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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

An Island of Sorrow (reflection)

Photo by Will Rose, Orcas Island, WA. Nov. 2011 

My father Dave passed away in September at age 95. After his diagnosis with cancer, when we knew his life would last only weeks, our family drew closely together. As the end approached, time compressed. We did many things for the last time with Dave: watching family slides, singing songs, saying grace at table, listening to an old joke. And then he was gone.

Grief remained as an unseen guest, and followed me as I took much-needed leave from my teaching job and rented a small cabin on Orcas Island, alone, hoping to do some writing. Much of the time I ached with depression and sorrow, sleeping, reading, staring at waves lapping a pebbly beach. Grief peopled my solitude, crowding into silent caverns of my heart, holding up memories and mirrors, demanding contemplation. My retreat was a time of convalescence on an island of sorrow.

Eventually I got to some writing, but soon it was time to leave. I wondered if I had wasted my time, mooning around and feeling sorry for myself rather than sticking to my writing goals. As I ferried homeward across the water to the mainland, grief fell behind, somehow rooted to that island shore.

In the following weeks, life gradually shifted to a new "normal." I went back to my teaching with revived enthusiasm, and stayed in close touch with my mother and siblings and other family members. We have comforted and counseled one another as we move on with our lives. Friends, too, have helped in countless ways.

So has my muse. My writing work has had a renaissance. Fitting it in among other commitments, I've been taking risks, trying out new ideas and letting others go, revising and slimming down the manuscript. The novel, and I, are gaining clarity. As a teacher, too, I'm back on my game, learning from the ever-changing challenges of the classroom, which is another kind of mirror. Work and play and family and day-to-day life have achieved a new equilibrium. Perhaps my retreat served a purpose after all.

As Christmas approaches, another milestone "After Dave," I look back with gratitude at that island with its stony shore. Loss lies heavily on a human heart, but time bathes the pain with ever-moving tides and currents. Lightness returns, and as the stone rolls away, new life does spring forth. 

My sisters Debbie (left) and Betsy (right) and me with our dad, Dave, days before he passed away.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dream: Tumbling from the sky

A dream I was in an airplane, flying and talking casually with a group of people. Suddenly the plane began to yaw and pitch, but our conversation went on untroubled. Then I became aware that things were looking pretty dire: the plane tipped violently to the right and spun around. "We've lost air traction!" I cried out, and knew there was no way we could recover. Through the windows I saw buildings and trees spinning, growing closer. Somehow calm, I prepared myself for imminent oblivion.

Photo by Will Rose, December 2010, Guemes Island, WA

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dream: Crumbling bluff

A dream the night before last: realized I was getting old, no longer with any connection to the younger generation. I felt vivid awareness of my inner youth belying my aging body. I walked along a rocky coastline, sliding with all the grace of a young 'skater' along a slippery ridge of half-submerged rock; I hopped to shore at the base of a towering bluff of reddish rock, a jumble of sedimentary rock and packed mud, noting my graceful leap and the strength and control I had of my body; a young man walking past saw me and averted his eyes as the young do, writing me off as an old guy devoid of any possible interest.

I saw and felt this, but also awareness of the self I am now and always have been -- a continuous, if illusory, sense of who I am regardless of the impressions of others. I began to scale the rocks, deeply conscious of the road I have traveled, my rich past, the boy I remain in my soul... To my consternation, the bluff crumbles; I can gain no solid foot or hand-hold. Every rock I try to grab pulls loose and falls; chunks of rock and sections of the bluff tumble dangerously under and around me.

Me on the Lizieux, France, 1973, 18 years old
Somehow I manage to clamber to the top, but find I am emerging from a narrow opening in a roof of a smaller room or shed inside a larger structure, a barn perhaps. Below me on the ground a young boy looks up at me, and at his feet I see a shaky wooden ladder. I ask him to prop it against the roof for me, and he obliges. I climb back to terra firma, wondering why everything has become so uncertain and difficult. I awake with very much the same thought.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chaplin's Tramp is King (film series review)

