Monday, October 25, 2010

Reading. Mary Oliver.

The other day, a friend wrote about the mother of her son's classmate, who was scheduled for some upcoming surgery. It brought to mind her own two battles with cancer, now in remission. She'd written of her experiences before, the first when she was 28, the second several years later, when her sons were 3 and 1. I had read her blog before we even met, and I was a little in awe of her. It was clear that L. is the kind of woman who makes everything around her beautiful, who seems to take pause and drink in all the moments that we should all stop and treasure. It felt like those months of illness and recovery, especially when her children were so small, were what made L. so determined to live with such awareness.

The anger and fear that she wrote about, of her own mortality and the body and life that would never be the same, of missing precious months of her sons' toddlerhoods, reminded me of the journalist Ruth Picardie. She died of breast cancer at the age of 33, leaving behind a husband and twin babies. For them her absence was not merely for the months of treatment, pain and anguish and hope, but for the rest of their lives. I knew of Ruth from her sister, the writer Justine Picardie, and from the late Elspeth Thompson, who gave us this poem. This was read at Ruth's memorial service:

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

- Mary Oliver, American Primitive.

I've always loved Mary Oliver for her clear way of writing about love and loss, of the fleeting moments of sadness interleaved with splashes of happiness that make up life. This poem is pinned to the wall above my desk at work, along with several others. It never fails to break my heart and then put it back together.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

School lunch.

This is re-posted from my other blog because I think each one reaches a different audience. Perhaps I'm wrong about that, but never mind. This is about food. Later I will write about art; the two are connected.

I have been reading and re-reading this post in reference to the current battle over school budget cuts in Great Britain and alternately weeping from rage and heartbreak.

I grew up in the south end of Seattle. We lived on a nice street, the highest in the neighborhood, with sweeping views of Lake Washington and the mountains beyond. But the local elementary school and high school were down in the valley below, in one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. I had tested into what was then called the Horizon program, which meant that our math and writing skills were one grade ahead of the average. Four grades - 1st through 4th - shared a vast space which contained three open classrooms, one central common area, and a small lab; we were in a newer wing of the building, separated from the rest of the school. Our paths rarely crossed those of other students, save for one day when an older boy tried to beat me up on my way home from school. I escaped with a scraped knee, and was never allowed to walk home alone again.

It was an interesting time, the mid-to-late-80's. M. told me the other night that she had been bussed into our school district because of the Horizon program but also because of "forced integration." That I don't remember. What I remember is that we spoke in hushed tones on the playground about the supposed drug house down the street and joked that classmates who wore red were "Bloods" and those who wore blue were "Crips" (rival gangs). I don't know if there were any actual gang wars going on but I remember used needles and condoms ("Eeeewwww!!" we said) on the playground and a drive-by shooting late one summer, before school started. Then I left for the manicured grounds of the city's most expensive private school, in fifth grade, and never looked back.

But this is all irrelevant, or perhaps it isn't. We were talking about school lunch. Our elementary school served breakfast and lunch, every day. I usually ate breakfast at home - whole wheat toast, English muffins, oatmeal, cold cereal, congee, or fruit and yogurt - but I also dimly remember school cafeteria pancakes, or perhaps it was French toast, with sausage, maybe some fruit, maybe orange juice in a plastic foil-sealed cup, like the ones they give you on airplanes. It was cheap, like the lunches, which I also occasionally ate (flabby pizzas, corn dogs, Salisbury steak), washed down with plain or chocolate milk (a rare treat). I think it cost a dollar. And for many kids, it was free or otherwise discounted. I wasn't really conscious of it at the time; I led a happy, sheltered, middle-class life that I later came to understand was incredibly privileged. I remember being shocked that some kids ate their lunches as if it were the best thing they'd ever tasted. I think about it now, and it breaks my heart.

People - like Jamie Oliver, and others who, like this friend, are following his example - who are trying to change the way children eat are doing an amazing, incredible thing. In one sense, the system (as it stood 20 years ago) was doing one good thing: it made sure that children got fed, twice a day. In another sense, it wasn't: the food was crap, except for those for whom it was the best thing they had. It is part of a larger problem - where does the responsibility lie? On the school system which can't afford it, or on the parents who can't afford it? The more I think about it - and I say this as someone who is single and childless and doesn't see that changing anytime soon - the more it makes my heart ache. I don't have any understanding of what it must be like to have to send my child to school hungry. I hope I never do.

Twenty years have passed since I last ate in that elementary school cafeteria. I still remember the flimsy partitioned foil trays and the plastic sporks, the crates of half-pint milk cartons. We have to do better.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Pinter Fortnightly. Madagascar (JT Rogers).

