Finding Caesar

***I do not speak for the Yellow Springs Theater Company as an entity; this is entirely my own opinion and about my experience being in this production. I am completely responsible for everything contained herein***

18839687_10212644118313182_1592018506600399663_o.jpg

I grew up acting. My first role was a lead, John Henry West in a production of Member of the Wedding. I acted all through school. Yellow Springs has long been a hotbed of actors; John Lithgow, who grew up here, is the son of Arthur Lithgow, who oversaw the nationally-recognized Summer Shakespeare Festival at Antioch College, the first such festival to perform the entire catalog. In the past several years, Yellow Springs Theater Company has revived the festival. And though it hath been nearly five years since last I trod the boards–as Judge Danforth in a production of The Crucible that staged the last act in Guantanamo Bay Prison, with me ordering the torture of John Proctor–I am returning to the stage as Julius Caesar in a production of the eponymous Shakespearian drama.

Those who are or have been involved in theater will probably attest that there are times in which you understand that you’ve been called, gathered, appointed, anointed, and commissioned to do a particular show. It is as if Thespis of Icara is calling to us in the fullness of time, reminding us of our sacred duty. Art matters. It is the stuff of revolutions; it is a playing out of our hopes and fears, it is dealing with the complexities of life in intense, raw, and vulnerable expression that capitalism can’t touch. Not when you do it for the people, without charge, because you truly believe that at this particular place, in this particular time, with these particular players, you are going to say something. You are going to use a vehicle that is as timeless as so-called Western Civilization, and you’re going to speak to the immediacy of now.

I have often hesitated to call myself an actor because let’s be honest: this place produces superstars. Dave Chappelle, Trace Lysette, Kat Livingston, Martin Bakari, Bruce Cromer, Michael Malarkey, and I’m only naming people who work on a stage or a set. The musicians’ list is even more insanely packed. Like, for reals. The Shire is a great place to be of an artistic bent. But being in a local theater company has helped me understand that actors are about the work. Everyone I listed above would tell you that even if they did not make money for doing what they do, they would still do what they are doing. I love to act. The discovery of the director’s vision, of your castmates and their characters, of the relationships that impact the internal work every actor must do to discover the way they are meant to tell the story. My Caesar is a bit cheeky because it is written right into the text, but he is also passionate and feels he is ordained to rule the world. Yet, he has a serious illness and is surrounded by a contingent of people who represent dangers most imminent. My Caesar tries to disarm people with charm; if that does not work, he will dispatch you with the fullness of power, which I also bring out in my death scene. This is a great journey.

What is fascinating is that Julius Caesar is being performed in a lot of places, and now the running tradition of casting Caesar as a current or previous president has suddenly become relevant to reactionary, right-wing “activists” who think the scary liberals are fomenting insurrection for a Maoist take-over of the government, something already started by Bernie Sanders and George Soros, don’t you know? Because they heard that some fancy-pants lesbians–you know, that Greek word for actors–are killing Trump on stage, it is obviously a clear signal to Black Lives Matter to once again dishonor Dr. King by blocking traffic because when they won’t comply with “simple orders,” cops have no choice but to kill them. Whether by chokehold or multiple GSWs will depend on the particular situation. Meanwhile, the scientists and alternative energy lobbyists kill literally tens of thousands of obsolete, deadly jobs by pushing the leftist climate-change agenda–not to be confused with the gay agenda, mind you–of the DemocRAT Party (shhhh, it doesn’t matter that Republicans control everything right now). All across the country, some of these people are reasoning, lusty liberals are suddenly deciding to disrespect the president by killing him. Gasp! And they must be protested!

But here’s the deal: anyone who knows anything about theater knows that seasons are planned out well, WELL ahead of time. The Muses made it clear, to companies across the land, that now it is time to bring Julius Caesar to the fore once again.

This is the part of a lifetime for this time in life. I am so grateful.

Stay tuned for more blogs on the production, and be sure to come out and see the show. I promise, you will not regret it!! 