"Simplicity is a difficult thing to achieve": The Films of Charlie Chaplin
April 15-21, 2011 at SIFF Cinema.
The Charlie Chaplin Film Festival closed Thursday night at SIFF Cinema. A week ago, with little fanfare, it opened to a small but excited crowd, among them young devotees in Chaplinesque attire and moustaches, 20-ish couples, middle-aged folk, elders, and single odd-balls like this writer - an approximate cross-section of Charlie Chaplin's 21st century following. 
 As the audience dwindled through the week, the significance of his oeuvre seemed only to grow. In 2011, more than three decades after Charlie Chaplin's death and 122 years after his birth, "Charles the Silent" reigns over a threadbare kingdom. Still a name and figure almost anyone can recognize, Chaplin's genius gets lip service even as his legacy fades in the imagination of a generation and an era. People think they know Chaplin: the little man with the funny walk and the top hat and cane. In today's America, to know a little is to know it all, but a closer look at Chaplin reveals depths beyond the scope of casual acquaintance. Everyone knows who he is, but few know him for what he is.
 SIFF's high-quality prints and large screen brought him vividly to life across the decades of his evolution, evoking laughter, awe, and tears even from viewers like myself seeing some of the films for the dozenth time. Full-screen, Chaplin can be painfully accessible, cracking us up while breaking our hearts with his loves and hopes and dashed dreams, his deceits and humiliations. If the Self is King, Chaplin is Jester, mocking our delusions of grandeur and importance, laying bare our pettiness and frailty. The Little Tramp disarms the ego with laughter; in laughter is humility, and brief liberation from the chains of self-interest.
 Chaplin drives us to laughter, then slaps us back to our senses with harsh truth, challenging not only the tyrants in our own hearts but those in the world at large, whatever their sizes and disguises. The fickle millionaire in City Lights who embraces the Tramp when drunk and rejects him when sober prefigures today's billionaire bailouts as taxpayers stretch their shrinking dollars. The lust for "a mountain of gold" in The Gold Rush drives men to betrayal -- Madoff, anyone? -- while the humble working man of Modern Times first figuratively, then literally, plays a cog in the machine, chewed up and spat out at will by competing demands of industry and labor. "Pathetic little tramps" today no less than in the turbulent 1930's are shouting for justice from Madison to Damascus.  
No film more poignantly lends voice to the powerless than The Great Dictator, where Chaplin's social idealism soars in "the little barber's" final oration. Whatever its flaws may be of sentimentality or hyperbole -- and one may find such "flaws" throughout Chaplin's work if one wishes -- that scene must be the bravest 4 1/2 minutes in cinematic history. The irony of the King of Silent Comedy speaking truth from his throne, the screen, holds no trace of cynicism. "I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor," says the humble barber, and goes on with exquisite rhetoric to exhort soldiers and citizens to rise against their oppressors: "You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power." If only our leaders could invoke democracy with such sincere passion.
 Chaplin broke his silence to challenge us with this message, but our deafness may be incurable. It is no coincidence that the last word of the film is a command to "listen." In the final seconds of the film, Paulette Goddard's Hannah, her spirit and hopes crushed by oppression, does hear; in a stunning apotheosis we see her uplifted against an open sky, a goddess of liberty. Read the speech and listen to a complete audio recording here

Read it and weep, for in this age of pomposity and deception, where plain truth stumbles like a humble prospector through a blizzard of lies, we drift ever further from the vision of Chaplin's controversial masterpiece. A thoughtful look back at the King of Silence and his long creative journey was an eye-opening, ear-opening experience for the devoted or curious few who made it to SIFF's Chaplin Festival. If you missed it, well, there's always DVD, or god help us, YouTube.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Flying Dreams (reflection)

All my life I've been fortunate to have dreams of flying, beginning with the mystery dream when I was four or five, when the difference between dreaming and waking must have been still working itself out in my budding understanding. Across the street from our house on Church Street in Salem, Oregon was a school for the blind; my best friend was the son of the director, a boy named Jerry. We played on a swing-set under some trees on the lawn, a set with chains from which canvas straps were strung, making a flexible seat. I loved swinging there, up and down, high into the trees, back to the ground, that childhood joy of danger and daring and flight.

The whole experience is somewhat lost in the haze of time now; I recall the recollection more than the experience itself. I know that for a long time I believed, without questioning, that I had actually flown at one point, while swinging: the straps were gone, maybe even the chains; I just swung up into the air as if lying on my stomach, gliding, soaring upward, weightless and unattached, in a golden light, sky-blue world of puff clouds, dancing leaves, breeze and beauty, flying like a bird.

