It’s been a strange year, so far. The excitement of Obama’s reelection last November gave way to frustration and severe disappointment as Republican intransigence imposed an increasingly unlivable status quo on the country. In spite of nearly ninety percent of the population favoring at least some sort of regulation on the sale of anti-personnel automatic weapons and some sort of meaningful background checks on gun purchasers, absolutely nothing has happened legislatively. Obama’s defense department, and/or the CIA assassinates targeted suspects with remote-controlled aircraft. Polarization of attitudes on race, the economy, religion, the status of women, gay marriage, keeps being exploited by right-wing demagogues. Guantanamo remains open for business. And now we have this counter-productive instance of magical thinking with the non-sequitur name: The Sequester. Sounds like a comic book anti-hero. A new nemesis for Batman, maybe. Anything really valuable is sucked into his force field and rendered worthless
As if mirroring these “outer” events, my own life has become rather surprisingly constricted lately as exciting plans, made months ago, had to be cancelled last March. As many of you who read my blog know, I had been invited to Beijing, Shanghai and Wuzhen, China, to observe rehearsals of an eight-hour long play, A Dream Like a Dream, written and directed by Taiwanese director/playwright Stan Lai whom I’d met in August, 2012. I posted that story with a video of Stan telling how, unbeknownst to me, he had seen TJT’s The Last Yiddish Poet in 1982, while getting a PhD at U.C. Berkeley, and the remarkable effect it had on his work when he returned to Taiwan the following year that. Meeting Stan, his invitation to spend time with him in China, and a grant from TCG to support the trip all happened soon after Traveling Jewish Theatre, the company I co-founded, closed down after thirty-four years of continuous creation and production. At the end of 2012 I took what turned out to be an all-consuming and very satisfying job directing Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan at Cal State East Bay. So I was much too busy to let myself feel the full force of the grief that came with TJT’s closing.
About three weeks before I was scheduled to fly to Beijing I noticed that I was literally seeing double. In 1995, I’d had the same symptoms which an MRI scan revealed were caused by a tiny cluster of non-functional capillaries in my brain stem known as a cavernous hemangioma, which I’d apparently had since birth, but which had just bled a bit, for the first time. The very small volume of blood, not actually needed by my brain, wound up putting just enough pressure on a nerve to impair the movement of my right eye, causing the diplopia, or double vision. At that time, I was told by neurosurgeons at UCSF that the brainstem was far too delicate and vital an area to risk any sort of surgical intervention. After about six weeks the blood was reabsorbed and the diplopia disappeared.
But, this spring, eighteen years later, it was back. Now an MRI scan showed that the hemangioma had grown as well as bled again. And this time, the neurosurgeon I saw as soon as the MRI results were available felt that surgery might now be possible. In any case, he said that I should not think of going on a trip as arduous as seven weeks in China. As it turned out, a more experienced neurosurgeon, one of the country’s leading specialists in cerebrovascular surgery, pointed out that the hemangioma was still too far from the surface of the brain-stem to make any surgical intervention possible. His view was that the risks of doing nothing were much less grave than the risks of damaging crucial parts of the brainstem if surgery was attempted. But the hemangioma has moved closer to the surface of the brain stem since 1995, which is why Dr. Arora – the first, younger neurosurgeon – thought that surgery might now be a possibility. Now the plan is to have MRI scans every three months to monitor the hemangioma. Meanwhile the diplopia continues. I wear an eye patch when I drive so that I don’t see two roads and twice as many cars. But it’s still a strain, as are a range of activities I’ve taken for granted for most of my life.
I’m still learning the boundaries and limits of this condition. A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a public reading of a new play by the Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, for San Francisco’s Golden Thread Theatre. I read a major role in The Admission, a fairly long play that’s extremely dense with history, ideas and competing Palestinian-Jewish narratives. We rehearsed for two four-hour sessions before the reading. Though I found the first day energizing and engaging, by the time we finished the reading at the end of the second day, I felt as tired as I remember ever feeling after several weeks of full-on rehearsing.
On the other hand, I recently attended a day-long retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center given by Norman Fischer, poet, Zen Priest, former Abbot of SF Zen Center, and old friend. I’ve known Norman for over thirty years, since I moved to the Bay Area, but it was the first time I’d been to a teaching of his. What an amazing gift to discover an entirely new and inspiring aspect of someone you think you know well. I knew Norman was a gifted poet with a unique voice. I had once conceived and directed a theatre piece for TJT based on Opening to You, his translations of the Hebrew Psalms. I also knew he was a great father to his twin sons and a loving husband to his wife Kathy, with whom I used to scuba dive in the kelp forests south of Monterey. Nevertheless, I had no idea how powerful, clear, funny and moving a teacher of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation practice (Zazen) he is. The retreat was based on the processes he discusses in his newest book, Training in Compassion. Since the retreat, my meditation practice has found new life and consistency with no sense of effort on my part. Reading a few pages of Norman’s book and then sitting simply makes me very happy. Had I gone to China as planned, I would not have been at Norman’s retreat. In the phrase Kurt Vonnegut made indelible, “So it goes…”
Though I wasn’t able to visit Stan Lai to begin discussing a possible collaboration, as planned, TCG has extended the grant period and I hope to catch up with him somewhere in the world by the end of the year. His eight-hour long A Dream Like a Dream has completed its run in Beijing by now and the review from the China Daily was glowing.