Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Two Memoirs

In the last several weeks I’ve had the chance to read two recently published memoirs. The first was Ted Kennedy’s True Compass. Though Robert Kennedy was a hero of mine in my high school years and though I’d grown up on stories that my mother told of her years employed by JFK and Joseph Kennedy Sr., my interest over the years in Ted Kennedy had remained fairly minimal. I’d campaigned for him when he was running for president, campaigning door to door in New Hampshire and then putting up fliers and stuffing brochures other places, but Ted’s speeches and political actions have never really grabbed me by the heart. When his memoir was due to come out, though, I wanted to read it, if only to see what new things it might say about RFK. I’m very glad that I did. True Compass presented me with a whole new side of Ted Kennedy. It’s honest, it’s insightful, and it’s moving. We meet the Teddy who grew up enjoying being in his brothers’ shadows, the Teddy who continually struggled with mistakes he was making, the Ted who loved the water and who found solace during times of grief in a combination of sailing and faith, the Ted Kennedy who had little respect for Jimmy Carter but was able to see some positive things about many of those who opposed his political bills and positions, and the father (and later grandfather) who sought to emulate the role his own father played in the family with his own children, as well as his many nieces and nephews. I was pleasantly surprised by how willing he was to share his humanity through all the ups and downs of his life in such a forthright manner.

The other memoir I read was Cornel West’s Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. Cornel is, I think, the brightest, best read person I’ve ever had a chance to meet. His range of knowledge and his ability to make connections across all kinds of traditional disciplines never ceases to amaze me. He can, for example, easily connect themes in Anton Chekhov, John Coltrane, and Plato in ways I could never begin to imagine but that make sense once I’ve heard them. In recent years, though, I’ve found myself frustrated while listening to West. Too often, rather than addressing whatever topic he’s supposed to be discussing, he’s gone off on rambles (or he’d prefer to say ‘riffs’) that have absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand and seem to serve up the same set “Westian” phrases that I’ve heard earlier. It’s been disappointing. This memoir, however, seems to largely step beyond that. After an introductory chapter that explains how West answers the question “…what does it mean to be a bluesman in the life of the mind? Like my fellow musicians, I’ve got to forge a unique style and voice that expresses my own quest for truth and love. That means following the quest wherever it leads and bearing whatever cost is required. I must break through isolated academic frameworks while, at the same time, I must build on the best of academic knowledge. I must fuel the fire of my soul so my intellectual blues can set others on fire. And most importantly, I must be a free spirit. I must unapologetically reveal my broken life as a thing of beauty.” (page 5), the chapters move chronologically through West’s life with its ups and down—academic and otherwise. He discusses how those he encounters—in classrooms, dance halls, political gatherings of all kinds, and most especially in books—influence him and change the way he thinks. And he talks – though I don’t find such speeches or classes with West as powerful as those he planned out--about how he learned in the early 80s to “speak without notes in an academic context. I’ve been freestyling ever since.” ( page 103). He seems to take on his repeatedly failed love life with honesty (though I think he takes a bit too much enjoyment pointing out how his various divorces and child support payments have strapped him financially). He explains why he’s chosen to dress in the way that he has (something I’ve always respected about him). He talks about his time at Union Seminary and his strong relationship with Jim Washington, though he barely mentions Jim Cone. (The difference in West’s relationship with these two was very apparent to Union students but it’s interesting to hear him describe that time and why some of his relationships mattered so much.) At times, West trots out accomplishments—as when he’s answering then Harvard President Larry Summers—but overall the book moves beyond what some perceive (I think incorrectly) as Cornel’s large ego to an interesting personal assessment of how Cornel West became the intellectual giant that he is.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Emperor Jones

Saturday evening, we went to the Irish Repertory Theater to see Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. I’d read the play for the first time in college in a course called Themes of Liberation in Contemporary Drama and have reread it several times since, but I’ve never seen it staged before. Part of what has always puzzled me as I’ve read O’Neill’s directions is how anyone could stage the play--how, for example, they’d present the “Little Formless Fears” that are “black, shapeless; only their glittering little eyes can be seen” or how they’d avoid the play coming across as extremely racist, given the use of stereotypical dialect in Brutus Jones’ speech and his repetitive use of ‘nigger’.

