Trees I Have Grieved, a Memoir

“I used to teach just the way I was taught, but now I let someone else do all the work for me. If plants are our oldest teachers, why not let them teach?”

~ Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

I lived in the country for the first twenty years of my adult life, and I have country trees I could talk about, but events of the week got me thinking about two particular trees—of my childhood and now—so much so that I had to try to draw them. I thought I’d tell you about them, though I’m not sure why I need to do this. Let me know if you figure it out.

Suburban Trees

When I was 11 or 12, I think, my next-door neighbors, Mike and Diana, hired people to come and chop down a weeping willow tree on their property, a tree that had grown to be nearly as large as the house itself. The willow sapling was planted around 1965 in the front yard by the first owners, John and Barbara, who moved to another subdivision around 1970 and who hadn’t really understood that a weeping willow might not belong in a front yard. The weeping willow is a tree I used to see in backyards in the Midwest, often along small creeks. It’s really not a front yard tree. Anyone could see the truth of that, since no one could any longer see the house from the street.

Sitting on my bed beside a window that looked over to their yard, a view nearly blocked by a giant cedar (one of two that framed our house, and which would be cut down and hauled away when I was in my thirties), I sobbed. I’d been standing in the yard when I saw what was happening, and began to protest, wanted to scream, and my mother said, “Oh for heaven’s sake, Lisa, it’s a tree. It’s too big. Get over it.” Something like that. She wasn’t wrong. Still, I ran inside and upstairs to my little room and slammed the door. Even as I type this, I can smell the old paint around my window, the glazing, a metallic dust smell, and feel the texture where my fingers gripped the sill. My runny nose against the chill of the glass, I had to turn away. I couldn’t watch. Still, I sat holding all my concentration on the tree during the chopping process. I felt I owed it to my friend.

How do you explain being in love with a tree? I was in love with many trees in my own yard, sure, but that was puppy love compared to my feelings for the willow. I used to float underneath it, back when the Yanos lived in the house; swim as one might in the sea, though I’d never been to the sea. I remember that I spent most of my time under that tall grass skirt on “my” side, closer to my house, not all around it, like there was an invisible wall that prevented me from complete freedom inside the arch of branches that reached to the ground. But I remember the magic, how deeply scared and amazed I used to feel. I don’t know why. So cutting down that tree was like watching a friend being murdered, everyone telling you it’s just a life. Get over it? How?

Weeping Willow ca. 1976 by LO’H

There were certain trees, growing up, that I felt belonged to me. I was so lucky to have, and my parents worked so hard to buy, a home, one with a backyard, in a subdivision whose designer left big swaths of old-growth trees across backyards that abutted across two streets, over blocks. Different kinds of oaks in my own backyard are still there, and I visit them whenever I go back to Virginia (touch wood) to see Bernie and Lynne, now in their 89th years. There’s the holly tree by the horseshoe pit. And I still “see” a beech tree that is gone now. I loved climbing it—not very high. I regret that I never really got to know the cedars. I don’t know why, exactly, but I suspect it’s because they were planted for ornamental reasons, and not quite part of the forest that was as much my home as anything inside. And unlike the willow, the Flahertys’ monstrously huge crabapple tree that the Hunnicutts planted across the street survived (Mrs. F. loved the spring blossoms) for years longer; though the next owners, whom I’ve never met, finally had it chopped down, at least I had that tree all through my childhood. And the forest that was my backyard home.

It’s even more magical now. Bernie and Lynne hauled every rock.

City Trees

Several years ago now I was out in California visiting friends Anna and Michael, and one of the books in their guest room/office (pro tip: please have a library in any room where you have your guests sleep) was The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohllenben, a German forester. I recommend it.

“Trees can grow in many extreme environments. Can? Indeed, they must!”

~ The Hidden Life of Trees, “Specialists”

The upshot: Trees feel, they know, the connect, they have real lives. Any kid who has loved a tree the way I loved that willow could have told you that, but it’s better to have science to really drive it home, I guess. All of this is just to say the lost trees of my childhood aren’t the only ones I’ve grieved, and the older I get the more deeply I know there are connective threads among all these living things that only my heart understands. And it matters.

