Did you ever have one of those days (years, lives) when everything breaks? The one where you look at the pot handle lonely in your hand as the pot you wanted to fill with water clangs onto the kitchen floor, and you scream, “I’m so glad this is hard.” Dumb tasks that should take a second become all-day quests on the scale of Don Quixote. The other morning one of the little plastic doohickeys on the collapsible plastic tube that keeps the toilet paper attached to the porcelain thingy on the wall snapped off when I tried to replace the roll. My first instinct in cases like this is to try and fix it. So several squirts of epoxy and some duct tape later I realize, “For the love of god, Lisa, stick this in your bag and go to a hardware store.” $2.99 + tax later, all was mended. But the cost to my day? Priceless.
Everything, it seems to me lately, is breaking. The existential stuff, sure, but what about my parents’ yard? The other week when I visited Virginia, brother Jeff and I pulled into our parents’ driveway, and the first thing I noticed was all the chickweed in the flower beds. By this time of year, those beds are cleaned out, mulched, and planted with petunias, but ol’ Bernie in his 89th year has a hernia and was waiting for surgery, so all the planted beauty was on hold. Upon surveying the rest of “estate,” I noticed piles of oak tree spooj, er, “catkins,” in pond form on the driveway and pea gravel patio; periwinkle out of control; a dead dogwood. So after days of rain, during which I cleaned their house, stocked up at the grocery store, and did whatever other daughter stuff was needed, I set off for outside to pull chickweed and sweep up the driveway.
Within ten minutes of using the outside broom—mended at the bristle-handle connection several times over with Gorilla (TM) tape—it broke past repair. The handle coating was cracking in strips. The third time I used the dustpan it literally crumbled in my grasp.
WHAT IS HAPPENING?
I just turned 59, so you’d think I’d just roll with all this, but in truth I got weepy, not because of the broom and dustpan, though sure, it was an inconvenience (I texted Jeff to please buy one at Lowe’s while he was there picking up a new latch for the 50-year-old front storm door, the one that caused our father to get locked out the previous morning while out getting the paper at 4:30 AM—fortunately we are all early risers and I heard the knocking while Jeff was in the bathroom and our mother still in bed with her coffee). It’s that all this infrastructure breaking down mirrors my parents’ physical and mental deterioration; inevitable though it is, and tough old birds that they are, it’s not something you can just smile through. Though we do, often as not.
Couple this personal existential stuff with the coming end of the democratic experiment in America—and forget that, what about the EARTH?—and I have to ask, how are we all not losing our minds?
This spring, everything bloomed a full month early. (New York City—a city of subzero winters and months-long snowpack when I moved here 20 years ago, had the warmest winter I can remember, and sadly will probably never know such cold winters again in my lifetime; my co-op doesn’t even bother to order salt anymore, and we used to order a dozen bags a winter.) I do not celebrate this. Lilacs, a mid-May flower, were here and gone in early April; so were the daffodils, tulips, and azaleas (a late May bloom), all at once. I don’t know if you follow bloom schedules, or enjoy the unfolding of seasonal changes as I do, but last spring’s walks were simply miraculous, helping me emerge out of my Covid coma, spring taking its sweet time moving from crocuses, to daffodils, to tulips, to blossoming trees, to irises, right up to honeysuckle.
This year, it’s like the whole bloom gang showed up drunk to your spring party and passed out as they handed you their coat.
My friend Tom, a Virginia native, retired English teacher (mine, in high school), and avid gardener, called me from his Arlington home a week or so before my visit, freaking out about this seasonal disruption. “What is happening? Everything bloomed for a split second and was gone! I can’t keep up!” He was also freaking out because of the steady and unstoppable decline of his partner and spouse of fifty years, Ron, who was dying of cancer of the bile duct in a nearby nursing home. And as passionate about politics as he is about poetry, Tom was also having apoplexy over the Republican Party’s transparent policies to unapologetically end democracy. Death was in his garden, in his home, in his country. It was all just too much to handle all at once, and yet there he was, handling it.
Before I could visit, Ron died shortly after I arrived in Virginia, peacefully but still unexpectedly around noon on May 2, right there with Tom. It happened the day after the 50th anniversary of their meeting. EMTs, police, inquest, courthouse, death certificate, phone calls to insurance and Medicare and Social Security and Dominion Power and the bank…and not a second to grieve. Our whole American system is hurry-up heartless. Tom only spoke to one actual human, who was so kind, while the rest was AI simulation voices or operators from overseas reading from a script of “How can I help you today?” to “I am sorry I could not fulfill your request.” Fuck them all.
Today is Mother’s Day, and so far Lynne is hanging in there. On Thursday, May 18, the good lord willing and the creek don’t rise, my parents will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. On June 5, my dad is scheduled for outpatient hernia surgery. Meanwhile Jeff is cutting the grass and trimming out the lawn; we bought a hanging basket for the backyard while I was home. And Tom is trying to figure out a good time to have a gathering to remember Ron, at their home, maybe this June; and Democrats still use their elected offices for governance of and for the People, bless ’em.
Our Earth continues to warm at a beyond alarming rate. Republicans are breaking democracy. Declines happen. But the death of the Earth, the death of democracy, unlike human death, is not inevitable. We don’t have to lose them. We don’t have to annihilate all life as we know it just because a few people are having, I guess, really bad days (years, lives) and are taking it out on all of us.
This week I sent money to Biden to stop fascism and Brady to stop guns. At the farmer’s market on Saturday, I bought plants for the porch pots on my little deck over the trash alley here in Queens. Every little bloom counts. It has to.
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.
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:
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 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.”
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?”
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.
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 heroto 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.)
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.
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”:
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.
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.
1 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.