plantation, though that place is certainly conducive to such a thought, but in my own mind, in the present moment, wholly connected to Life as it is—not past, not future, but Now.
     And, of course, the original Thinking Dog, after whom this blog is named and whose picture appears at the top of the column opposite, was a black Lab.
     So how’s it going, a week after the retreat?
     Interestingly, I don’t feel as if the retreat has ended. I still feel the presence of the people we were with and the continuation of the activities we shared. We don’t turn on the news at dinner and don’t miss it. We eat our meals together mindfully (though not in full silence necessarily), and I’ve been getting to bed and waking up quite a bit earlier, giving me more time in a day. I meditate more deeply each morning, and I seem more attuned to people around me, less alienated and trapped inside myself, despite my various aches and pains. I’ve also lost five pounds.
     But the change that seems most telling to me concerns my interactions with our cat, Spookie, a homeless waif we took in after the guy next store moved out, leaving her behind to fend for herself.
     Before the retreat, she used to duck and run away from me when I’d walk through the room. It annoyed me a little, though I felt sorry for her, too, figuring her reaction was a product of her early insecurity.
     Not necessarily. Because now that I’m back from retreat and practicing walking meditation around the house, she doesn’t run away from me. And I realize it wasn’t she who was strange. It was I.
     That insight alone tells me as much about the effectiveness of this practice as anything else I can think of.
     And with that, I bring my Lenten Diary of 2014 to a close. I feel it has been a productive spiritual season for me. But without the retreat to imprint the Lenten duty to reflect and repent, I’m not sure it would have been. Too many tired, old habits would have survived the winter, making this April “the cruelest month” rather than the most hopeful in many a year.
Happy Easter!