So, I’m Going Deaf

deaf-queer

One of my earliest memories is being held and soothed by my mother as I howled in pain from an ear infection. I came to know well the whoosh, whoosh cadence of my pulse registering with an eardrum that was already stiffening, soon to be less like a tympani and more like a djembe left out in the rain.

Another early memory is of my father walking next to a surgical gurney as I was wheeled into the OR. By the time I was 10, I had undergone 5 surgeries related to my ear problems. In truth, many kids who were growing up in the early- to mid-1980s had ear tubes. I had them 4 times before saying no mas, and by the late 1980s, it was revealed that the surgery was used too much and was a profit generator. For me, though, it was the only way to stop the ear infections and allow me to swim. I had wax earplugs for the pool which would get caught in my hair, but I didn’t care; as a kid, I loved to swim, especially in live water. I once nearly drowned in Lake Michigan being pulled under by a current, but I was such a strong swimmer and had taken so many lessons, I was able to save myself. I didn’t tell my parents until years later. Nothing was going to take away the joy I felt in being in God’s swimming pool.

When I refused the ear tubes, I was told that I would likely start to go deaf when I was in my 40s. I thought that I might have manufactured that memory, but today I learned that I didn’t. I have lost about 50% of my hearing. There are two types of hearing loss: conductive and nerve. The former concerns the entire system that conduct sounds waves to the brain for interpretation; it can be corrected or addressed in many cases. The latter, however, cannot. I have both types. I also have all three types of tinnitus. Since I was 25, I’ve heard a constant, high-pitched sound that never, ever goes away. I have become quite adept at pushing it into the background; I almost always have ambient noise around me, as it helps in the process. The second is like crickets chirping, and it originates from a vector in the middle of my head; sometimes the Doppler Effect kicks in, and that’s when I have balance issues. The third is the return of my old friend whoosh, whoosh.

Last week, for the first time ever, I had all three at once, and my left eardrum burst for the umpteenth time. I don’t even feel it anymore. The penultimate time it burst, the doctor was like, “How can you not know you burst an eardrum?” I said, “It is amazing what the human body and mind can get used to where there is no choice.”

Here’s the deal: essentially, my eustachian tubes collapse. With my eardrums being so stiff, fluid does not make it through the mechanisms cleanly until everything is clogged. Then, the fluid begins to ossify, becoming like ancient honey; that builds the pressure in my ears, which blows out the eardrum. This also causes nerve damage.

I am losing my ability to hear low tones at a fairly rapid rate. Today, I have a rather painful procedure done in the office: the fluid was cleaned out, my eardrums were perforated, and a tube was placed on both sides. Right now, my hearing is rather cattywampus and so is my balance. In about 6-8 weeks, I go back for another hearing test. We should then be able to determine if we’re dealing with primarily conductivity issues and to what extent nerve damage plays a role. I’m looking at deafness around age 60. 

A few people who have known me a long time recently said, “I had no idea you dealt with serious ear issues.” For someone who shares as much as I do, I’ve not written about it because I have been: a) so used to ear issues that I take them as a matter of course; b) using humor to deal with a serious situation that I didn’t necessarily want to face; and c) still trying to figure out what it means to live with bipolar disorder, so hearing loss wasn’t even on my radar. But recently, it has become really bad. I guess it is time for me to be honest about it: it is exhausting and frustrating and frightening and intimidating.

But I am very calm right now. I know what is happening. Knowledge is good; I felt the same way after the bipolar diagnosis. Now I know. And there’s hope and options, and now I have a really great reason to finally learn ASL. A friend wrote on my FB wall that my diagnosis is a reminder that they need to learn ASL. I read it and burst into tears, sitting in the parking lot of the ENT office, filled with love and joy and appreciation because I am so blessed. I am going to play guitar and sing, I’m going to go to lectures and friends’ poetry readings. I am going to stand outside the church and listen to children laugh in the playground. I am going to recite Shakespeare and ask people to tell me that they love me because I want to hear it all. I want to hear it all and record it in my heart and when I need to, put it on the phonograph in my mind and listen to it over and over.

So, I’m going deaf. But I feel like I’ve never heard better.

