(Quoting Gertrude Stein.)

Last night I watched a documentary about children with cancer. One of the things that struck me was the humor: the parents and siblings with their steady stream of comments that wouldn’t make sense in a transcript but conveyed such complex experiences- their purposeful weaving of lightness with darkness to make the experience more complex. To create meaning in every moment.

But another thing that struck me so many times was the gathering of families for birthday parties, for funerals: the blowing-out of candles, the hugging.

The touching.

I thought a lot about touching at the beginning of all this. But how quickly things become habitual. How quickly a culture can change. When a nurse on the tv screen reaches over to comfort another nurse with a hug: my body responds by tightening, “No!”

I wondered what this documentary would look like had it been filmed this past year. If the one doctor, with his arms tightly crossed over his chest while he talk to the family about end-of-life decisions would seem… unremarkable?

This week I have been thinking about how much I miss mentoring. I miss my job. Since March, my role has changed drastically. The physical distance has created a kind of objectivity and hands-off mentality that I get no pleasure from. I can count on one hand how many times I have been able to sit in a room with students and work on a scene – jumping up and down from the floor to interrupt, to find a new perspective, to coach: “Take it again, from your upstage cross” – when I’ve been able to see the learning process – or see that I need to come at it from another angle.

The conscious physical restraint has restrained me creatively.

It feels like I’m trying to teach a child to swim while sitting on the bleachers. I can’t explain why. Objectively, I don’t think much has changed in terms of my actual behavior. I wonder what one would observe comparing film clips of my work before and after the Corona restrictions. If I would seem “normal” now. In the classroom, in the conference room: now sitting across the table and down one seat to measure out a meter.

The students come into the room single file now, and we spray their hands with anti-bac. They leave the same way, and we mop the floor after every class. There’s no logical reason my relationships with the students should be different because of these little rituals. But they are different. I have a whole new understanding of what makes a “safe space” in a rehearsal room: where I am allowed to touch a finger lightly to a sternum and say: “Move from here,” reminding the student that the theater is where the imagination creates an alternative and shared reality through our physical presence. Our physical energy. Our physicalized intentions – whether or not they are followed through – whether or not they are played against.

Fear is a wild creature, that doesn’t respect boundaries or arguments. Fear is a great, gaping mouth that latches onto whatever it can to feed.

I try to get a student’s attention in the hallway. I lightly touch my finger to her down jacket and everyone’s heads whip around: shame.

In the rehearsal room, the students can touch one another. It has to do with the subject’s egenart, it’s specific nature. We’re still unsure whether instructors are allowed to touch the students. The logic evades us all.

A distraught student comes to me in tears. I find the appropriate telephone numbers, write the emails, help him make a plan to get through the next day or two. I reach out to touch his arm… isn’t this the specific nature of the moment?

My role?

Some habits are hard to break, and any acting teacher knows that playing against the impulse heightens the emotion of the moment.

Adds complexity – which seems to be the specific nature of human nature.

  1. My step-father wouldn’t have known what a time out was. He liked the belt. Or it could be he knew that I’d have liked a time-out. A chance to sit in a quiet, sheltered corner and think about the universe as a shoe-box inside of a shoe-box.
  2. From the hot floor of the backseat of the car, I could see the desert sky darker than any closed eye, shot through with lights brighter than the burn of exposed bulbs on your retina. A frozen hour before the neon of Vegas bled over the heavens.
  3. The best place to fish was from the little dead-end where the river carved a trough between trees and the water was still. Fly-fishing isn’t a spectator sport: I jumped bank to bank and slid beside a nest of moccasins. Deliciously close to a heartbeat.
  4. When I left I packed everything that was mine into cardboard boxes and lined them up in the hallway. I was waiting for him to say, Wait-a-minute. Let’s not do this. I was full-steam ahead, bearing down fast on the switch away from our son’s track.
  5. I take a thick chunk of chalk and draw angled lines on the black wall of the rehearsal room. This is called the vanishing point. As we move closer to it, the world passes us by more quickly: there is less space between each event.

Trying a new form I read about here.

My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings
of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.

Not now when the world is dark on my way to work, and dark again as I head home – but on most mornings on the train, I can turn and see the trail I’d run along two hours earlier – from this other perspective, and at 100 kph.

The sky is wider somehow, seeing it from behind a pane of dirty glass. Though that doesn’t seem logical.

But there’s no sound of my footsteps. There’s no scrutinizing the shadows on the path, no still frogs, dead blackbirds, or snapped limbs scattered to trip me up. So I look up and over the water to the horizon where the hills layer themselves in ever-lighter blues to white where they smudge into the sky itself. Quiet, steady hum.

The lake is simultaneously bigger and smaller from this perspective.

Despite the creeping suburbs, I know there are elk among the trees on the far shore. Deer and mink. And there are thin vipers hidden just underground or between the stones in the centuries-old hedges. There’s a part of me that whispers: still, not wild enough. Not wild enough until the summer’s ticks dig bullseyes into flesh and release sickness into the bloodstreams of weekend hikers.

Nature does put me in a state of awe. “Wonder and mysticism and gratitude” – I guess. But also fear. If I were to call nature my religion, it would be the religion of the Middle Ages with its attending ugliness, its violence.

For every lily that unfolds in the sunlight, an injured lemming staggers days towards its death. Mallards force themselves on hens, and insects snip one another in half.

Nature isn’t pretty.

And it’s beautiful.

Biology was one of my favorite subjects in high school. Drawing the mitochondria and the Gogli apparatus was like doing God’s doodling. Now florescence and electron microscopes show diseased cells as bright and as ornamental as peacock feathers. Death and beauty go hand-in-hand. The poets have always known this, even if they’ve romanticized as a way to tame their fears. We’re snake charmers, all of us.

I keep asking myself if nature has compassion. But I find myself circling back to the idea that a whole is made up of parts: does a mallard have compassion? Does an army ant? Does lichen feel for the stone it erodes?

Does the earth
itself grieve its half-deaths
its own evisceration
shrouding itself
in plastics?

Are we losing our religion?