The Irish Rep production overcame both of these types of problems. John Douglas Thompson played such a strong Emperor that he keeps true to the dialogue O’Neill has written but reaches far beyond any stereotypes to present a complex character. Even more impressive, though, was Bob Flanagan’s contribution to the play though puppets and masks. Each nightmare-type scene in the forest relies on them in various dreamlike settings, giving the play an inward focus that brings out the Jungian aspects of Jones’ struggles in the dark. Combining these with the music/tom-tom throughout this section made the second half of the play very powerful.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wild Things?

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen a few bad movies (Bright Star, for example, which I thought would never end) and a few mediocre ones (Whip It and Coco Before Chanel), but the movie to which I’d been looking forward was Where the Wild Things Are.

The book was one I’d read to my kids when they were little and I’d actually even enjoyed the video of it (made using pictures from the book) and In the Night Kitchen that they’d watched over and over, so I was excited to hear Maurice Sendak say that the movie was true to the book and that he was pleased with the overall results of the picture.

Saturday evening we went to see the film. My reaction to it was mixed. I thought that the way in which the Wild Things were brought to life in the film was amazing. The technology used meant they each developed a unique personality and appearance while holding true to Sendak’s drawings. That was a big plus for me, since it was great fun to see them “brought to life.” And the individual actors who voiced the Wild Things also did a great job strengthening the individuality of each.

On the other hand, there were things I definitely didn’t like about the film. The first was that each Wild Thing was given a name. A name is something that tames, that gives the entity knowing the name power over the one whose name is known. A Wild Thing doesn’t need and shouldn’t want a name, it seems to me. And then, though the names weren’t used in traditional gender ways, giving them very human sounding names—Carol, KW, Eli—made the naming seem even less appropriate for a WILD creature.

There were two other additions to the book’s storyline that I didn’t like. The first was that, instead of being sent to his room for acting wild and then having the room change into another place, Max runs away from his mother when she tries to get him to stop what he’s doing. We actually see her running after him street after street, as he gains an advantage and eventually loses her. And, at the end of the movie, when Max returns from his journey, we again see her at home, frantic as she waits for him. The film made me sympathize with Max’s mother (not necessarily a bad thing) in a way that I never had while reading the book. But it also suggested that running away from your parents when they ask you to stop doing something inappropriate can be a good thing. The other thing that displeased me was an addition to the storyline made after the Wild Rumpus, when the Wild Things want something fun to do. Max orders them to have a dirt-clod war, in which each team bombs the other with large pieces of dirt. In the process, one of the Wild Things gets hurt, but that’s largely ignored because everyone else is enjoying throwing the dirt. The addition seemed both unnecessary—why have such violence added to a wonderful story—and a bad precedent for a children’s film.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Let Me Down Easy

Friday evening I went to see Anna Deavere Smith’s one woman play, Let Me Down Easy. I’ve always been drawn to Smith’s previous work. I’ve enjoyed the clips I’ve seen of both Twilight and Fires in the Mirror, read the scripts of both, worked with congregations on staging excerpts from each, and had detailed discussions around the topics each raised. I’ve listened to Smith reading her book Letters to a Young Artist and found many of her reflections insightful. Friday night was the first time, however, that I actually saw her perform live. The meticulous way in which Smith captures an individual by capturing their speech syntax, their way of holding their carriage, and their small probably unconscious fidgeting has always impressed me, but watching her in person, the physicality of the way in which she defines each person is even more amazing than on film.

