Thursday, October 16, 2014

When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou

When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignoranceof
dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

― Maya Angelou

posted in loving memory of Mark Kuller who died early this morning.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Having this past season read reviews of Bill Clinton Hercules, my play in the Edinburgh Fringe, I am slightly more reluctant to write one.  The BCH reviews seemed to me to say more about the reviewer than the play. What the hell though? It's my blog. It's all supposed to be about me anyhow.

On Friday I saw Enda Walsh's new play at the National, Ballyturk. I felt like I was at the premier of Hamlet. It is a particular and peculiar masterpiece.  So I'm a big fan of Walsh.  Walworth Farce, Penelope, New Electric Ballroom... I am full of wonder at his ability to plumb the limitations of our psyches, see what we are in new ways and show us in his plays.  Damn these Irish playwrights with their wisdom and charm.

Audiences typically applaud heartily at his plays and then turn around to each other and say, what the hell just happened? What does it all mean? What was that blue stuff? It's always hard to exit a Walsh play in a timely manner because people are clumped together excitedly talking.

You can read my review of his Misterman here .

Ballyturk. Spoiler alert.  Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi are in a giant studio apartment/womb/locus of consciousness/monad. They are nameless and they may be two parts of the same person. Or one may be a character created by the other.  Maybe the superego and the ego. The more intensely physical of the two has fits. They are, like all Walsh's characters, and indeed like all of us, are trapped in a narrative - they spend their days playing games involving the people of the town of Ballyturk.

One day Cillian catches a fly, joyful of evidence of an external world. One wall of their studio falls and Stephen Rea appears. He has this monologue about the relationship of his left hand to his right hand that will be a staple of every audition in London very shortly I am sure. Rea may be the fly. He may be authority. He may be reality outside the mind. .  He speaks pure poetry about the magnificence of the outside world heralded by the fly. Life in all its magnificence, he says, demands only one thing, a death. He demands that one of them join him outside. The rest of the play flows from that demand.

The play is shot through with a kind of nostalgia, but nostalgia almost like a high speed train running through the neural networks of the play. Power ballads play from the 80's. Yaz. (Upstairs at Erics was such a staple of my existence in the 80's) The nameless men dance. Rea croons. The recontructions of Ballyturk are Vaudeville.  There is yelling and fear and frustration. Murphy bangs his head bloody against a wall.

Mysterious and primal. In Misterman Walsh has Murphy so steeped in his own version of reality that the sound of people trying to speak to him is distorted. In Ballyturk we get to see inside that reality. It's almost like Beckett's play Not I (which I saw at Cambridge Arts) - it's like being inside someone's mind.

People take refuge in stories, right? They escape into a movie. And that's one level. But when I say Walsh's characters are trapped in a narrative I am being trite and annoying because really, the characters escape there too. They like it there. It is what they know. It must go on. We of course have these narratives too: I am a doctor, a teacher, a mom, a drunk, a loser, a Christian, a Conservative, a Jew. I live in a democracy. America is the best country. My children's safety demands my constant vigilance. It's necessary that air travel is the way it is. The world is basically fair. The world is governed by the rule of law. It is the human condition to have these narratives. It is the work of the very best playwrights to point out how these narratives trap you even as they keep you safe, how they are wrong or incomplete.

Walsh was always up there with McDonagh and McGuiness and now I feel like he's up there with Stoppard.

In my review of Misterman I complain bitterly that Walsh's comparatively least compelling play got a big standing ovation at the National. When I saw Ballyturk on Friday, it was sold out, but no one stood up. No one stood up for the better play. Sometimes that is how it is.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Wheaton College 25th Anniversary

This weekend the Wheaton College Class of 1989 is celebrating its 25th anniversary and I am in rainy Cambridge shuffling kids to Kung Fu and trying to help with Latin homework. I am not in Wheaton Illinois. But I just heard the Homecoming Chapel address, and it was given by an old flame. A man now a Bishop of a segment of the Anglican Church in America, Stewart Ruch.

He told a narrative of sin and redemption in his still charming style.  When he and I arrived on campus twenty-five years ago we were hungry to learn and grow and we both - separately, because we didn't meet right away - recoiled at the simplistic culture and specific nature of worshipping Jesus we found on campus. In Stewart's testimony in chapel, this was his sin. See, his chapel address/life narrative wasn't the usual old-fashioned unfolding of (1) drinking/gambling/slutting it up (sin) (2) finding Jesus and repenting (3) happiness and recruiting for Jesus (4) asking for money. This was much more sophisticated, as befits a mind like Stewart's. His sin was that he did not embrace the simplistic, particular nature of Christianity.  He employed his critical faculty. He wrestled with truth, and truth was hard to find. It required great energy and great struggle and it made him raw. That was what he did wrong. And as in every good testimonial, it made him very unhappy. He used the word despair. And twice he repeated the soul-crushing, hell-inducing insight that both the church and places like Wheaton are by their very nature "utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken".

Of course the end of the story was that he was set straight by his elders, told that his insights into human institutions and quest for the truth and other such intellectual things meant nothing to Jesus, Jesus merely requires your blind faith. Stewart was seeing and now he is blind and he lives in the presence of God, well into stages three and four.