In my co-op apartment building in Queens, to take one example, the board has long neglected one side of the complex, the side I enter on, because no one else really sees it, as they enter on another street. A giant mulberry tree (that no one missed) had to be taken out of the fenced “garden” about fifteen years ago, before it compromised the foundation, though the seedlings and shoots keep coming up out of old the roots. (The struggle is constant and will be until we can afford a landscaper to dig it up properly, but you have to admire the tenacity, you know?) But it’s this one other little oddball tree, a blue spruce, on the edge of the iron fence that meant something. With the mulberry gone, it really took off, so I had to trim it a lot to keep the prickly branches from hitting people as they walked past. I did not trim it well, but I did the best I could. It looked like a giant bonsai tree. Okay? But it was our giant bonsai.

Last year, a neighbor in the complex thought he was giving me this great gift by chopping down that one remaining tree, that badly trimmed blue spruce that, it turns out, a few other folks in the neighborhood had also secretly called “the bonsai spruce.” I returned from a weekend visiting friends to see it gone, and I felt I had been punched in the chest. I choked back tears until I could get inside. I’d read an email from this (really very nice) neighbor which said he had “cleaned up the garden” but without mentioning this act of, frankly, vandalism (apparently he’d only cleaned up the garden because he personally hated that tree). People who regularly walk their dogs still ask me why we got rid of it. It’s sweet, though, isn’t it? I was amazed by how much of a touchstone that crazy little misshapen tree was for the residents of a Queens neighborhood. And you think New Yorkers don’t have hearts.

Illustration by LO’H

More City Trees

This past weekend I and two neighbors from the complex worked to remove an invasive tree near a cedar on the other side of my stoop, the smaller iron-fenced garden area along the sidewalk. Travis and Vaughn had taken a tree-pruning class when they lived in Brooklyn (!) and had the tools to properly prune a remaining tree (that someday really has to be removed) so the branches didn’t compromise our porch overhang and a couple of windows (should a big windstorm hit). They also trimmed the tall cedar (one we want to keep) way back away from the brick on one side and the sidewalk on the other. The city has been on everyone’s case to clear out anything remotely embowered in order to deter rats, so all this stuff had to go. (And now with all that low growth gone, maybe that weird old man with the red cart will stop pissing on the cedar as he pauses on his walks—at least I hope so.)

My upstairs neighbor, Debbie, who shares my entrance, came down to investigate after we’d finished up. Earlier in the week, Debbie had discovered a dead squirrel in full rigor sprawled out flat on the sidewalk. She texted me—I work from home and was on a Zoom call, but I couldn’t ignore her sad face emoji and “Our squirrel friend is dead.” This little guy has been around for years, digging in my herb pots and frolicking in the trees we’d just trimmed back. But I’d leave water out for him and the sparrows, in a plate on my little kitchen porch over the trash alley; once I left him a plum, which he took. The couple behind me also feeds him—he does get gaunt if we don’t help. The dead squirrel seemed bigger to me, but maybe it was the dead bloat thing. Because the kids were about to get out of school, we couldn’t just leave him there on the sidewalk. “Debbie,” I said, “can you get your snow shovel and sort of scoop him into the garden?” Good idea, she said. I went back to my meetings. A couple of hours later, I texted her and she came downstairs. We looked at his body there, exposed on top of weeds, and we couldn’t leave him like that. I remembered I had a real dirt shovel, left over from the old farm days, and I brought it up from the basement, dug a hole in our shitty old garden (or “garden”), into which hole Debbie scooped that stiff squirrel body. I covered him up with dirt, we said a few words (a shocked little boy saw what was happening as he walked with his dad; “You weren’t supposed to see that,” I said, and Debbie said, “He passed away, it was his time”). Ceremonies matter.

But while Travis and Vaughn and I were trimming on Sunday, Travis noticed there was a (live) squirrel watching our proceedings from all the way over at the other edge of the building. When Debbie came out later to check out our work, I saw that little squirrel again, but this time along the railing by the cedar. I’d noticed a huge nest in the cedar tree but thought it might belong to a family of house sparrows, so little do I know of nests. Debbie said, “He’s a friendly guy, isn’t he?” And then it hit me: That is his nest! This is our squirrel! He was still alive, after all. But man, had we fucked him over.

Illustration of existential moment by LO’H

I thought, suddenly, that maybe Vaughn had cut out the nest, but he hadn’t—there it was, up near the top. But it’s like if the back side of your condo was blown out, and you still had to sleep there. And I grieved that we’d ever trimmed that cedar. Trees are life, and how we measure all of nature in terms of human (in)convenience is really a testament to our planetary tragedy, isn’t it?

So let’s take a page or two out of Braiding Sweetgrass and The Hidden Life of Trees. Life is love, loss, grief. And nature. It’s all nature. Even in New York City.

