Kitchen Story from Yelp / Genevieve Y
My girlfriend Corky and I like to have breakfast together in lovely spaces on days we will not spend together because our commitments keep us apart. We go out early. That is our habit because we choose popular places that fill up quickly. This particular morning, however, the restaurant was almost empty. Seated with my back to the window, I could see most of the small space.
I call this “The Kitchen Story” because that’s where we were that morning. It started as a story about a simple kindness. It has become a struggle to tell without it becoming bigger than it was.
Here is the story. Not long after we were seated and studying the menu, a man came in. He was unkempt and carried a large green bundle that could have been a sleeping bag. It was obvious that the two young women on the wait staff did not want to seat him, and they did not know how to ask him to leave. They skittered around the counter uncertainly and finally seated him in a corner.
I could see their discomfort; I gestured to one young lady and when she came to the table, she acknowledged that the man’s demeanor made them uncomfortable. Neither of them knew what to do about him. She said that if he did not pay, the manager would be angry and they would have to explain. In short, they were uncertain and unprepared to deal with the “what if.”
Without thinking, I said to her that I would like her to serve the man, and I would pay for his breakfast if he did not. I had to reassure her multiple times that I truly meant to do this. They were relieved by the offer. The man was served his breakfast and he paid his bill. He also left a tip.
Why was telling this story a struggle? Did I have problems with appearing kind and generous? Both traits are admirable. Hoping she could help me tell the story, Corky shared it with her friends. Their reactions made it appear even bigger than it was. While it’s gratifying to be in the same sentence as Gandhi or the Dalai Lama, it only added to my discomfort.
In truth, at that moment I had no large vision, not even the first Unitarian Universalist principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person. I did not think to tell the uncertain young wait staff to look past that man’s unkempt appearance and behold his inner goodness. Nor did it occur to me that I might postulate the Buddhist precept of not causing harm.
It was even later as I wondered about telling the story at all that I remembered sobbing through Olivier Messiaen’s opera, Saint François d'Assise. When the monks are busy with monastery chores, an angel asks admission. They wave off the angel without seeing him. When I considered this all too human mistake, I cried.
As I have grappled with telling this story, I see that the struggle has been in writing about myself when experiencing no self was such a large part of it. This state of being is certainly unfamiliar. And that is my kitchen story.
Bee picture in my living room / Alison R.
In these posts I try to mine my own experience for spiritual gold. Some weeks I think I have struck pay dirt whereas other weeks my search unearths fewer precious metals. In searching through self for spiritual material, I often clank up against the rock of ego and seeing in it the least glitter of the yellow stuff, I mistake its value, misled by ego’s need to feel special. (It helps to have an editor.)
When bees swarmed into my Saturday morning meditation, I noted persistent bee thoughts and later scouted the Internet to understand Bee as a symbol. As I collected information about Bee symbolism through recorded time, I also noted the swell of self-importance. Wow, bees chose me! How ego strives to be special! Then I was stung by the realization that ego is not Bee’s message.
Sure, I loved learning that the bee is symbolic of feminine energy, that its honeycomb, a hexagon, is the symbol of the heart and represents the sweetness of life found within one’s own heart, but even more important is the communal nature of bees – they serve the interconnected world. It was a reminder I needed.
On Easter Sunday I was scheduled to be part of the worship service, to speak to the congregation about renewing and increasing its financial support. I had been struggling to be wholehearted, wondering if I could urge others to contribute without being a hypocrite. I had made no secret of my personal disappointment with almost everything to almost everybody in the church. Could I honestly ask anybody else to support the church when I had been ambivalent about renewing let alone increasing my own contribution?
Remembering how I had moved from self-admiration after learning about bee symbols to a sense of responsibility to the community, I decided to expand my limited perspective. I needed a wider notion of church. I chose to consult the minister, a man toward whom I once felt great animosity. I professed my doubt about the church as a continuing place of meaning to me. I said I doubted I could make an honest request of the congregation. And I hoped he would show me how to see church membership from a more spacious perspective than I currently held. He did help. He spoke of the greater good. This liberal religious community has value for all to come in the future as it had for all who had come before in the 162 years of its history. I could accept the responsibility of serving this larger community. I could speak to the congregation wholeheartedly. It felt like finding gold.
