I think this is the third year that I am trying to read a small bit of Rilke each night before bed. I am good at morning routines, but my days always unravel and evening routines have never been something I have managed to follow through on.

But though I am never patient, I am stubborn, and I am trying yet again. A cursory tidying of the house. A cup of tea. A half-hour on the Shakti mat.

Rilke.

These days I’m puzzling over the idea of comfort – over the fact that it is possible to find comfort in surrendering to what is unequivocally unpleasant. I don’t mean looking for silver linings. But acknowledging what is. Comfort need not be defined as providing hope, as I have always unconsciously understood it. I’ve gone down a rabbit hole of synonyms this morning trying to figure out where I got this idea.

Rilke writes: “A solitary sojourn in the country is, especially at this moment, on half real, because the sense of harmlessness in being with nature is lost to us. The influence on us of nature’s quiet, insistent presence is, from the start, overwhelmed by our knowledge of the unspeakable human fate that, night and day, irrevocably unfolds.”

I’m aware that I’m reading this out of context, as it is presented in this particular book. And I can’t help but wonder what I’m missing. The sense of harmlessness in being with nature is lost to us.

With all due respect, and with admitted ignorance, this morning this orphaned paragraph strikes me as a kind of koan. My thoughts are not half-real when I walk gingerly on the ice-slick paths these mornings. They are surreal. My experience of nature has never left room for a sense of harmlessness. On the contrary. Perhaps for having had grown-up so disconnected from nature it has always been something I’ve feared. Deadly insects, “Jaws”, avalanches, earthquakes. When I was a child, I picked a strawberry from the runner and popped it in my mouth. It’s how I know what a worm tastes like. I didn’t get sick, but it was years before I ate something that didn’t come wrapped in plastic again.

I’ve slowly come to see the value of consciously being with nature. To see the false comfort of brick walls and plywood frames, or a porcelain bathtub against the force of tectonic plates. To understand how the belief that we are walking on top of nature, beside it, is as much of a illusion of perspective as that of the proverbial fish who looks in vain to find the ocean. And that my being in nature certainly not marked by harmlessness.

Rilke wrote about this “unspeakable human fate that, night and day, irrevocably unfolds” in the autumn of 1914. Two months after the assassinations that triggered the First World War. His perspective of human fate overwhelming nature, as though human lives are above or beside “[N]ature’s quiet, insistent presence […]”

I was thinking about a video I saw the other day. It compared the sound waves created by various birds-of-prey. The owl being nearly silent. I thought of the pellets of fur and bone owls cough up and leave behind.

I was also thinking about the ruckus the crows make each morning when E. and I run past their morning congress by the lake. Insistent. Not quiet.

I have absolutely no idea how intimate Rilke was with nature, and therefore I have absolutely no idea what this paragraph means. To him. To Lou Andreas-Salomé, to whom it was addressed in the first place. But I wonder if Rilke was seeking comfort in nature on his solitary walk? If what he saw as half-real, wasn’t real at all? If he was envisioning soldiers killing each other in the woods? On the open fields between them?

I think there is a strange comfort in accepting the reality of nature. When you’re out in the cold, it is easier to bear when you relax. Bracing yourself against it is a waste of energy. Stay loose, keep moving. I don’t have it figured out, but I believe there is a difference between acceptance and acquiescence. I believe one needs to accept the dangers of thin ice before one can begin to plan to take care crossing.

To build bridges, maybe.

Worms naturally bore into the strawberries. You learn to keep an eye out for them. Deal with it. Wrapping everything in plastic isn’t doing the trick.

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.