Love to all.

Showing Up

Leafing through social media, which I’ve returned to, post-Lent (and “leafing” makes it sound more tender than “scrolling”), I happened on a snippet of a YouTube clip of researcher and author Brené Brown, from her keynote address at 99U, an event series from Adobe for design and innovation. The clip was interesting, but not quite fulfilling, and I saw that it was in fact part of a 22-minute address that was filled with ideas that interested me even more.

Brown is addressing a room full of “creatives,” which she calls her tribe, though she isn’t sure she’s really a member. She points out that “creatives are the kids no one sat with in high school and then everybody wanted to be when they grow up,” but adds ruefully that as a researcher, still no one wants to sit with her. Nevertheless, she wants to be just who she is, doing the work she cares about. She entitled her talk, “Sweaty Creatives.”

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

“No one wants to sit next to you.” I started thinking about all the kids “no one” wanted to sit with in high school. (Miss O’ raises her hand.) And then I wondered, who were all the “no ones”? Remember them? Me, neither. Isn’t that great?

Brown’s field is “vulnerability and love,” which I didn’t know could be a field—and really, shouldn’t that be part of everything human? She recognized, as she reflected on the daunting task of her 99U keynote, that “design is a function of connection because there’s nothing more vulnerable than creativity, and what is art if it’s not love?” She says these beautiful things so conversationally, I nearly missed the radical. I had to turn on closed captioning and watch the video again, go moment to moment, and copy some of the words. Great words.

Brown talks about how a particular quotation, which she will come to, changed her, about the arrival of words “you’re ready to hear,” and how as a result, “something shifts inside of you.” First, for context, she talks about the comments sections that followed articles about her, the devastating personal attacks by “critics” (see also: those “no ones” above) who felt the need to bring her down for having the audacity to do a TED talk that went viral, for sharing her creative work with others. (In that talk her thesis is that we as a species are in great danger because we are “losing our tolerance for vulnerability.” It’s interesting to listen to her in some ways, because her examples of “foreboding joy” and “disappointment as a lifestyle” struck me as very must part of the makeup of historically oppressed people, who often turn this negativity into successful comedy. But I digress.)

Meet the Critics, Part 1

Years ago, when I started writing my first Miss O’ Show blog on Blogger, I did it because I had a lot to say about the importance of teacher training, which is almost nonexistent in the United States, especially and ironically in colleges of education. After 15 years in the classroom teaching English 9-12, Humanities, Speech and Drama, and Theater Production, I had created so many lessons, amassed so much technique, I couldn’t let it all languish in my file boxes after I’d moved to New York and another career. So I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. A few former students followed me, a few friends followed me, and we had some lively conversations in the Comments section. I really enjoyed it.

A couple of close friends, I couldn’t help noticing—real writers, people who published beautiful writing in journals and even books—either didn’t read my work, stopped reading if they’d read at all, or else pointed out that my blogs were subpar, that I wrote without enough care for being artful. I had not stopped to think about what kind of writer I was, or how gorgeous I might make each sentence sound (I knew a writer once who said, “I’m physically incapable of writing an unlovely sentence” as his excuse for not rendering dialogue truthfully)—what I cared about was teacher training, to begin with; then it went to other, more personal stories, and perhaps I lost my way sometimes. One writer friend seemed to suggest I stop publishing, and I did, for a time.

So I was intrigued by the focus of Brown’s talk, which centered on a culled section of a quote by President Theodore Roosevelt from a speech known as “the man in the arena speech”:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Three things shifted in Brown, she explains, when she read the quote, all having to do with her 12 years of research into vulnerability: 1) “It’s not about winning, it’s not about losing, it’s about showing up and being seen”; 2) “This is who I want to be; I want to be creative; I want to make things that didn’t exist before I touched them; I want to show up and be seen in my work and in my life…and there is only one guarantee [if you do this]: you will get your ass kicked…if courage is a value that we hold, this is a consequence;” 3) “If you’re not in the arena, also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” Can I hear an amen?

Speaking, however, of the friends who expressed unhappiness with my writing: they were and are, in fact, in the arena of publishing. They do the thing, and so their feedback is something I can’t discount. In addition, thinking of Oscar Wilde and his essay, “The Critic as Artist,” it’s obvious that a critic can also be a creative force, thereby getting his ass kicked. It’s not either/or, meaning you are a critic, or you are in the arena. The question any legitimate critic has to ask, though, is, What is the purpose of my critique? And the question an artist has to ask is, Do I listen to the criticism or do my work the best I can?