I imagined how important church is for children and their parents, for newcomers anxious for connection, for the homeless men fed and cared for in the Winter Shelter, and many more. I remembered my own eagerness to join this church ten years ago even as it was undergoing an upheaval of ministerial staff similar to the one through which we have been going. I was able to discover the beauty and value of the church for myself. But what if every disillusioned member at that time was withdrawing or downsizing their financial support? The result might have been no non-creedal church for me to join when I was most wanting to belong to this liberal religious community.
I am grateful for my past ten years in this congregation and for its support of my spiritual journey. I am grateful for a widening perspective that lets me see the common humanity in those toward whom I once felt animosity. And I am grateful for meditation and to the bees who visited me during one of my sits. Bees are communal creatures after all, and if I am to be a queen bee, my responsibility to others is bedazzling.
Symphony brass out on strike / Alison R.
The oft-quoted Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will never find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.” I don’t get it exactly, but that’s okay. I understand it enough to recognize that my life has been full of unexpected moments, both big and small.
Just last week, I can’t say I expected to hear a classical repertoire performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s brass section at Patricia’s Green on Hayes Street. Striking symphony members took to the street to meet, greet and explain. Music so unexpected and delightful that I sat and listened until they stopped.
On a slightly different note, I hadn’t planned to participate in Zen Master Norman Fischer’s workshop Training in Compassion
on a recent Saturday at the Zen Center. I imagined myself still in the “me” stages of meditation. I didn’t expect to be open to concentrating on anyone else. But my Zen practice teacher insisted this was an important place to be and the right time to be there. One takes seriously these directives.
I had not expected to be so profoundly moved by this talk and workshop on training the mind, nor to buy Fischer’s book, nor to be continuously reading it. I hadn’t expected to be this wholehearted about meditation for the welfare of others. Yet unexpectedly I got it. No separation between self and others means no fixed self to speak of, let alone to improve upon; focusing on others does for me as much as it does for everyone. We are all one.
I love Norman Fischer’s book. He writes in the forward: “Compassion and resilience…can become the way we are and live on a daily basis. We can train our minds. We are not stuck with our fearful, habitual, self-centered ways of seeing and feeling.” And then he shows the reader how. I love that he teaches from an old Tibetan text he has modernized. Lojong
is how Tibetan Buddhists and Fischer name the practice; Pema Chodron teaches it as Tonglen
. Fischer’s book covers seven points and 59 slogans for generating compassion and resilience. These bite-sized wisdoms are to be contemplated on the cushion, memorized in any order or the order in which they are presented. They are a little like bumper stickers for awakening compassion—A kind of “Honk if you love Jesus” but more about radiating kindness than asking for validation that a particular wise man matters.
Going into this day with Norman Fischer I did not expect that I would want to breathe in other’s pain for the sake of their wellbeing and breathe out what I feel would bring them relief and happiness. Doing this practice meant I had to face my resistance to experiencing pain. I went to the workshop tired by my own pain; I had no interest in adding other’s pain to my own. Yet by the end of the day, I found unexpected space in my sitting practice to experience and alleviate pain for others. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron explains the purpose of this kind of meditation:
practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.”
I did not expect that after describing my experience at the Zen center, my Wednesday night Small Group Ministry group at the Unitarian Universalist Church would want to practice Lojong
as part of our service project. As we sit together, each participant will breath in suffering associated with what matters to them such as breast cancer or world hunger and breath out release from that suffering. I was encouraged and grateful to see my experience begin to ripple out. Expect the unexpected.
Nelson the pit bull puppy / Guy R.