And now for something different.

To shake things up a little bit after a dozen or so readings of Harold Pinter's expansive body of work, tonight's reading is of a work by a different playwright, JT Rogers. To keep things connected, Madagascar won the 2005 Pinter Prize for Drama, but I will leave aside any comparisons to Pinter. It isn't fair to Rogers, or his play, or my understanding of it, to hold up this single work against the vast landscape that makes up my experiences with Harold Pinter. There isn't a history, a memory; I walk in the door with no expectations, except from the actors, who are, as always, perfect.

Madagascar is about secrets and mysteries. It is about memory, and how memories and family histories are made. It plays with time, as three people at three different points of time unravel their interconnecting stories. A character's place in time shifts their memory of what happened in the past. A mother and daughter, Lilian and June, are locked in an emotional triangle with their son and twin brother (respectively), who is not a part of the play and yet is spoken of so vividly it seems that he appears before you, along with their also unseen husband and father. The third character onstage, the mother's lover, adds his own dimension to these unseen characters.

At the heart of the story is the son's disappearance. The mother's story takes place in that moment before he was supposed to arrive; his sister's retraces the five years after that. His twin spends two or three years searching the world for him, before finally accepting that he is gone forever. But is he? In her last days, a mysterious postcard arrives, with the words "I'm still here." But we never know what it means. There are too many questions unanswered. Lilian slips away and drowns in a lake; June takes the perfect combination of pills in that same Roman hotel room where they stayed in her childhood. There is a kind of terrible symmetry to their deaths: the mother, when she feels that her son is gone forever, and the daughter, when her brother comes back from the dead. (Or does he?).

In the end, it is the lover, Nathan, who is left behind in that Roman hotel room in the present day. June has died, as has her mother, years before. Like the rest of us in the audience, he is full of unanswered questions. Such is life, without clear-cut answers.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Pinter Fortnightly. The Hothouse.

By now the memories of all the Pinter readings and performances I've seen are piled high in a corner of my mind, tangled together like fallen leaves. Two full plays - Betrayal (at Intiman in 1995) and last night's The Hothouse - countless one-acts, a handful of revue sketches, all have gradually coalesced together into a single body of work. At first sight, The Hothouse seems apart from the others, a broadly-drawn comedy which reminds me of Simon Callow's comment that "being British is inherently funny." But the physical, almost slapstick humor evolves, slowly, and darker elements creep in, as with Pinter's early works, such as The Room and The Dumb-waiter. There are explosions of temper and electric shock experiments and drinks thrown in faces and a sudden, violent end (which, of course, occurs off-stage).

The Hothouse comes from that earlier time, the late 1950's, the era of Pinter's "comedies of menace." I believe it was left unfinished and shelved, although one scene where a hapless institution employee undergoes testing by two other employees appeared as a revue sketch around the same time. This brief sketch was performed at an earlier Pinter Fortnightly reading, and the familiar words made me give a little jump of recognition in my seat. The Hothouse in its earlier incarnation then disappeared for twenty years, before it was resurrected and expanded, picking up undercurrents of political commentary along the way. (By now Pinter had passed through his period of "memory" plays - Betrayal, A Kind of Alaska - and had moved onto more overtly political plays).

What becomes clear across these different thematic eras is that a visible thread holds together this body of work: a fiercely beautiful mastery of language, a sharp intelligence, a black sense of humor. It creates a sense of cohesion between these fortnightly readings, helped in (a very great) part by a somewhat rotating repertory of actors who come together on their days off, who do these (free) readings out of love. It couldn't be done without a group of people who have chops, and boy do they ever have chops. The kind of skill and experience that allows this ever-changing crew to pull together a smoothly polished reading from a single afternoon of rehearsal. There is a sort of perfect alchemy between the staggeringly precise language of Pinter and the tremendous emotional and intellectual chemistry of the actors. Comedy is timing. Drama is trust. Here we have both, apparent with every word, every moment and movement, every look.

ACT Theatre (which hosts these Pinter Fortnightly readings) and I, we go way back. 1992. I was still in sixth grade when the season began. (I was not allowed to see the first play of the season, Steven Dietz's Trust, because of "mature thematic elements"). I remember the old theater near Seattle Center, in lower Queen Anne. There would be a crush of people at the snack bar during intermission and leaving at the end of the evening felt like being a salmon swimming upstream. I remember the parking lot where subscribers got to fit their cars into some kind of Tetris-like puzzle. I remember the first play I saw there, Shadowlands. The new theater downtown felt like another world. It still does, a little, even though it is now second nature to park my car at the Convention Center and make my way down the escalators. But the familiar faces remind me, again and again, that this will always be the theater I remember.