I think when it comes to critics to ignore, it’s about the critics in the Comments sections. We have all left comments, I’m guessing, on articles and essays, and some comments are very much worth listening to when they are genuine responses. But a lot of commenters are just out to be assholes. Brown is addressing the assholes. All those damaged, lonely assholes.

Armor Up

But something took a turn inside Miss O’ at another point in Brown’s talk, where I took a metaphor she used and made it literal. Brown said, talking about how to deal with the “self doubt, comparison, anxiety” that creatives feel before entering the arena, “You armor up, right?” Against uncertainty and fear, this is what most people do.

Brown meant this, as I say, metaphorically, but I took that and went full-blown NRA. America in the 21st century is all about fear and guns, and religious fervor as an excuse to kill. Fear and irrational hatred of the other as an excuse to kill. Literally “armoring up.”

Brown notes about the metaphorical armor (and Miss O’ echoes her on the literal armor): “But god that stuff is heavy, and that stuff is suffocating, and the problem is, when you armor up against vulnerability, you shut yourself off…from everything that you do and that you love.”

There it is. There it is. Brown points out that while vulnerability is about fear and uncertainty and shame and all that stuff, it’s also “the birthplace” of these other things, and she showed a list:

  • love
  • belonging
  • joy
  • trust
  • empathy
  • creativity
  • innovation

All this points to why I love the arts so much, and Brown’s list underscores my continual declaration that the arts are the great civilizers, the reason for all the work we do on earth. Whether it’s a Netflix binge or a trip to the Met or a podcast or a playlist, making theater or writing poems or knitting or making beads out of Sculpey, it’s the arts that feed us, that make life worth living.

And Brown’s talk also underscored for me the extent to which our society has lost its way as a civilization. Today in the United States, gun violence is the number one cause of death among children. How many mass shootings does it take to change this? Where does it end? Now random people, including children, are shot for simply ringing a doorbell, turning up the wrong driveway, retrieving a ball from a neighbor’s yard. Why are so many Americans feeling they must “armor up”? Why are they all feeling so vulnerable and afraid?

And why is one political party absolutely in denial that there is a gun death problem? Why does that same party rail against taxes on the rich for the public good, including funding the arts and building infrastructure, while at the same time using tax money to pay bounty hunters to stop abortions that are no one’s business but a woman’s? How can it be reasonable to think regulating guns is authoritarianism but forcing a woman to die in carrying a baby to term is justice?

Weirdly, a lot of gun owners identify as Christians. A lot of Christians freak out about children being molested, and while that is a legitimate concern, obviously, what’s not legitimate is blaming transexuals and drag queens. Many culprits, in fact, turn out to be priests and pastors. And it got me wondering if past abuses in the most sacred spaces have caused American Christians to assume that the whole country is even worse. Thieves live in a world of thieves, after all. Compound that damage with racism and misogyny and deep ignorance of humanity in general, and the easy answer is “armor up.”

Meet the Critics, Part 2

Brown talks about how when we enter the arena, there are lots of people in the seats, but we focus only on the critics. The three big ones are “shame, scarcity, and comparison.” Shame: who am I to create? Scarcity: how can I think that anything I’m doing is original? Comparison: how can I ever be as good as….? Speaking as a former teacher, I remember almost exclusively my failures to do my job well, for all three of the reasons up there, and rarely recall my reasons to feel successful. I agree with Brown that this is human—we want to be loved and rooted for and capable, and no one wants to feel they have failed someone. Our inner critic makes us nuts. And no one wants to hear the outside critics. We don’t want to sit with them, right? And they never wanted to sit with us.

But you don’t shoot them. You just don’t. Not in a sane world. Brown said she avoided doing things in her career, putting things out there, because she didn’t want any critics in the arena, but she knew she couldn’t control that. No one can. I think of the end of the movie Witness (spoiler coming), when Harrison Ford has killed off all the bad guys but one, and there the last bad guy is with a gun, and Harrison starts yelling at him, how many more are you going to kill? The killing would never end. You want every witness dead? You only create more witnesses as your crimes pile up. In American politics now, everyone wants the “other side” to just die already. Are they high?