Further recollection is that years later, eons in childhood time, perhaps when I was 9 or 10, this long-held memory of flight suddenly dawned on me as an impossibility. It had been there in the background of my mind as a sort of a priori given; unremarkable, though lovely, no more questioned or pondered than the presence of the sky. In one of a series of gradual "falls from grace" with the onset of puberty and growing consciousness of the world around me, it hit me that that experience could only have been a dream. Again, what I remember is the memory of how that realization shocked and puzzled me, as if I had learned that gravity, a given my whole life, only worked with your eyes open.

The discovery reshaped my whole concept of who I was in the world and how things worked. Magic, ingrained in me deeply from an endless supply of books treating that subject (more about that in other posts!), was an essential and continually elusive aspect of the real world, and only gradually, over many more years, did I release my belief that it was as true as any other law of nature, just harder to pin down. I'm not sure I have released that belief to this day -- just reshaped it, really.

Helping to keep belief alive is the steady flow of flying dreams through my complex and vivid dream life. The flying dreams come again and again, in all kinds of permutations; they are one set in a catalogue of magic dreams: the ones where I can breathe underwater and explore the bottom of an ocean or stream bed (these have become much more rare); where I can talk to animals and befriend them in their languages; where I explore underground worlds; where I fly or leap or float, sometimes with control, often losing control in some way, either to fall, or drift, or fail to fly high enough or far enough to escape an approaching danger.

For a while not too long ago I was wondering if I was losing the gift of flying in dreams; it seemed I hadn't had one for quite a while, and I speculated as to the cause. Maybe becoming a public school teacher, I thought, had taken away the magic. It seemed like a logical association of ideas. The dreams have returned, though.

Less than a week ago I had a most elaborate one, starting in a park in Manhattan, pedaling upward as if on a magic, invisible bike, laughing down as people stared at me in wonderment. I sped westward, ending up at a castle where the skyline of the city was barely visible in the distance. Several adventures there involving climbing over rooftops and discovering mouldering cadavers under the shingles, then creeping along a window ledge back toward the gate and an open terrace, a perfect and much-needed launching ground for my return to the city. I stood there, amazed at how far the city was; summoning my strength, determined, I finally launched down a steep hillside, airborne, and headed homeward. Once aloft, though, I realized I had forgotten something -- I wish I could remember what -- and would have to fly back. Of course, this proved virtually impossible; my intuitive, invisible directional instruments were off-kilter; it was a huge effort to describe a long, slow circle back to where I had started, with a deepening sense of gloom about ever succeeding of reaching either of my destinations: the city in the distance, or the castle from which I had just escaped.

More dreams of this kind than I can ever count or remember have leavened my night life, filled me with hope, wonder, terror, and elation. Thank you, o Muse. All my life I have been lifted, warned, deceived and tantalized by the invisible trick of flight. What it has meant to me as a waking creature is not fully knowable, except to say, perhaps, that without those dreams I should have been confined to a flatland of my imagination, rather than a recurring and inspiring realm of air and sky.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Unmistaken Child" (film review)

"Unmistaken Child" 

Nati Baratz, Writer/Director/Producer
Ilil Alexander, Producer/Co-writer
Arik Bernstein, Producer

If you have the slightest interest in Buddhism, anthropology, or on-the-edge filmmaking, you should not miss this marvelous film.

Neither Roger Ebert's inanely dismissive review nor Stephen Holden's more nuanced discussion acknowledges this film's incredible achievement: documenting and participating in the discovery of a deceased Lama's spiritual successor according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The filmmakers must have begun their years-long journey with the same tenuous uncertainty and dogged commitment as the monk Tenzin Zopa, whose quest for the reincarnation of his spiritual master rests on sheer faith and sense of duty. Neither the monk nor the film-makers could have known how the journey would end, and that is one of the marvels of this crisply edited, stunning documentary: it undertakes the same risky journey as its subject, and, like the young monk, is transformed by the process.