Well, over here in East Anglia I am still in that sinner stage. I am still raw. It simultaneously sucks and is more fun living in that difficult terrain of being uncomfortable and uncertain all the time. I seek truth and enlightenment, and for that I have to learn things and change, and change means I leave my comfort zone and that means I am not comfortable. But if I accept each moment with love, love of myself and acceptance instead of judgment, I can grow, I can learn through the pain of the discomfort and sometimes it is totally fun. Plus I think I'm getting smarter. Not smarter, exactly, but more capable of real love, love that is found in ourselves instead of sourced in an external God named Jesus. So if you are thinking of becoming an anti-intelllectual in the wake of Stewart's somewhat (sorry) pre-Fascist speech, I write to ask you to think again.

I believe it is preferable, if you are strong enough as a human (a human who may or may not be in service to Christ, (may we please leave that as an open question?)), to stay in that place of uncertainty. 

I want to defend the sin that Stewart repents so strongly of. That period of decadence was actually kind of fun, not that decadent, and good for our humanity.  And we were developing a critical faculty, a faculty I value and will defend. It is true that all our human institutions are "utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken" and I think responding to this truth by telling yourself to stop thinking and just submit is not good.

The more I employed my critical faculty, the less I could believe in the particular claims of Christianity. I was the student in the New Testament class raising my hand every five minutes asking what would happen to all of the Muslims under strict Christian doctrine. It took me to a terribly sad period of mourning.I think a living relationship with God is something that I have. And yes, life is still uncomfortable. But this lifetime of devotion to truth has brought me closer to it than I think Stewart is now. So I'll put my testimony out there too. (I thought it was so interesting that when Stewart was testifying about the depths of his moral depravity he said he was a fan of anarchy. I'll get to that later.)

Wheaton College in the mid-Eighties had an intellectually lively and artistically vibrant community. I loved learning there. Hanging around with Stewart was the best. It was intense. In retrospect we were tortured souls but we were really alive. Pushing through those literature and philosophy, theology and physics classes and thinking so hard about what was the core, what was the core of what we believed. And we fell in love with the greats, with Joe McClatchey, with high church action... Frederick Buechner was on campus that Fall; his subtle and intensely human Christianity and wisdom drew us both in. Funny. After Stewart's talk I recalled Leo Bebb.

Around the end of the nineties I became more and more aware of the fact that what I believed was just and true and loving in the world and Christian doctrine had drifted apart. Not completely. I still went to Episcopal churches.

When I went to law school I taught Sunday school at the church Governor Weld attended. I didn't know the Governor was at church until a series of oddly specific Prayers of the People were uttered ("and when Bill 5422 passes the Governor's desk this week, we pray oh Lord that you give him the wisdom to sign it").

I wrote my law school thesis on the verse from Luke- "Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you do not lift a finger to ease them." My thesis was that religiously motivated political involvement is an inescapable phenomenon. Evangelicals want to be in politics. There is no point telling Christians that the liberal humanist philosophy in our Constitution does not want them to pass laws in accordance with their doctrines. So a better strategy - the one that worked for me - was to look at the heart of Christianity and see whether that heart would be better served by ensuring freedom. Freedom to choose or reject Christianity. For certainly Stewart would agree that a coerced Christianity is not a true Christianity. Wouldn't you, Stewart? So the laws must find us free to fail. To not hear when Jesus stands at the door and knocks. There is nothing less than a theological justification - Jesus's own justification - for civil rights laws. The sacred space of the human heart and the human self must be autonomously given, and those choices should be honored and respected by the government (evidence on this point runs more along Antigone lines).

I make this digression because Stewart's church is somewhat famously anti-gay and I wonder what he would say about this point. One man's cloak of certainty about Jesus is another man's burden hard to bear. See, e.g., the stories of OneWheaton.

I don't write to challenge Stewart's doctrine on the point of LGBTA people particularly - I guess I wrote to challenge the whole philosophical underpinnings that got him there. I challenge the certainty. I challenge the set-up in Stewart's talk - the solipsistic assumption that those who disagree with him are denying the one truth. There are many truths that must work together.

My Christianity fell away in 2001 and I mourned. I really grieved. I missed the unfolding Christianity of the mid-Eighties -what Stewart referred to as his decadent period. (Consistently in my life there are two themes in conversations (1) I never thought of it that way before and (2) the time I was living/working/friends with you was a decadent period.) It sounds completely douchey to say this but my search for truth continued and was amplified by the birth of my children. .

That doesn't mean - well, I don't know what that means. When I was at the steps of St. Paul for Occupy it was like what I imagined the early church was like. An undeniable reality, just like when people laid hands on Stewart in his talk. But my reality makes more things sacred, our bodies and our earth, our governments. And for that I will stay raw and even listen to the anarchists. And the responsibility for revolution is something that I feel now. Because I think Jesus would want us to do something about the fact that our institutions are utterly and intrinsically fractured and broken

And that's where I am going to leave my testimony.