Under Covid of Darkness

I’m on Day 12 of Covid, contracted I think on the New York City Subway System, being the only masked person around coughers and sneezers; or else in the brief unmasked walk from Port Authority to the subway entrance on 7th Avenue. However one gets it (only 5 days into my bivalent vaccine, I wasn’t yet efficacious) it’s been a helluva bedridden ride of waves of all the various Covid symptoms I’ve read about. As a result of the positive test (taken a few days prior to heading to Virginia for my 40th high school reunion, with a sore throat and runny nose, oh shit), I’ve found myself living in bed and relying on the kindness of my friend Cathy and her husband and son, who check in daily, pick up takeout for me and a few groceries. I’ve been subsisting on V8, apples, brown rice, beans, some Chinese soups, and tea. And The Graham Norton Show via YouTube. I tested positive again after five days, and again after ten (though a lighter line), so I’ll try again on Wednesday, which will be a full two weeks plus one day. I’m running out of tests. But at least I’m dressing for the day again.

Recently I (in my return to social media after a three-month hiatus) saw that above quote on Harvey Fierstein’s Facebook wall in the context of gaining sobriety, but I truly appreciate this in the context of Covid recovery. I have not been living my life properly in the past few years. I am a recluse agonizing over rising fascism, without intelligence or talent enough to do anything useful to stop it. As of November 8, when the Republicans take over and impeach Biden and Harris, install the Speaker of the House as president, hang Pelosi, and deploy the military to overrun the liberal cities and imprison all of us…because I think that is more likely than not to happen should Republicans take the House and Senate…it will be too late to do more. Ain’t that a kick in the head?

Amidst the coming end of democracy as a concept, I’ve also been thinking about age, how we change, or don’t. It’s all part of the mix of my brain fog.

Reflections on the High School Reunion I Missed 

My friends Mark and Carl urged me to go, so I signed up, and then I got Covid, as I somehow knew I would, so I kept myself awake that night to find out who they got to see.

The boys sweetly texted me pictures of the kids (who are all 58), many of whom I’ve known since childhood—the Arrington twins; Juanita the piano prodigy and probably the smartest kid I knew. Then there was Janet, who was voted most talented from a high school senior class of 1,000—still a tall drink of water, same long blonde hair, a toned and tan former gymnast who could still fit into her show choir ensemble and her high-kick team dress and wow them all with a smile, the one who gives you hope. Lots of people for whom high school may or may not have been a blast, as they say, were there, too.  

Prior to the reunion, I posted on our page the following memory, wondering if everyone was hoping we’d “sing”:

Lisa O’ and Mark Robinson, ca. 1981, promoting the Junior Variety Show we hosted, and more recently.
Friends since 2nd grade, or thereabouts, Mark and Carl and I were always somehow involved in music, our last outing together ca. 2018 found us singing karaoke, “I Love the Nightlife,” in Rehoboth Beach. As Mark reminds us, three separate people said we were great. So.

I sent along to them a sickbed selfie, and it caused me to reflect on aging; when I attended a group 50thbirthday party years ago, my brother Jeff took a photo. When I posted it on Facebook, my friend Jen said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you were born to be 50.” I think I was. However, it was the last photo in which I looked like myself, a Lisa O’ anyone would recognize. A couple of years ago I became old—see sickbed selfie. It was time.

Miss O’ at 18, 58, and 50. I blame lovers of Trump.

I loved all the pictures Mark was sending, but I didn’t understand his constant texts: “EVERYONE is asking about you!” I responded first with a “Ha!” comment thingy. But he persisted. And I couldn’t understand this sentiment because I was such a dull kid, not a standout at anything; just kinda skated through school, tried to be helpful, did my work, did a few plays, stayed out of trouble, head down, big laugher at the jokes of funnier people. 

And you realize that all of us, whatever we thought ourselves, were part of one another’s stories, and that we are somehow still dear to one another, part of one another’s memories. We all can’t be beautiful or stay young, whatever that is, and what is even the point of the concern? In the end the Republicans will gun it down.

I recently read this definition of Beauty: “the adherence to the balance and structure of the Universe.” Seen that way, most of us can feel just fine.

Vanity: Reflections of a Royal Philosopher, from Ecclesiastes, 2-11

It’s Sunday, so here’s a little of the Bible that most American Christians (given their actions in favor of dead mothers and gunned down children and their worship of a narcissistic, unapologetic adulterer, conman, and cheat) clearly haven’t read, but a surprising number of my Jewish, agnostic, and atheist friends have.