Meet Nelson the pit bull puppy. He is my most recent reason for being caught in the grip of self-aversion. He doesn’t belong to me; he is a new member of the Connecticut part of my family. I lay my dilemma at his paws because I can’t look at him and not love him. And sadly, looking and loving have made me unhappy whereas were I less susceptible to tying myself in knots, I might simply have been happy at seeing his sweet face and that would have been the end of that.
But I didn’t just look at Nelson and smile. I knotted up and accused myself of lazy love, which in my mind is the opposite of energetic love. The latter means I accompany my pit bull puppy to obedience school, get him his shots, and tailor my workout regimen so as to be strong enough to rein him in when he does his doggy aggressive stuff. Innumerable requirements if I am to have a meaningful relationship with a Nelson of my own.
Undoubtedly older women for whom dog ownership is a given will have lots of good advice for me as to what breed of dog would suit me better, considering my living arrangement and the nature of my complaints. My advice is save the advice as I will surely parse a “should” and feel increased shame for professing to love animals yet not embracing the reality of caring for one.
You might ask what is the problem. Get on with it. So you are conflicted. That is part of the human condition. It happens all the time. And yet these conflicting feelings have held up my regular blog posting. The dilemma has never really been can I have a dog? Or even should I want to have a dog?
The real problem is my old friend, self-aversion. I would like myself better if I were a person who had the energy for a dog. I say I adore dogs and certainly my heart went out to Nelson, the pit bull puppy. This irritation at wanting and not wanting spilled over into consternation at missing my self-imposed Monday blog post deadline, which had already slipped to Tuesday. Finally, I asked myself if these self-limiting expectations are good for anything. They certainly don’t bring happiness; whereas all the talking I do to myself with an “impure mind” insures that “suffering follows as the wheel of the cart follows the foot of the ox.”
When I am in the grasp of self-aversion, someone else has to point out the uselessness of self-hate, gently of course. And someone else must remind me that the world continues if my blog isn’t posted by mid-day Monday.
Thanks to my friends for guiding me safely into hindsight, where I can note with some spaciousness that I had been sidetracked by “Hindrances”: Toxic doubt and the Ruthless Inner Critic. Meanwhile I have learned from my son that the new puppy, Nelson, and the original pit bull, Otto, are lying down together. I cheer these two creatures at peace.
Feeding / Keith Park
Think of it! A second chance at love, of being nurtured at this time of life and practically in the same zip code! Feels like a miracle. It is certainly grace and a cause for gratitude. I can tell my story of why after two years I again feel love for and from Corky. She has her own story.
During the two years Corky and I were apart, we mostly avoided each other or approached each other warily. At times we probably badmouthed the other to sympathetic friends. And yet we sort of stayed in touch.
I will keep the backstory short. Two years ago Corky and I were at a dinner with friends on Valentines Day and each couple talked about their love. We skipped over the subject. The following night, we went to a movie and after the movie, she bought me dinner when suddenly I behaved badly. Mild violence ensued and that was the end. The twosome called Corky and Allie came apart.
Then other things impacted me — a broken marriage wherein my oldest son went to the East Coast. A daughter-in-law struck and killed by a car, leaving my youngest son distraught, my three-year old granddaughter composing emails to her mommy in heaven. One son had moved on to a new life, leaving behind grief. The other shut down and was unreachable in his grief. Both my parenting and partnering selves felt broken. Along with feelings of remorse and anger, compassion and bewilderment, I perceived loss as failure.
Experiencing such pain, I went into therapy to be “fixed”. Of course, fixing was never a real option; rather, therapist Jennifer pointed me to John Welwood and his Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wounds of the Heart. Over the ensuing year, under Jennifer’s kind eye, I befriended my grief, ceased to fight nor doubt the worth of the weeping. Fortuitously, my friend Kate shared Buddhist teacher Tara Brach’s podcasts and blogs. Tara guided me toward the possibility of gentleness toward the self. Then I gobbled up dharma talks, Tara’s wisdom replacing the yuck of my own mentation.