At least three things are true in all this: 1) Living life is a creative act; 2) No one likes criticism; 3) Few people know how to give criticism in constructive and loving ways, I suspect because they often don’t know why they don’t like something. As to that third thing, I think that when people can’t exactly say why they are upset, it’s because a nerve was touched, a box in the attic of their mind was unexpectedly unlocked, and they want the lid to stay down. At other times, I think critics often project their own fears onto the creatives, resent a creative person’s willingness to reveal vulnerabilities that they themselves would never bring to light. (I remember poet Sonia Sanchez saying in the documentary The Pieces I Am that when she first read Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, she would periodically throw it across the room.) Possibly, too, in the case of close friends, they can be hurt that we reveal something in a creative public space that we have not personally shared with them. Maybe a combination of all three. The fourth possibility is you do, in fact, suck at your art. But so what, really? You can still improve! And no one dies.

There’s a fourth critic’s seat in the arena, Brown says, after Shame, Scarcity, and Comparison—the teacher, the parent, the pastor, the person who made you feel less. The fifth seat, the final critic’s seat, is for you, or me, our personal self-criticism seat.

Damaged people, man. We are all damaged to an extent, but somehow we have to help one another to repair all this damage. The scary, confounding part? How to start. A famous (white) actress posted to social media to say, of the rise of fascism, that she didn’t know what to do, that she gives money, she makes videos, she calls her senators, and she’s feeling lost. She was taken down by another woman (a woman of color) who said she can’t understand why white women don’t understand they have all the power but don’t use it. And I, speaking as a white woman, still don’t know what I am supposed to do, either. That is how damaged and isolated many of us are. It’s hard to know how to show up, where to show up to, what showing up actually looks like sometimes. And that’s why I love good leaders, since most of us aren’t.

But the vast majority of us humans, fortunately, don’t see building a literal arsenal as an answer to all our power problems and struggles with others. But neither should we stop caring what other people think. Brown points out that “when we stop caring what people think, we lose our capacity for connection.” I think this is true: if shooting random people doesn’t shame you, you are diseased. If your answer to every criticism is to shoot (or shoot down) someone, you are diseased. On the other hand, Brown notes, “When we become defined by what people think, we lose our capacity to be vulnerable.” Artistically speaking, if I try to write something in order to please one person or to avoid criticism, the writing always fails. This is not a coincidence. When I am not vulnerable, I see now, I don’t write from an authentic place. When you aren’t authentic, the art fails. And the artist feels like shit.

But whatever else you feel, if you want to grow, you have to show up. As Brown says, “If courage is my value, I have to show up. Whether it’s successful or not is irrelevant.”

Seen on Skillman Avenue in Queens, 2023. Bless that literary Banksy. Photo by LO’H.
Artists Who Keep Showing Up.

Brown sees two crucial things to the life of a creative: 1) clarity of values; 2) one person in your corner to be there for you no matter what. I don’t have the second thing—I suspect most of us (looking at the numbers of single/never married/never partnered people, esp. women) really don’t have that second thing. Speaking artistically, I suspect I can’t really become anything like a true artist without that person. People who tell me otherwise always have that one person in their corner. They cannot imagine life any other way. They really can’t. And yet I persist. As most of us do.

I suspect that murderers and gun-clingers never had that one person in their corner, either, but something else is going on when the gun is their answer to every one of life’s questions. Even if we other the killers, we have to acknowledge that almost all our television shows, our “entertainments” on screen, feature guns. The only power is might. But in real life, we don’t live like that. Every moment is not about murder and terror. Why do we like watching it? Why do we all accept these mass deaths by guns? How damaged are we?

Brown closes her keynote with the importance of making a seat for yourself in the arena, noting that very often we have an ideal of ourselves, and in trying to reach that ideal, “we orphan all those parts of ourselves to fit what we think the ideal is supposed to be, and that just leaves the critic.” Creating is, after all, about self-discovery and connection, and who is anyone, really, to try to drive away that impulse? Unless, of course, a person’s “creative act” is about destroying others.

Most of us don’t have the quiet, the space, the health, or the support to reflect on our personal growth let alone create. And that shouldn’t be. So, if I have the privilege of the reflection that I can do in this creative act of a blog, I need to keep trying to do it well. As Brown says, “nothing is as scary as getting to the end of our lives and thinking, what if I would have shown up?”

Show up. Somehow.

Love to all.