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,

vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

What do people gain from all the toil

at which they toil under the sun?

A generation goes, and a generation comes,

but the earth remains for ever.

The sun rises and the sun goes down,

and hurries to the place where it rises.

The wind blows to the south,

and goes round to the north;

round and round goes the wind,

and on its circuits the wind returns.

All streams run to the sea,

but the sea is not full;

to the place where the streams flow,

there they continue to flow.

All things are wearisome;

more than one can express;

the eye is not satisfied with seeing,

or the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be,

and what has been done is what will be done;

there is nothing new under the sun.


Is there a thing of which it is said,

‘See, this is new’?

It has already been,

in the ages before us.


The people of long ago are not remembered,

nor will there be any remembrance

of people yet to come

by those who come after them.

The friend who posted this on her wall asked: “So, like, what EVEN is the point.”

The existential questions are the worst. What I’ve never understood, when I look at all the guns and people threatening people over their race or gender, for example, is that if this is all we know—this time on earth, this life—why would anyone choose to spend it glorifying themselves, playing the lottery, and spreading misery? And that leaves the rest of us in a power struggle with those people, scratching for our bits of joy where we find them. There’s a great play called Every Brilliant Thing I saw a few years back at Barrow Street in Greenwich Village, about a little boy who goes on a quest to try to help his depressed mother—and he finds the joy in himself. Love people, find the joy, eat the chocolate. Do your best.

We all have regrets and most of us know that those regrets, as excruciating as they can be, are the things that help us lead improved lives. Or, rather, there are certain regrets that, as they emerge, can accompany us on the incremental bettering of our lives. Regrets are forever floating to the surface… They require our attention. You have to do something with them. One way is to seek forgiveness by making what might be called living amends, by using whatever gifts you may have in order to help rehabilitate the world.” – Nick Cave

This quote can be found on the website The Marginalian, curated by Maria Popova. She shares ideas from artists, their quotes, and then her own reflections. What Cave got me longing for, or reminding me of, is the idea of being an artist. I really wonder what that must be like. (Whatever light I have in potential, I learned years ago, must be kept hidden or it upsets too many people; you have to trust me on this.) At least my one real joy as I age is that I can still enjoy art. 

Art does have the ability to save us, in so many different ways. It can act as a point of salvation, because it has the potential to put beauty back into the world. And that in itself is a way of making amends, of reconciling us with the world. Art has the power to redress the balance of things, of our wrongs, of our sins… By “sins,” I mean those acts that are an offence to God or, if you would prefer, the “good in us” — that live within us, and that if we pay them no heed, harden and become part of our character. They are forms of suffering that can weigh us down terribly and separate us from the world. I have found that the goodness of the work can go some way towards mitigating them.” – Nick Cave

In my search for more about suffering and surviving it, I happened on a couple of TED Talks that only pissed me off. On Being with Krista Tippett, now defunct in terms of its old format but still out there, is a good bet. Still, when I go hunting to try to understand all the shit, I find things that exhaust as well as inspire. 

Ultimately, Bruno Latour (1947-2022), the scholar who passed last week, took nothing for granted: not science, not society, not even “reality” or “existence.”

The Nation header on Facebook

And I realized, reading that banner, how TIRED I am of reality and the lunacy of existence—the realization that we’re all stuck in an overwhelming cycle of …

In the meantime, life goes on, somehow. 

Preoccupations on Reflection

In my last blog post I paid tribute to the remarkable theater artist and teacher Maureen Shea, who died unexpectedly in September of this year. Shortly after posting, my old Virginia Tech friend Todd located and “liked” this Facebook post from 2020, I guess because of the attached photograph he must have recalled. Todd was very close to Maureen, too. Here is the post, in full:

Miss O’, ca. 1987. I’m posting it because I have always hated this picture, but kept it because mentor Maureen Shea is in the background, on the left on the hill, in a cast, and it does capture a moment in time. Oddly, this is often other people’s favorite photo of me whenever, back in the old days, we’d flip through one another’s photo albums.
Similarly—and stay with me here—while I was the favorite and most beloved teacher of some students, I was just as often the most reviled and dreaded teacher of other students; and still others didn’t even remember being in my class when I’d say hello to them as seniors. Think of them as pro / no / undecided voters.
Here’s my point: Yesterday I saw the “well, I’m not voting for Biden if it’s Harris” posts begin. Here we go, I thought, 2016 redux, “but her emails,” any excuse to not vote a woman into office. Because I believe, truly, however evolved people think they are, that that is what it comes down to. These folks can rationalize it all they want, but it comes down to misogyny. They’d rather end democracy, keep Bill Barr and Trump and Miller, and destroy the Supreme Court and even the planet, for the rest of their children’s natural lives, than vote for a woman—for whatever her “sin” is, it’s always one hundred times worse than the sins of the men who are caging children and denying a pandemic and allowing Russians to own our elections and put bounties on the heads of our soldiers in the field.
America, don’t do that; don’t be that voter all over again.
Because let’s face it: I’ve always hated this photo of myself, and yet I now have to admit I am adorable in it. All those years of self-loathing, and for what? 