Tara’s talking led to meditation and with sitting came silence and equanimity. Proverbial mountains became proverbial molehills. Silence in just sitting gave me access to “the sacred pause,” that brief moment before a lit limbic system sends out the fight or flight impulse. It is the moment for the gentler prefrontal cortex to come to kindness and reason. Studying Buddhism brought me to a Zen teacher to guide my meditation practice. She too had known grief in her life and could remind me that my suffering was “the suffering” and we are all in it together.
Though I did go into therapy with Jennifer to work on being in relationship, that was not the outcome. Ultimately recognizing my defenses and strategies became the desired goal. Uncovering my Buddha Nature, you could say. My hope was and is to accept who I am and not regret who I am not.
And despite what I did or didn’t think could or should happen between Corky and me, books about love say that in relationships when one person changes, the other’s changing is not a requirement because the source of love is in oneself. Meanwhile, all credit to Corky for chiseling down her own mountains to molehills her way. As for me, it has been powerful to acknowledge my part in the unhappiness that marred our five-year relationship. There were so many ways I had not nurtured her.
All the time we were together, I knew that the majority of problems between us were her fault. I thought if only she understood me, listened to me, gave me what I needed, etc. etc. Of course, I was mistaken. Now with two years of slow growth and gentle moving toward each other, I find us both to be vulnerable and affectionate women capable of giving and receiving love. And I said to her and she liked my saying so: “You are giving me everything I have ever wanted in a relationship.”
Dr. Seuss Fell in the Aquarium/Garland Cannon
I really needed to practice self-compassion after having spent Friday through Sunday with my five-year-old granddaughter whose first words to me were “You’re not my real grammy. “My real grammy lives in Colorado.”
Could failing to be the "real grammy" put me at a disadvantage with my little cherub? Not being a “real grammy” might mean that rules for getting along and going along wouldn’t apply to me. This little girl and her Grandma Alzie might need to fashion our own rules—in a hurry and quietly.
Working things out with little or no disturbance were explicit parts of my responsibility on this visit. My son had asked me to come to Los Osos to watch our beloved girl so he could sleep, and Miss E’s regular sitter, Tracy, could take a much-needed break. Everyone is exhausted because daddy has been temporarily working a night shift and though it is winding down and he will be back to full time parenting, he still has a few days to go.
I discovered right away that a child makes rules for the benefit of the child. The child wants what the child wants. Child rules can be as simple as keeping the ace of diamonds lost fairly according to the rules of the card game “Roar.” A child can refuse to budge from the computer when grandma says three hours of animated games in Daddy’s room is enough.
Daddy would hope grammy would be the rule maker and enforcer, that she would take charge of the child swiftly and silently, relocating her, preferably downstairs. Dragging her off the chair kicking and screaming is not an adult option. Luckily, Daddy’s need to sleep will soon be over. He is, after all, the authority figure who issues time outs and puts the iPad out of reach.
Sadly, on this visit I did not have the clout to convince the child to follow my rules without an argument. More than once, daddy did have to wake up, get up, and assert his authority.
Finally, when it was Sunday afternoon and I was ready to head back to San Francisco, I gave in to a sprinkle of self-pitying tears and a few rips of self-criticism. Why had my sweet little girl not said goodbye to me as I bustled my belongings out the door? Had my inability to enforce rules made me a grammy failure? Would the Colorado grammy have done a better job? Would she have made better breakfasts? My little charge had eaten eggs I fried and the toast with the butter and jam. She had not found fault with the microwave popcorn we munched as we watched Toy Story 2 twice and El Dorado once. Not to compare myself to the Colorado grammy, but I did wonder if on her visits she plays multiple games of Roar? Would she have slept in the bed with the little girl and her stuffed toys? Would she have read the requisite two books at bedtime and listened to the child read One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish?