I’m not sure what the exact focal topic of the show was meant to be. The playbill said that Let Me Down Easy began as a commission for the Yale School of Medicine, which makes a lot of sense given the twenty vignettes presented. Among the stories we have are Lance Armstrong, touching briefly on his battle with cancer while focusing on his career and why he was able to win the Tour de France so many times; former Texas governor Ann Richards talking about how she had to hold onto her chi as she fought her illness; supermodel Lauren Hutton talking about the medical care she received in her early 50s after being in a devastating bike accident; Ruth Katz, a dean at Yale Medical Center, who discusses how badly she was treated at Yale Hospital until a resident discovered who she was; and heavyweight champion Michael Bentt talking about “seeing light” and then learning from doctors that he can never fight again.

But there are also stories from folks like Elizabeth Streb, the intensely physical “Extreme Action” choreographer, about how she had planned to set herself on fire in a controlled way that got out of control and Eve Ensler, talking about the connection between food and life and how was Tina Turner was really able to “be in her vagina”. And then there are characters that strongly call up the need for better health care—a mother who talks about a horrendous experience she and her daughter had while the daughter was receiving dialysis, a rodeo rider talking about the health care he was given after a riding accident, and the director of an orphanage in Johannesburg that cares for dying children.

Perhaps the ambiguity in focus is meant to be there. The title comes from the opening monologue in which Smith channels Jim Cone, Union Theological Seminary’s professor (and does such a wonderful job of it that she had me chuckling at how she’d captured his pomposity in both the resonance of his voice and his mannerisms). Cone explains that the phrase ‘let me down easy’ is a phrase that captures a heart broken by a lack of justice and connects it with both African-American theology and jazz. When asked if it could also be about dying, Cone pauses then says that, yes, it could, much like “swing low, sweet chariot” can be a song of justice coming or of dying.

That’s make sense. There are several memorable portraits where where broken hearts (often from lack of justice on health care) and dying often overlap. One that stood out was of the physician that was working at Charity Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. She speaks of how she was determined to show her patients, who were the poorest in the area, that they deserved and would get the same kind of care while at Charity that wealthier patients received elsewhere. And then, as Katrina hits and FEMA ignores Charity while evacuating the other hospitals, her heart breaks as she wakes up to te reality of the situation.

This physician was one of the three portrayals that stood out from the others for me. The other two were of a musicologist from Notre Dame, who talks about Franz Schubert’s weaving of his dying into his music and of her love for him and Lorraine Coleman, Smith’s aunt, who tells of seeing her dying sister and the last thing she said to her but who also talks about how when they were poor and had no gloves, her mother would put her children’s hands under her arms to warm them. Coleman laments how now, in her old age, she’d like to be able to put her hands under her mother’s arms one more time.

By her actions and speech patterns, Smith does a great job of transitioning from character to character. She does so on a stage that, when I first sat down, seemed fairly stark—a couch and coffee table, a dining room table, and some mirrors are the basic set. As the play went on, items (jackets, trays with food, etc.) were brought on to introduce a new character and then put down somewhere on the stage as Smith transitioned to the next portrait. After a few such transitions, I became aware of how amazing the actual set was. The way the mirrors were positioned, for example, meant that, at least from where I was sitting, each mirror presented a part of the room in such a way that you only saw items from an individual character in it and were able to get a visual snapshot of that character’s story. It added a whole new depth to the presentation.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Thursday Evening Worship at Giant Stadium

Last Thursday, I was lucky enough to go to hear U2 play its 360 tour at Giant Stadium.

It was a long afternoon/evening getting into the stadium and waiting for them to take the stage --Muse, the opening group, started late and then there was a long break between bands-- but the night was clear, the temperature was in the 70s and, up where our seats were, there was a nice breeze so the waiting wasn't bad.

The stage was set with a large "claw" that seems to have been designed to play the role of a spaceship at several points in the show. (Why was a bit beyond me.)