It’s 2022, and here we are AGAIN. Voters, Americans, for fuck’s sake: Do the work, love the people, be good to the earth, find a purpose, appreciate art. Get over yourself. And vote Democrat. 

Until they take it away, use what you got.

The World of the Play in the World

Four Saints in Three Acts by Gertrude Stein,
performed by David Greenspan (photo by Miss O’)

Three Acts

“What is the world of the play?” Maureen Shea would ask in our Introduction to World Drama and Introduction to Directing classes at Virginia Tech, where she taught me back in the ’80s. Whatever you wanted to do to a play—change the location or time period, say, or modernize it, or cast it in a nontraditional way—you had to be true to the world the playwright created. Your first task as a director was to immerse yourself in that world. Even if something didn’t seem to make sense, you had to make it make sense. That was your job. The playwright as artist takes precedence; the director’s first job is to serve the play. The director’s next job is to guide and shape the actors’ performances in service to play; and then to negotiate a design plan with the scenographer and costume designer, the crew, the management. Directing is an interpretive art, and an interpreter has sometimes the hardest human job of all the artists, which is to put it all together so that the director’s work disappears. And yet, directors have a signature. There’s no way to hide it, not if you are an artist. 

Maureen Shea, who died unexpectedly on September 20, 2022, was an artist of the first rank. I’ve spent a week trying to process this loss. I’m writing this essay—what am I trying to put together? Here’s what I wrote on Facebook to our Virginia Tech theater page:

Lisa Novitsky and I talked this morning; I called Richard Rauscher, texted and got a message from Cindy Babson…it’s hard to process. Maureen taught us, drove us, called us out on anything that got in the way of our artistry. Moment-to-moment work, transitions, connection, authenticity—all of it mattered, every detail. I knocked myself OUT for her. Every time. (I was not always successful.) When we did Museum, I was cast in a couple of bit character parts, but I came every single night of rehearsal and sat and watched her work. I saw every performance of How I Got That Story; I auditioned for Fen because she asked me to, saying, “Lisa, you’re perfect for Fen“; and even though I was student teaching and losing my mind trying to finish my education classes, I did it—because Mo said I was perfect for something. My last week in Blacksburg in 1987, after doing Alice in Wonderland with her at the Summer Arts Festival and before heading off to my first teaching position, we went out one night and closed down Maxwell’s as she gave me a master class in how to teach poetry. I was lucky enough to see her in NYC in 2018 and caught her show, Sugar, on 19th St., and we had a long, leisurely brunch the following Sunday, one of the best talks I’d had in years. Loved her so. This is hard. Thanks to Bo Wilson for sharing the Mo Quotes. Miss and love you all. Lisa O’

P.S.  One more Mo Quote: Around 3 or 4 AM before leaving Maxwell’s, perhaps one scotch short of a DUI, Maureen riffed on Alice in Wonderland and my future career in education: “When you think about it, the only difference between a teacher and a mad person is that every once in a while, a teacher says, ‘You see?'”

Phrases and directives come back: The actor’s beat. The director’s beat. Beat change. The cap on the beat. Stakes and obstacles. Theater is life, life is theater.

Over the years I’ve realized that theater, for me, is church. I learned in this memoriam piece that Mo, who had spoken at a hearing in Boston to save a theater, saw it the same way.

“Maureen got up, had nothing prepared, and just started speaking from her heart. After she said something about responsibility of stewardship of these historic buildings, she started crying. She said, ‘I know you don’t understand, but for us, to turn a theater like that into a dining hall is like having to watch people eat french fries in church,” said Hickler. “And I watched the entire board … change their minds at the moment. Afterwards they were giving her hugs.”

When theater is your church, all the details of the show that is the service matter. I used to drive my old directing colleague, Ann, insane with my attention to details, but I knew they mattered. I always slicked down the boys’ hair with Knox gelatin for period shows, for example, and that detail is the difference between a Guys and Dolls that looks professional and one that looks like a high school show. (You might not even be able to put your finger on what’s wrong, but trust me, it was the dry hair.) “The coffee is hot,” Mo’s colleague and my acting teacher, Gregory Justice, would remind us. “The luggage is heavy.” Play that. “You are coming from somewhere.” 