Exhausted from the drive home, I went to bed, confused and disappointed that my visit had not made life easier for this dear son and his little girl. The next morning I turned for perspective to my friend, Kate. She pointed out that both my son and I had expectations about the outcome of the visit. And this hadn’t proved skillful. On the way home from Kate’s I listened to a self-compassion podcast. That helped. With self-compassion warming me, I thanked my inner critic for trying to steer me into being the best grammy I could be, suggesting to her that less harsh rhetoric would still be effective.
Now I am rethinking my role, seeing myself a rule-making, boundary setting grammy. A lot like the Colorado grammy. At about the time I am feeling at peace, my exhausted son calls to be sure I have made it safely back to San Francisco. He suggests that for smoother future forays, he will “franchise my visits.” I imagine from now on each visit will have a set agenda with designated spots in and about the estuary, park, school grounds and beach where I will be permitted to go on foot. There will be a list of equipment for the child such as helmets, bikes, scooters, skateboards from which I will choose, depending on the terrain of the spot to which we are headed. I am not nor will not be allowed to drive the child anywhere.
“Franchising visits” makes me laugh. I appreciate his effort and don’t bother telling him I had already planned to be a more consistent grammy who sets clear boundaries. As for him, it is too late to redo my parenting.
A Life Lived Well / By ZeePack
Friday, I took a call from Romy, my former hairdresser. She sounded distraught. “Are you all right? Are you depressed? I have not seen you since September.” There was urgency in her voice. I reminded her that the message I left on her answer machine told her I had cut off all her colors.
As I admitted in my February 11 posting “Hair: My Croning Glory,”
I knew Romy’s intent had always been to make me worthy of what she called my youthful energy. Yet I felt I had acted cowardly when I hadn’t respond to Romy in person and told her my reason for not scheduling a cut or color since September. I was afraid to tell her outright of my aim to be less vain. I failed to say I wasn’t willing to have her commandeer my head, deciding what style and colors would suit me best. After all, she was the professional, and when I sat in her chair I belonged to her from the neck up. Although on several occasions she had strong ideas about necklines, jewelry, and shoes. I thought that my voice mail response to Romy’s initial call meant that it was over.
When I saw her name on my phone on Friday, I took a deep breath and bravely took the call. I could hear the disdain in her voice when she referenced the fact that someone else had cut off her creation. “What did you pay for that hair cut? Twenty dollars?” I told her the cost of the cut. But what I didn’t say was that not arguing or defending myself against pressure from a self-assured, aggressive hair stylist was priceless.
While I would gladly have paid less — I am on a fixed income after all — I had not searched out a different stylist to save money at Romy’s expense. “You still need a good haircut no matter what color your hair is,” she said, seeming to dismiss the worthiness of anyone else’s scissor skills. “I’ll cut your hair for nothing. I miss you.” “I miss you too, Romy,” I said. I did not say I was not in the mood to be pressured. Instead, I did what I often do when clearly outmatched in aggression — I demonstrated canine courage by cowering submissively. “I have become a recluse,” I lied. “I knew it,” she said, a potential triumph clearly in view. Romy to the rescue!
I heard and appreciated her worry and felt her relief that neither hate nor error on her part had contributed to my disappearing from her appointment book. She sounded eager to see me soon, insisting in the course of our conversation I book an appointment. If I heard her clearly, she would not sleep well until I let her look at me. I assured her I would definitely drop by. I did not say I would make an appointment. With deep sincerity she promised that she would not, definitely not, try to talk me out of the way I chose to look. Indeed, her last words before the phone call ended were “I promise (with a special emphasis on the promise) not to try and talk you out of your decision.”
Within seconds of our heartfelt goodbyes and her repeated reassurances, the phone rang again. It was Romy. “But if I want to put in one streak, one silly streak, would that be all right? I won’t charge you for it.” After a long pause, I answered her.
From a collage by Susan Miller / Alison R.
To make a susan shaped space is to mark off in your heart those parts of you that would be different or less had you not had a friend like Susan Miller in your life.
Sunday, the Mothertongue Feminist Theater Collective put on a celebration ceremony honoring Susan (Shoshanna) Merilyn Miller for women who knew and valued her friendship. As part of the program Lori Rillera sang “my miracle,” a song she wrote to express her deep affection for this woman who had been old enough to be her mother.