Selfie taken after a day in which Miss O’ attended all-day corporate meetings, wrote a lesson on parallel structure, and (with her awesome upstairs neighbor, Debbie) buried a dead squirrel in full rigor, all in the same outfit. NYC 2023. If you can make it here…

Of Mime and Men

The (Almost Lost) Art of Silence

When I was in sixth grade, I learned about Lent and the practice of giving up something you really enjoy for 40 days. Something to do with Jesus wandering in a desert, David Elmore said. But what I was taken by was the idea of the discipline, of sacrifice. I thought hard. What would I sacrifice? My mom, Lynne, told me, shaking her head as she owned her hypocrisy, “I gave up candy, but I’d buy Smith Brothers Cough Drops, because they didn’t count.” Recognizing the trap of the generalist (“candy”), I gave up, very specifically, Doritos. (Fritos didn’t count.) Sainthood within easy grasp notwithstanding, I expanded the practice, over the years, to encompass all junk food. Can I hear a so what?

Somewhere along the Lents it did finally dawn on me that such a sacrifice was, I don’t know, lame. What is the sacrifice (Doritos? seriously?) really for, you know? Inspired by a “reading deprivation” exercise in The Artist’s Way, I realized that Lent could be an opportunity to tune out noise and make a discovery. So for Lent this year, as Miss O’ has for many other years, I gave up the distraction that is media; and in the past several years it’s been social media and sometimes also television. It really is instructive, these periods of deprivation, restful and oddly energizing.

One thing that Doritos and media have in common, by the way, is that both are engineered to be addictive. I have an addictive personality. I have to be really careful about drinking, for example, so in the past few years I’ve given that up, too, or at least drinking at home. I can drink if I’m out with people I know, which includes my bartenders at the Globe Tavern. I earned those stouts (all six over 40 days). At least I was off Facebook and Instagram, bitches.

What I get out of all this modern-day desert wandering is the happiest thing imaginable: I enjoy 40 days of a quiet mind. It’s amazing what you read, see, and consider when you aren’t scrolling a phone. This Lent gave me a surprise in the form of a different, and yet familiar quiet, a kind of memory of quiet.

Walking on the Moon

On March 22, 2023, Google made a doodle that caught my eye, and link leading to link by art gallery by video by article by book sent me down a mime rabbit hole: the miraculous Marcel Marceau, who would have turned 100 this year! I have a brief collegiate history as a mime, saw him perform live in 1986 at Virginia Tech, saw/heard him lecture the next day—mesmerizing, so brilliant. I wrote a blog about it (among other things—it’s buried in the middle) once. And here I am again.

Just full out, let me say this before I say more about Marceau: Marceau’s character, Mr. Bip, has a history, a reason for being, far deeper than easy caricatures might suggest. Marceau explains about it in a Wallenberg lecture from 2001, when he was 78 and receiving the Raoul Wallenberg Medal for the work he did during WWII as a teenager. Marceau (born Marcel Mangel) himself a Jew whose father had been deported to Auschwitz never to return, helped save dozens of orphaned Jewish children and others by leading them to the Swiss border as part of the French Resistance. Marceau’s part of the lecture begins at the 39-minute mark, and you can learn about his life from his own lips.

I want to tell you, I love mime, and I love Marcel Marceau. So let me just say that what happened to mime in the United States took his beautiful art form and made it into a parody, a travesty of silly imitation because in America we got no sense of history. Marceau’s white face, first of all, harkens back to the French Pierrot figure, and it was young Marcel’s wish to reclaim French culture after the Nazi occupation; Mr. Bip is named in honor of Pip, the protagonist of a beloved Dickens novel, Great Expectations. And it all started with seeing a Charlie Chaplin silent film with his father when little Marcel was seven years old turned the young Marcel into a mimic and the Little Tramp became his hero (but not one he merely imitated as a mature artist). Marceau was born to pantomime, he felt; it was universal, he believed—storytelling that transcended race and ethnicity and culture, found famously in the Orient and also in some form on most every continent; it was an art that could bring us together in love and humanity. Mr. Bip, his everyman, had terrible troubles, but he never lost his hope. Before every adventure, humorous and tragic, Bip removes his opera hat, smells the red flower that decorates it, sets down the hat, and tries. Bip tries and tries and tries.

Throughout the years Marceau lived his art, he taught, (and he loved to teach) at his school in Paris, what he called the grammar of mime, the techniques, and the arts that inform it, like fencing, ballet, acrobatics, and juggling. Nowhere in his teaching is there a dictum that to be a mime you must wear a white face, black and white clothes, and pretend to push against an invisible wall for no reason. Marceau wanted new artists to create new mimeodramas, new stories, new characters. He wanted his art to grow and not be mummified in museums.