These notes were given to me in rehearsals for a play, Bad Habits by Terrence McNally, one act of which, “Ravenswood,” takes place at a sort of mental health spa/asylum. At my first entrance, I was pushing the wheelchair of the head therapist of the place, as if we have been touring the grounds. We performed the play in a black box with only small screen from behind which to enter. (My acting teacher, Greg, directed the play, and told me “the coffee is hot” note so many times that finally, one morning when I had tea, I studied what happened to my lips, my face (from the steam), my hands, all of it, until I could do hot cold.) But the “you are coming from somewhere” was Maureen, from watching her direct. After seeing the play, my friend Scott asked, “Is there another room back there?” He was convinced I had walked a long distance before coming on stage. He also asked me, “How did they keep that coffee hot for you?” See? All that detail. Maureen took this teaching to her next gig, too, at Emerson College in Boston. One student shared this:

Deaderick remembers a classmate in Shea’s class directing a short piece that took place at a diner. A character ordered coffee with milk, but when the server came back she poured black coffee, brought no milk, and the character drank it anyway.

“’In the critique later, Maureen was livid about that: no one who takes coffee [with] milk would just drink it without! They’d remind the waitress,” Deaderick said. “The problem wasn’t one of realism. It wasn’t about being accurate. It was that the audience would keep wondering about the milk. Which I had when I watched. It was Chekov’s gun, but with dairy.

“I carry that lesson with me in all my storytelling. Never leave your audience wondering about the milk.”

If you don’t know about Chekhov’s gun, he famously said in a letter to a friend: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” This principle is often stated now as, “Don’t have a character handle a loaded gun in first act unless it’s going to go off in the third.” The audience worries, you see* (*Miss O’ as teacher, not mad person). And how irritating is it when you find you’ve worried through a whole show for nothing?

(Now you might think, But Miss O’, your friend Scott was wondering/worrying why the coffee stayed hot. He wondered/worried what on earth was back there. Actually, he didn’t think about any of it until afterward, when we were talking, when he realized how real it all seemed.) 

What seems unreal to me is Maureen not being here anymore. In this grief, I find gratitude that Greg was the one to message me on Facebook, and my dear friend and classmate Lisa Novitsky was the one to call first. Social media is only any social good at all if it’s about human connection. An emoji isn’t enough, a like, a heart—what I needed and found was the source, the authenticity, of our relationships, in the sharing of our common grief. That we could use words mattered. That we had details to share.

The world of our collective play didn’t change; a key character died. It doesn’t make sense. Now our job is to make it make sense. The playwright has spoken.

Four Saints

“There can be no peace on earth with calm with calm. There can be no peace on earth with calm with calm. There can be no peace on earth with calm with calm and with whom whose with calm and with whom whose when they well they well they call it there made message especial and come.”

~ Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts

Stein said of her own play, “If you enjoy it you understand it.”

“There can be no peace on earth with calm with calm.”

If I were speaking this line, I’d score it thus: There can be no peace on earth / with calm / with calm. In other words, without a willingness to lose calm, we cannot create peace on earth. The making of peace, says Stein, is a noisy business. I think Stein says this. 

She goes on: “This amounts to Saint Therese. Saint Therese has been and has been.”

Has Saint Therese been peace on earth? Has she been calm? Without calm? Has she simply been and her being gone on and on, much like Celine Dion’s heart?

“It’s too easy to assume—we have to find out. Ask questions, nose around.”
~ Maureen Shea, ca. 1984 (as recorded by playwright Bo Wilson)

This week was the 100th anniversary of the publication of T.S. Eliot’s long, challenging poem The Waste Land. What does it mean? Why does it matter? To find out, I’ve been watching some old YouTube-sourced videos about it, and corresponding via email and enjoying a phone conversation with another beloved mentor, master English teacher Tom Corbin, on the effects of Eliot on poetry. Eliot and Stein were modernist contemporaries. Both writers, along with another contemporary, James Joyce, took pleasure in being unreadable. The boys, at any rate, relished the idea of academics chasing meaning for centuries, digging up all the clever literary allusions, writing the papers, making an industry of interpretation. Stein, by contrast, was trying to write in the complete present (something Joseph Chaikin and The Open Theater would try to replicate on stage in the 1960s in performance; it was Chaikin’s style that Maureen assigned to me for my final directing project my senior year, a style I found harmony with and used to create four original one-act plays with my students), allowing too for the ways in which humans continually repeat lines while telling a story (listen for it). 