”I’m thinking of you
susan shaped space
filled in my heart
when I sing
and make art”
Lori said that Susan would say to her that she was the same age as the daughter she gave up for adoption.
Alhough I did not know Susan well, I had been to some of the same gatherings and had followed the progression of her illness through postings by her good friends Corky Wick and Lori. They, with Susan, were members of Mothertongue with whom she had performed her written pieces about women’s experiences for more than 25 years.
Taken from venues where Susan is said to have read them animatedly, about 30 pieces were arranged to be read and filmed on Sunday. They were varied – childhood recollections of her love for her sister, her memory of lying on the bathroom floor begging god to help her breathe so she would not have to disturb her parents on a night they seemed to be getting along, her ongoing battles with asthma and eczema, her yearning to be loved, her sexuality, and her bisexuality, a fact she liked to make clear by speaking and writing the word in all capital letters.
From among her writings, I chose to go to the microphone and read “A Good Day,” a piece I picked because on that day everything had gone well for her, even her doctors’ appointments. I knew from Corky that Susan’s life had been filled with illness, so I felt glad and less intrusive to share in a day she felt free of pain, a day spent with her sister joyfully. I did not feel entitled to read intimate accounts – her playful musings about masturbation, or her yearnings to have someone make love to her – not that I haven’t known both.
Robin Song opened the program by lighting a candle against a backdrop of collages and drawings Susan created. These art works clipped to twine by tiny clothespins were for friends to take as were pieces of her jewelry, her scarves, jackets and other clothes.
Robin included a ritual dropping of smooth and lovely stones into a translucent bowl of water after each woman read one of Susan’s writings. These stones, Robin said, remind us that what we give of ourselves ripples out. Our lives invariably touch other lives, whether or not we think so.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, music for dancing played through the meeting room at Strawberry Creek Lodge in North Berkeley and the women who knew and loved Susan moved as they were able in body or spirit, waving Susan’s scarves or sharing with each other the clothes they wore that had once been hers.
“i was waiting for you
holding your place
till you got well
a susan-shaped space
no other dancer
Hair Color on September 6, 2108 / Alison R.
My hair has been my crowning glory, and my stylist would be the first to say so.
I came to San Francisco from Southern California and met my son and daughter-in-law’s hairdresser, Romy. Since that time I have applauded all the variations she created from July 1999 until December 2012. Only briefly, five years ago when baby Erin was born, did I go a day or two with a poppy-colored head of hair.
The joke in the hospital room when my son saw me was that if the baby went missing at the same time I left, they would send out an amber alert and I would be pulled over in a minute. Romy recognized that this was a dye job that hadn’t succeeded and scheduled a re-dye within the week. That was her only misstep in all the years she ruled my hair.
Romy’s control had been pretty absolute since we first met and she declared me drab. Mine was a history of deferring when it came to hair. Ours was a willing partnership. She did what she thought was beautiful and I agreed. While those days are over, I am ashamed to say I acted the coward one more time and didn’t tell Romy directly that I grew out the color and let another stylist cut it off. When she called me to say she missed me, I called her back and left a message. I said I had been afraid to disappoint her by going natural and that I feared she might have tried to talk me out of it. I regret not saying what I really felt.
Deciding to be less hidden beneath clever colors and artful streaking has taken years. It has only been within the last several that I accepted my aging with greater affection. I want to honor the crone I have become. This crone wants to spend less time and money on her hair and more on meditating. I want to trust my own instincts and follow my passions.
Jean Shinoda Bolen in Crones Don’t Whine says, “A crone is a juicy older woman with zest, passions, and soul.” If you aspire to be one, the secret is to be yourself while your mind, heart and body still function well enough and you appreciate being alive.
Bolen writes: “Crones don’t whine; they’re juicy and they trust their own instincts. Crones are fierce about what matters to them. They speak the truth with compassion. They listen to their bodies, reinvent themselves, and savor the good in their lives.”
