Wednesday, June 26, 2013

theatre and poetry notes.

I didn’t know Kim Ricketts as well as I wish I had, but I knew two things about her: she loved her children more than anything, and she breathed poetry the way a fish breathes water (to borrow from Denise Levertov). I think of Kim whenever I read something by William Stafford, and especially when I read his poem ‘A RITUAL TO READ TO EACH OTHER.’ I was told that this was her favorite poem. I hadn’t heard it since her funeral, but it came up again during one of the plays in Seattle Rep’s Writer’s Group Showcase.

Elizabeth Heffron’s PORTUGAL is about the aftermath of an industrial accident at a Hanford nuclear waste farm. There are intertwined stories, but it is mainly about a young mother who is coming to the realization that she will not live to see her children grow up. Near the end, her mother-in-law gives her a book of poetry, and this is the poem that the young woman (played by Emily Chisholm, one of my favorite actresses) reads aloud to her husband. She read it with the serenity of someone who knows that they are going to die, and has accepted this as an unchangeable fact. I started to cry a few lines into the poem and didn’t stop until the play ended fifteen minutes later. It was a little bit embarrassing.


If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

a death by drowning.

A few weeks ago I read an article on Slate - it was all over Facebook that day - about how drowning doesn't look like drowning. Unlike the wild thrashing you see in movies, it's silent, and motionless, because you are physically unable to cry out (because you're trying to breathe) or wave for help (because you're straining to keep your body upright). When people finally notice your struggle, it's usually too late.

The next day, a friend of friends committed suicide, and the news hit my Facebook with the speed of sound. I'd never met him, but I knew of him, recognized his name and his face. Some friends had seen a status update that alarmed them enough to call his place of work, and then the police, who found him in a local park late that afternoon. A few days later I saw their anguish as they told the story, wishing they'd called the police sooner, wishing they'd reached out to him a day earlier, wishing they could have saved him. They felt that they'd failed him, and it broke my heart.

It came to me quite suddenly that committing suicide must be a lot like drowning, no matter how death is finally achieved. The ones who can still cry out from the pain of the world are the ones who have some hope left to save themselves, or be saved. The silent ones slip away and drown, weighted down by the numbness of a despair so deep it can't even be recognized. I can't begin to imagine what it must feel like, this "fucked-up brain chemistry," as my friend Matthew once called it. That's what it is, brain chemistry, neurons firing and misfiring, a delicate balance that, if broken, sends a person spinning into the darkness. I thought of the writers Virginia Woolf and Elspeth Thompson, who, nearly seventy years apart, filled their pockets with rocks and walked into deep waters. I thought about Mike Daisey, who has talked about trying to kill himself, if I remember correctly, also by drowning. If the thought is unbearable to the rest of us, what must it feel like to those pulled under?

Another friend talked about her late brother-in-law, who had a long history of depression, in and out of hospitals and treatment centers, before finally committing suicide. She told us it was like watching someone dying of cancer. The end was almost a relief. It wasn't like the sudden, shocking death of this friend found in a city park two days before. There wasn't any sense of peace, only the guilt of being unable to stop him in time. I don't honestly think anyone could have stopped him, could have recognized that he was drowning. But it doesn't help. You can only hope that the end brought peace to a man in pain. It is so much harder to find for those left behind.