And once U2 came on, the evening was amazing. Not only did the group do a series of songs from their newest album, No Line on the Horizon, but they also did many of their older and best loved pieces like Sunday Bloody Sunday and Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. The Edge did some amazing riffs that blew me away. But the best part was how, in typical U2 style, Bono led the crowd (more than 82,000 people--larger than any concert at Giant Stadium had ever been and even larger than Pope John Paul 2's appearance there in 1995) in a blend of music, social justice, and worship.

When he sang Magnificent's lyrics
"I was born to sing for you.
I didn't have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice from the womb...
Only love, only love..."
it was so easy to believe that the words were true.

People around the stadium stood as U2 began "Walk On"; Bono dedicated the song to Aung San Suu Kyi (the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been under house arrest in Burma for more than 20 years) and dozens of Amnesty International workers walked onto the stage holding up her picture. A bit later, Bono began a quiet, solo version of Amazing Grace and then moved into "Where the Streets Have No Name", the song that captures the image at the end of the book of Revelation better than any I know. Then there was a short video showing Desmond Tutu laughing and telling everyone how "we are the people who, because our voices were heard, millions of people are alive thanks to the miracle of AIDS drugs and malaria drugs" and highlighting the ONE movement, a video that moved into U2 playing its song "One". Using cell phones, the audience lit up the stadium in solidarity.

To me, much of the evening truly felt holy. The message and the music reached across all generations and background, causing people all around me to raise their hands in worship as Amazing Grace was sung, to listen to Tutu's mini-sermon, and to stand in respect for those embodying justice and peace. I was amazed at how well Bono and U2 did what most Christian sanctuaries no longer can-- moving people with the message of God's love, causing none of the lines outside to divide, and asking people to once again commit to building a world where the streets have no name. At the end of the evening, when Bono turned to the audience and said "God bless you and good night", ending with such a benediction felt exactly right.

Touching Holiness Friday Five

At RevGalBlogPals, Sally writes:

Yesterday I was privileged to join the thousands of pilgrims who had flocked to York Minster to see the casket containing the bones of St Therese of Lisieux. People came from miles around, some with deep faith came to venerate the Saint, others with none came out of curiosity. The Christians who came represented a mix of denominations, I went because I have read her writings and out of sheer curiosity having never been to anything like this before.

To put it in crude terms I was blown away by the by the deep sense of God's presence, of gentleness, of holiness and purity. Today as I reflect upon the experience I recognise that there have been other places and other times when I have experienced a tangible touch of God. I wonder if it was because the message that Therese had is so much needed today, she experienced God as a God of love, and encouraged others to draw closer...

How about you, where do you find God's peace and presence, is there:

1. A place that holds a special memory?

Farmer Jones’ field in the Berkshires, a place where, as a young teen, I first learned to sit in silence and let what wanted to speak do so.

2. A song that seems to usher you into the Holy of Holies?

Music of all kinds can do this for me—from U2’s “Walk On” to the Largo of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” to Luka Bloom’s “Blackberry Time” to Cris Williamson’s “Song of the Soul”

3.A book/ poem/ prayer that says what you cannot?

“Mohammed’s son pores over words,

and points out this and that,

but if his chest is not soaked dark with love,

then what?

The Yogi comes along in his famous orange.

But if inside he is colorless,

then what?”


4. How do you remind yourself of these things at times when God seems far away?

Ah, there’s the rub. Taking time to sit quietly and center myself works some times. Centering of other kinds—be it through swimming or focusing on music—sometimes works. Yet at other times, the best I can do it to try to pay attention to and be grateful for the beauty of whatever surrounds me.

5.Post a picture/ poem or song that speaks of where you are right now in your relationship with God...

“The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it.”

-Sri Nisargadatta

(The painting is Asher Durand’s Cathedral Ledge. I’ve chosen it because both the Hudson River School of painters and the White Mountains of New Hampshire often remind me of the awe and majesty of God and our relationship to both God and nature, all of which must be experienced to be understood.)