The film we watch for the first half or so of the movie is not the same film we see by the end. Just as the monk and those he meets are transformed by their success in choosing the "unmistaken child," the film changes over time. Better cameras improve the image quality by the second or third year of the process (new grant money, perhaps?) The Israeli filmmakers seem ever more integrated into the communities they observe, their camera witnessing intimate moments of family life, the testing of the chosen boy, monastic traditions and rituals such as the hair-snipping and naming by the Dalai Lama, and the child's celebratory return to the monastery.

Ebert and Holden both underestimate the emotional and spiritual impact of this excellent film. Ebert displays astonishing provincialism in his critique: "I know I am expected to believe the tenets of a religion on the basis of faith, not common sense, but during this film, I found that very difficult. How reliable are wind directions, the interpretation of ashes and astrological readings? Would you give over your son on such a basis? Would you trust such a chosen one as your spiritual leader?"

Ebert's questions miss the point laughably. A documentary on Christian priesthood might arouse some astonishment at a faith that practices daily miraculous "transubstantiation" of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of a 2,000-year-old martyr. "Unmistaken Child" does not rationalize, explain, or ask us to accept anything. It allows us to witness an ancient spiritual tradition through the journey of faith of a humble man and to judge for ourselves the fruits of his work. Through his eyes and experiences, presented with humility and authenticity, we observe a spiritual quest suffused with beauty, mystery, emotion, sacrifice, and finally transcendence. What more could one ask of a spiritual experience? What more could one ask of a cinematic experience?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

To George Pissarro (poem)

So glad to have known you my friend,
lived a piece of your life and art.

To my eyes a genius
unsung, penurious as the greats,
stone and oil
wood and wax, aflame
in your vision,
aloft with wings of canvas
marbled smoothly skyward
you drifted
studio to studio
fed the pigeons that strolled
your kitchen more at home than I,
biked the Hudson,
ferried Staten Island
for twenty years
handed off programs
at Avery Fischer Hall.

What became of your works?
I treasure the sheaf of photos you sent
images of your heart
and wild, wild soul
(your madness could be scary)
and the head of stone
you bequeathed me
broken from its body,
the very piece you struggled to hoist
up your west-
fourth stoop
a winter day
in the past century --
something fluttered in my ribcage:

"Need a hand?"

How a life may bend on such a bone.

So glad to have known you,
crazy Portuguese francophone,
amazing carver and smoother of stone;
had I the means I'd have been the patron
you deserved,
could have saved your work and vision
but probably never


Politics: April 4th Revolution (opinion)

My sister Betsy is visiting from Berkeley, and Debbie is here from Australia -- we've been celebrating my Dad's 95th birthday. Yeah, he was born in 1916. He remembers his grandfather reminiscing about fighting in the Civil War. That's a long generational memory. Too bad our national memory isn't as good as my old Dad's.

Betsy and I wanted to go to one of the April 4th rallies organized all across America on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. We went to MLK Park on MLK Avenue South, on a chilly, rainy afternoon. It was inspiring despite the weather and the turnout of only a few hundred people -- still, a few hundred ain't bad, mainly union members like myself (SEA, WEA, NEA -- a teacher and public employee). Rule of thumb: for every one that shows up, a hundred others share the feelings but haven't yet felt the fever in their bones.

Yes, it was inspiring to hear voices loudspeaking the truth about the poor and middle class getting taxed and cut and told to make sacrifices, while corporations and banks and the super-rich wallow in wealth. "Need is not the crime; greed is the crime!" Can anyone doubt the agenda here -- to roll back the gains made by working people and the middle class over the past 40 years, and ensure the hegemony of the super-rich and the corporations? Could it be any plainer?

There's plenty of money to provide for everyone, but the money is in too many of the wrong places, in too few hands.

It was a modest gathering at MLK Park. It's clear, though, whose side Martin Luther King himself would be on, had he lived; had he not been assassinated. Thankfully, he was not silenced. His voice grows louder with every new injustice.

Wisconsin: an unlikely rallying cry for the new wave of popular power. The attempt to gut unions and the right of public sector employees to bargain collectively has hit a nerve. Hundreds of thousands stood in 15-degree temperatures and a blizzard in Madison, Wisconsin, slept in the State House, would not be moved, to defend their rights. Their action was seen and heard around the world. Seattle: don't let a little rain stop us! Remember the WTO? Remember Egypt? Was Martin Luther King killed defending the rights of corporations to avoid paying taxes? No; he was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to help defend the rights of city employees -- garbage collectors -- to form unions and collectively bargain for a livable wage, a decent life, and some respect as human beings.