Mime is the art of making the visible invisible, Marceau says. I interpret this to mean that his white face, red lips, and black eyebrows as well as his white and gray sailor costume disappear into the lights as he becomes a judge, a prosecutor, the defense, and the defendant in “The Trial.” Mime is also the art of making the invisible visible, as you are sure you are in a fully realized courtroom instead of a bare stage when you watch this same drama, or seeing a universe while witnessing the birth of the world in “The Creation of the World.” Having seen both the video and the live performance, I will tell you the live version is far more magical and transporting, but I am so grateful to have these videos to sharpen my memories. In this video of “The Cage,” Marceau expresses his hopes for what his art can do. I’m grateful for the videos, but speaking from experience, Miss O’ can tell you they can’t hold a candle to the electric experience of seeing Marceau live.

I learned in my searches that Marceau adored Michael Jackson, “a poet,” he said, who loved Chaplin (Marceau’s early hero) and Marceau, learning how to “walk against the wind” and turning it into the moonwalk. Marceau loved that. That is what an artist does—takes the old teachings and makes them new. A planet of imitators will not do. (Painters study Rembrandt and Van Gogh and Picasso, but no one would tolerate a mere mimic; there was only one Marilyn Monroe, as it should be.) And I think I felt this in my limited artist’s heart as I myself learned mime and performed. Why a white face? Because that’s what you do. Why? So I drew a line around my white face and added rosy cheeks, but it never felt authentic. Marceau would agree. I needed to find my own character for my own reasons, to tell my own stories that might be also universal. Still, I have never lost my training, still aware of how all the movements of the body articulate and what those movements can convey emotionally. I still love the art, this art of silence which is really so much more.

Miss O’ and Debbie Hodges in Roanoke ca. 1986. We saw Marceau together, and before the show two odd things happened: 1) hearing an announcement that the show had to be delayed because the (wait for it) sound system had not yet arrived; and 2) Debbie turning to me, voice quavering: “Lisa, I just saw something beautiful, but I don’t understand it.” What? “That woman, being helped by the the usher. She’s blind. Lisa, it’s a pantomime.” Thus began a cascade of laughter, and tears. Ah, humanity.

So imagine my joy as a result of the click on the Google doodle to find out 1) NYC has a National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South, which is free; and 2) said space has an exhibition of Marceau portraits by photographer Ben Martin. And imagine my joy at finding out the book is back in print, and that on Thriftbooks I could find two other books by Marceau, including one with his own paintings and one co-authored by a man I actually know, all on the art of mime. To learn more about tis wonderful artist, there is a 2022 documentary that Miss O’ dreams will come to New York City.

“One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.”
~ May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude, 1973

Bip is the hero of his own story, and in moving through the world heroically, he is a decent creature and shares with us his decency. (Miss O’ notes here that feeling oneself to be a hero is not the same as feeling oneself to be God. Gods are monsters. Take a memo.)

Marcel Marceau, photographed by Ben Martin in 1973. Originally supposed to be a piece for Life Magazine, the project never came off because the magazine folded. So Martin made it into a book.
Photo by LO’H, National Arts Club, NYC

Marcel Marceau, photographed by Ben Martin in 1973. Marceau was initially against Martin’s project, as he was sure he would look absurd in still pictures and not in performance.
He was wrong. Photo by LO’H, National Arts Club, NYC

On Being, in Mimicry

I realize something every time I latch obsessively onto a form of study, such as mime, I begin to see reflections of that obsession in everything; in this case during Lent, mime was suddenly everywhere. The art of mime, of mimicry for survival, is in fact all around us, and I lucked into specific connections (well, we luck into things when we are looking, don’t you think?). Listening to the podcast On Being recently, I heard about the work of Janine Benyus for the first time. She helps companies learn to use the tools of nature, the natural processes of successful living things, to solve their manmade engineering and environmental problems. Isn’t that fascinating? She herself never understood why it wasn’t simply obvious to follow nature’s lead. Since childhood, Benyus had loved wild spaces, and was traumatized the first time she saw bulldozers destroy her wild lots, where she knew all the creatures and plants by their names and habits. I myself grew up catty corner from a huge vacant (we say “vacant” when there are no humans living there, you notice that?) lot that was anything but empty: filled with a creek, rocks, a dirt lot for kickball, pine trees, grasses, and blackberry thickets. When I was in my 20s, a developer bought the lot and turned it into houses, cemented up the creek bed and fenced it off with high chainlink—it was horrifying. And that sadness made me remember the old McNeil sisters who used to pick those blackberries—all that land had been once their father’s farm, and now they shared a house on Kentucky Avenue in a huge subdivision. And that made me remember that before that, it was Native American land. And before that, a wild place for all the creatures. This endless cycle of taking over, of colonizing, is really painful when you tune into it, in ways small and large. (Marcel Mangel grew up in Strasbourg, in Alsace-Lorraine, which was sometimes German, sometimes French, in the struggles to own territory, to annex, to conquer, and we all know what that led to.)

