Why I am not in China

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.

a moment from "Dream"

a moment from “Dream”

Pay Attention

Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer prize winning story from the April 8, 2007 issue of the Washington Post tells about an experiment they conducted that involved the young virtuoso violinist, Joshua Bell, performing in a busy Washington, D.C. subway station during the morning rush. If you haven’t heard about this or read the article, I suggest that after you’re done here, you take a look. The Post asked Bell to dress as a street musician in jeans and baseball cap and play with an open violin case at his feet to see what would happen. When they asked Leonard Slatkin, the conductor of the National Symphony, to imagine what would occur, he predicted that at minimum, a hundred people or so would gather to listen. A pretty humble prediction considering that Bell is arguably the greatest violinist on the planet and that he would be playing a Stradivarius valued at 3.5 million dollars in a place with great acoustics. The article goes on:

Bell decided to begin with ‘Chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it ‘not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won’t be cheating with some half-assed version.’

Bell didn’t say it, but Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ is also considered one of the most difficult violin pieces to master. Many try; few succeed. It’s exhaustingly long — 14 minutes — and consists entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around 1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility.”

On the Post’s website (link above) you can watch a couple of minutes of video and listen to the entire audio recording of the 45 minutes that Bell played. In spite of the background train and human noise, I find the music passionate and soulful.

As you might guess by now, a lot fewer than 100 people stopped to listen.

“Seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.”

Reading this catapulted me back to Paris, 1965, when I was seeking maybe not my fortune, but at least a few francs for a meal and a bed by playing traditional blues and fingerpicking folk songs like “Railroad Bill” and “Freight Train.” Before I learned the ropes, I was thoroughly ignored. Like the Bell experiment showed, context is all important. No one paid attention a solitary guy with a guitar on a Left Bank street corner at one in the afternoon no matter how well he played the blues (medium OK, I’d humbly submit). But, find an attractive young woman to pass the hat, work a crowded café at dusk when everyone’s having their apéritif, et voilà, the five franc notes would fall like lovely autumn leaves into the hat. Later, when I hooked up with a Yemenite-Israeli Gospel singer between her bookings with “Big Jones and his Little Sisters,” an American quartet she fronted, passing as African-American, real crowds would gather until a squad of gendarmes would break the party up.

I also thought of the Native American blessing that one may walk in beauty. Years after my street-singing days, when I was going off on a long and arduous tour of Europe with TJT, someone advised me to always look for experiences of beauty as I traveled. It was wonderful advice because it opened my attention to the possibilities that are part of every moment.

In relation to the “Muse,” attention is paramount. Inspiration lurks everywhere, whether it comes in the form of angelic music offered up freely in the unlikeliest of venues, or the faint call of a bird at the edge of morning or an overheard story.

In some forms of Buddhist meditation, the only instruction is to pay attention.You can start with the breath, but you’re told that your mind will, of course, wander, so pay attention to its very wandering. If thoughts start pouring or zooming through your mind, pay attention to the thoughts. Don’t believe them or take them seriously, just pay attention, notice that thoughts are moving through your field of awareness. Or bodily sensations, sounds, memories, emotions.

That same kind of attention, the kind that doesn’t judge or choose or try to change anything is also essential to any kind of improvisation, which is to say, essential to the creative act.

Check my latest newsletter for some related books and some experiments, exercises and games to help wake up your own muse.

photos c corey fischer