She doesn’t say that crones don’t dye their hair or wear make-up or have facelifts if they think improving their appearance would make them happier or more themselves. However, I’m of the less-is-more frame of mind. The less I see myself facing the job of aging gracefully and graciously, the more I put off embracing this crone stage of my life.
I come by my vanity honestly. My hair has always been my “crowning glory.” From my earliest years when my mother took me to beauty shops to the time I first changed hair color in my mid-thirties, hair has helped to represent the “self” I want to see in the mirror and the “self” I want to present to the world.
For now, I see a woman in transition, willing to be more who she is. I like the mouse color I see in the mirror. I still rumple my hair and apply what Romy calls “product” to achieve a jaunty look. This new look reflects the energy and creativity that have brought me this far into cronedom.
Waiting for Godot / William Wend
At one time and for a long time, Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot
was high on a list of literature that explained me to myself. It was up there with Shakespeare’s Hamlet
and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Liking that play was a matter of pride. I “got it.” Its absurdity spoke to me – a prideful reminder that I knew the meaninglessness of life.
Friday night Corky and I saw the Marin Theater Company’s production of this play. This time the play didn’t speak to me. The play was essentially the same as the Ireland’s Gate Theatre Waiting for Godot
at Cal Performances in 2006. I loved it in ’06. Same barren stage, leafless tree in the first act, scattering of hopeful leaves in the second, same moon zipping into the sky as day ends and same no-show Godot.
What didn’t work on stage I leave to critics to explain. What clearly no longer speaks to me is two acts of disillusionment and hopelessness. Vladimir and Estragon, (Didi and Gogo), still expect an outside force, “Godot,” to give meaning to their sad and empty lives, and this isn’t going to happen. Meanwhile, they try to pass the time and “hold the terrible silence at bay” until Godot arrives.
The play reflects a meaningless world in two acts performed on an almost empty stage and may only be performed by a male cast. The play’s director said so when I asked him if Beckett had so stipulated.
When I first fell in love with the play, its unending dissatisfaction and emptiness suited me. Like Beckett after World War II, I too allowed that joy and beauty were absent in the world. Certainly, Beckett’s Europe had better reason than I to adopt a posture of weariness, but I took to absurdity and the glorification of incomprehension as expressions of my human condition.
But this is not a review of the play per se. Not a critic, I generally rely on my right leg as an arbiter of engagement. It never shakes at the opera. It was still during Saturday’s ballet performance. But Friday night, I knew from the leg’s restless shifting and shaking that this theater experience wasn’t working for me. I lay the right leg over the empty chair next to me, but that was a temporary fix. Crossing it over the left didn’t help nor did crossing the left over the right. Because I was holding my former girlfriend Corky’s hand, and it rested on my left knee, I was aware that my discomfort might distract her.
So what in me has changed so much that this performance of Godot left me unmoved, except for the restless shifting of my right leg? Beckett’s tragicomedy now feels more unhappy than comedic. Although I used to laugh, it was probably not at vaudevillian turns or non sequiturs
as much as at the confusion I sensed in other members of the audience. On opening night in Marin, the director said 160 people came to see the play. At intermission, 37 had gone home. By Friday night when Corky and I saw the play the house was sparsely filled and 37 other theatergoers probably left at intermission. I might have gone too, but I came with Corky and she had not seen the play.
In a Sunday morning conversation with my oldest son who, like me, once flirted with the void, I said I had little interest in Beckett’s tragicomedy when I saw it Friday night in Marin. I wondered if I hadn’t outgrown living without optimism and was now finding a play bereft of connection an uncompelling evening out.
Having given some thought to why I was not entertained by the human suffering I saw on stage, I conclude that watching Vladimir and Estragon struggle with uncertainty and disappointment is more painful than amusing. My own grief is not something I can laugh off. To be without compassion for the human condition and to be without compassion for one’s own grief is no laughing matter.