In her book Biomimicry (on my booklist now) Benyus explores how humans have ignored the ways in which nature can teach us, that because humans see themselves as having “dominion” over the earth, we think we have to do all the thinking. And our thinking is often sheer stupidity; and that stupidity is killing the planet. Benyus talks about this without malice, with love and hope, though. Podcast host Krista Tippett read aloud from the last page of the book, showing there is hope for solving the problems we have created for our world:

“The good news is that we’ll have plenty of help. We are surrounded by geniuses. They are everywhere with us breathing the same air, drinking the same round river of water, moving on limbs built from the same blood and bone. Learning from them will take only stillness on our part, a quieting of the voices of our own cleverness. Into this quiet will come a cacophony of earthly sounds, a symphony of good sense.”

~ Jane Benyus, Biomimicry

I thought of Benyus’s continued hope this stillness, and it put me in mind again of Marceau, of Bip. In the quiet of his performances, Marceau elicited a cacophony of earthly sounds, perhaps in musical accompaniment, by Bach, say, but always also the laughter, gasps, and applause of human beings. Marceau played at life, at dreams in the hope a symphony of good sense, but more than that, a symphony of love.

From Benyus’s trauma of seeing her wild space bulldozed through past the topsoil to Marcel Mangel’s witness to Nazi persecution down to his own father’s deportation and murder—both made art out of it, science out of it, education out of it. Their work is and was marginal, and made more important and beautiful and necessary because of that. We all do our best thinking doodling on the margins, don’t we?

Vanity of Vanities, All Is Vanity

“The whole point of Jesus’s life was not that we should become exactly like him, but that we should become ourselves in the same way he became himself. Jesus was not the great exception but the great example.”

– Carl Jung

On Easter Sunday, people post, “He is Risen,” that sort of thing. When people fall into idolatry, worship, they may also slip into an inauthentic imitation, or a glory of themselves in the religion rather than the religion in themselves.

I don’t understand worship. I understand curiosity and passion, and I understand a desire to learn. We lose great art, great thought, great science, it seems to me, when we see imitation all around us. Education, enlightenment, and exposure to new ideas are supposed to help us become who we are, generate more new ideas, new hopes and dreams, new beauty.

I think mime died out (which is not to say it’s dead) for two reasons: 1) it’s unbelievably hard to do well; and 2) everyone tried to be Marceau. This is a shame. Marcel Marceau wanted to teach people mime because he loved his art, not because he wanted a planet covered in white-faced pale imitations of himself. He loved Michael Jackson because Jackson (white-faced and pale though he became) took a lesson in walking against the wind and turned it into the moonwalk; Jackson elevated the form and made it personal. Similarly, Jesus didn’t ask for a planet full of imitators and power mongers to “spread his word” (his apostles did that); he (lowercase human pronoun) wanted people (as I read it) to simply live in a radically alternative way: love over hate, kindness over violence, the love of all over the love of money, equity for all (women, men, whatever) over huge power of some over the rest. It’s not difficult. But it feels impossible to accomplish, like walking against the wind.

The nature all around us, the earth that holds us—how does this not feel like our true mother, our closest companion, our guide, our lover, our teacher, our friend? Why do we push it off, push against it and each other?

Let us, like Bip, don our opera hat proudly every day, dressed up with a fresh flower on top, the scent of which we smell with delight before we move to walk against the wind into the world to do the best we can.

Silence is about attention. An audience may break that silence with response. Something inward goes outward. I say that because most everyone now can be seen staring silently into a phone, scrolling dead-eyed, a quiet trance of habit that isn’t what I mean by silence at all. With Marceau’s art, silence is about concentration, the mime’s attention to the art in emotion, and the audience’s attention to the performance. If we mimic anything in this life, let it be the nature around us, and the artist’s attention to his art. And another’s kindness.

Love, somehow, to all.

Miss O’ with Bip. National Arts Club, NYC, special exhibition of photos by Ben Martin.