The powers that be in this country don't give a flying fuck about your wages, your life, or your self-respect. Standing there in the park, in the rain, listening to the speakers and watching the waving signs helped me feel connected to the power we still have as people when we act together and do give a flying fuck what happens to our brothers and sisters.

Next time, don't send an email; don't give the revolution a "thumbs up" on Facebook. Come out and bring your umbrella. The revolution needs all of us.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dream: Puppies

Lately my dreams have been steady, familiar, uncommon in their commonness. They unfold in parallels to life, as my dreams have always done, but barely remarkable, like telecommuting to a night job. More than ever, I return to sleep with anticipation of rejoining an ongoing project, returning to duties hastily abandoned, friends left hanging, stories unfinished. As I said: a parallel to life.

Some recent threads: finding a puppy that had been abandoned somewhere in a state park or wilderness area, a soft, white-haired cutsie of a puppy like the one I photographed maybe a year ago at a park overlooking Lake Washington and the Montlake Cut in Seattle; I'll upload it here.

The dream-pup, however, had been surviving on its own for a time in the wild and was in desperate condition: one eye glued shut with infection, its white-bread fur matted, streaked with filth, its hindquarters eaten away with mange exposing mottled pink/grey skin. Another dog, similarly destitute and lost, hovered in the background, hoping if its fellow were adopted it might be as well.

For unknown reasons, but probably due to the fact my landlords don't allow pets in my building in this world, I had to leave them both behind. Somewhere, beyond the dream horizon, they forage, sicken, and soon will die.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dream: Teacher anxiety

Another in a recent series of "teacher anxiety" dreams last night. I had one maybe three weeks ago that was classic in its genre: a classroom full of ironic teenagers, an old blackboard (green, actually) whose cracked, uneven surface wouldn't accept the chalk, a total lack of preparation for the lesson making me scramble to maintain face and order.

Last night's had a difference. I was teaching my first class at Richard Hugo House, stepping up in my writing career. I was offering a class on journal writing, and had about five adult students. There was some problem with having a room available in my time slot, so we ended up sitting in the back of a van owned by one of the students. It was night, and difficult to see. We started going around the circle, students introducing themselves and saying what they hoped to get from the workshop. I realized I had nothing to write on.

It was impossible to stay on task. The students began discussing other things; soon we were out of the van and had crashed a large party going on in one of the impossibly huge houses that seemed the norm in this particular college town. One by one I shepherded the students back to a table where I tried again to introduce the topic of journaling, while realizing I had nothing planned beyond the first exercise, which was to write in their journals for ten minutes.

"Have you taught at Hugo House before?" one of my students asked, a middle-aged woman who had been trying to help me keep things moving along.

"No, this is my first class," I admitted, my face reddening with embarrassment. I was an obvious rookie at the game.

Later in the night, after some restlessness, I seem to have returned to the same dream thread. Now, though, I had the white pages of a journal open in front of me, and ideas forming for the next steps of the  lesson -- about taking risks, daring to break the whiteness of the page with truthful reflections.

"Don't get psyched out by starting a new journal," I was saying. "Just dive in and start writing. As long as you are writing, there is honor in what you do." I showed an example from my own journal of a "first page" in which I had gone out of my way to try to be impressive, with unfortunate results.

"But it doesn't matter now," I said, moving on. "It's what seemed right at the time. It's an accurate record of the moment. So don't psych yourself out. Just dive in and start writing. That beautiful, new, expensive journal you bought will get old and battered and messy -- and it will reflect the truth, if you just write, and write honestly, and get started."

I think I'm making progress.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Intuitive Clutch (poem)

The crack between knowing 
the grasp that exceeds the reach
the mind's walking stick. 

Gear for shape-shifters
night reveries 
dream voices on a separate track  
sotto voce
infinite point of matter
seen edgewise
shimmer of reeds
in ripples
the legend of mind on
an unseen map  

In dreams hold your arms a certain way, and fly.