Eliot “never repeated himself,” one scholar says, and in doing that he “made it a myth that this is how a poet should behave.” I started thinking of the idea of repetition—what it means to stay with an art form and still find something new to say within it, and a new way to say something.

And I think of living on earth. How we must continually find something new in it to enjoy—I mean, for example, the clouds always change; the sky is always changing. I saw a grasshopper on 44th Street in Queens the other day, first grasshopper sighting in nearly 20 years in New York. That was new. And when we are feeling untethered, that grasshopper on the cracked pavement by the rusted out car on 44th Street might be the only thing that keeps us from falling off the earth, at least in that moment.

When I went to see Stein’s rarely performed play Four Saints in Three Acts on Friday night, I found myself, after an hour of travel from Queens, at a subway stop for the R Train (en route to Bay Ridge); and that was new. To get to the theater, in Sunset Park, I walked a long residential block, crossed a 12-lane boulevard under a highway, and headed into warehouses, all at sunset in Sunset Park, curiously enough, where I managed to find a yellow door with an 8” x 10” paper stuck to it, that said, simply, “Four Saints in Three Acts.” It was a miracle I found it. That paper and the address. (Later they put out a little table; see opening photo.)

Sunset Park, Brooklyn (photo by Miss O’)

And it’s a miracle that I was lucky enough to see it, only because I was blind enough to order a ticket before I realized that while the Lucille Lortel Theater was presenting it, the show was not in fact in Greenwich Village but, as noted, in Sunset Park, because if I’d known I don’t know if I’d have gotten a ticket; and how stupid and lazy would that have been? What has happened to me? Covid agoraphobia? Age? I don’t know. But I don’t like it. 

There is no way to describe the work of David Greenspan, who performed this play as a one-man show, but the reviewer from this week’s New Yorker, Helen Shaw, pretty much nailed it. Her review ends,

All this means is that the show is occasionally difficult, just as a church service can be. Nearly a hundred years after Stein wrote it, “Saints” has not staled or softened. Even though I am bewitched by Stein, and by Greenspan, and by Greenspan doing Stein, I still found myself needing to enforce some mental discipline. About an hour into the performance, my attention started to slacken. (In my notes, I wrote, “Recommit!,” and then kept underlining it.) This is Stein’s and Greenspan’s way of using time, or, rather, of teaching us to use time. It’s theatre as meditative discipline. One must deliberately choose the show over other temptations: one must choose to listen. So we chose. We were choosing there. In a way, we are still choosing, with a great many saints there, who are choosing there together.

There is a point, isn’t there, in every sermon every play every workout every life, when the thing becomes hard. It’s hard. It’s too hard. It feels too hard and we just want it (the pain the grief the confusion the boredom the thing) to end, but it doesn’t end, and we have to keep doing it and staying with it and when we stay with it and the end does finally come, the reward comes. The joy comes. The reason comes. The arrival arrives. And we were there.

“It must become inevitable.” ~ Maureen Shea

To live in the world and in the play, attention must be paid. You must be here. Have this experience. Be in this world. Look up. (In how many blog posts have I pleaded for this? A prayer to myself.) The coffee is hot. Beat. The luggage is heavy. Beat. You are coming from somewhere. Do that. The cap on the beat.

The world of the play of the world was, in the early 20th century, a mess; the world of the play of the world in the early 21st century has also proved, also, to be a mess. Where people used to look to the saints and the poets for guidance, we seem to look instead to celebrities who most certainly aren’t artists or even very good people usually but are distractions from a with calm that is not the with calm we are supposed to be doing without to create peace on earth, if you see what I mean. (You see?)

The world of the play, this world play, our play, finally, has to be continually remade, and reinterpreted, and grieved, first of all, first and foremost, really; then connections must be reestablished, love renewed, our promises to one another recommitted, sinners and saints all; then if we are to repair this play on earth and ourselves on this earth, we have to give every moment the attention it must have. Before we can do that work, we also have to agree that this life on this earth, as it is, is the world of our play.

“We can find a million reasons for what’s wrong or why something doesn’t work, but that’s not our job. Our job is to make it work.”

~ Maureen Shea, Theater Artist (in memoriam)

Miss O’ and Mo Shea, 2018, New York City

(Let’s also leave off with life, Mo’s beloved Joni Mitchell in rebirth at this year’s Newport Festival, “The Circle Game.” Love to all. Miss O’)