God Doesn’t Promise Us Easy

pit .jpg

Read Psalm 13 and John 6:35-40

Chronic health problems are hard. Many of you know this from your own struggles. Maybe you know because you are a caregiver, maybe it’s because you know what it is like to watch helplessly as someone you love battles against a seemingly endless string of ailments, insurance company denials and appeals, an ever-growing pile of bills matched by a reciprocal lack of resources, and the constant fear that one more thing added on the pile will simply break them. It is from these depths that the psalmist cries out: “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?”

Lament psalms begin in the Pit, understood as a proper noun. They begin with the anguished, exhausted cry of one who has been beaten and bloodied, bandied about by circumstances and laid low. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, three times prostrating himself and begging God for there to be another way. The Pit is where so many African-American mothers and fathers are each time a Black child is killed by those with weaponized hatred, or who, despite repeated studies showing that major police departments across the country are systematically and structurally racist, are killed in routine traffic stops whether they comply or have the seeming audacity to assert their rights. The Pit is where so many historically and currently oppressed persons return each and every time justice proves to be just-us. It is where they reside when they say, “Stop killing us,” and the legal and cultural response is, “Yeah, but…”

All the lament psalms save one have a doxology, generally a two-line hymn of praise in the shorter ones, like Psalm 13. “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” Psalm 88, which I have tattooed on my left forearm, begins and ends in the Pit. I appreciate that God’s word has such a psalm. Because sometimes you can have a very strong faith, but still be exhausted, angered, frustrated, and confused about why life seems to be so cruel. You can say, “Look, Jesus, I love you like a fat kid loves cake, but I am about to break, brother. Why is this happening, and is it going to continue without abating?”

Psalm 13 has its own greatness, though. It begins in the Pit and then well-describes the process many of us might go through when we are turning to God in a state of discomfit. Verse three reads, “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death.” I interpret this as, “God, you better give me patience or kill me, lest something really bad starts happening up in here.” And this psalmist describes people we might term haters today: “My enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed,’ my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.” Right? Those people who seem to cheer for you to struggle and break; those who are willfully and actively working to deny you equal protection, access to affordable healthcare, or even basic human decency. Sometimes we pray to God and say, “Please help me get through this because I can’t let them break me. I can’t allow the hatred of some that is supported by the indifference of others to defeat me. I need you, God.”

Sometimes, the only thing that will get us through the present moment is looking back and seeing how God has been with us before without our recognizing it. Do you know what I’m describing? A period you can look at now and say, “I was wondering where God was, and it wasn’t until months later that I could look back and say, ‘Oh, that’s what you were doing! You’re a sneaky one, God!’” Sometimes all we can do is say, “I know you’ve dealt fairly with me in the past, and I’m trusting in that right now because, frankly, I ain’t got nothing else.”

I think one of the mistakes that people sometimes make, myself included, is thinking that the Bible says all we need to do is have faith, follow the rules, and God will bless us with great health and wealth. Some people internalize this interpretation and spend their whole lives feeling less than; they interpret every bad thing that happens to them to be a punishment for sin. Sadly, this has been a common, long-standing practice in the Church. Others interpret this to be a commandment to control others, to tell them what they can or cannot do because, well, God. Because: God. Often they think that they are entitled by God to certain things and others are not; when their lives run into trouble, they lash out at others because the others don’t belong, they are taking what God has given to us.

The Bible tells us to take care of each other; it says that if we want to show our love of God, we have to love people. Our passage from John 6:35-40 makes some seemingly wild claims: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty again.” Taken literally, it’s ridiculous. It’s like breathanarians, those who claim they can survive on air alone. Obviously, the claim from John is that through Jesus we will find spiritual sustenance. And God’s will is that it be available to all who seek. What exactly constitutes eternal life and what John means by raising up on the last day, are details with myriad possible interpretations. The most common has been, if you believe in Jesus you will never really die and when creation is destroyed or transformed into nothingness, God will raise us from the dead. This is the common theology, but by no means is it the only theology.

Jesus says that his will is God’s will; God’s will is expressed in the Great Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, all your heart, and all your strength.” Jesus adds, “And love your neighbor as yourself.” So, no matter how you look at it, Jesus is saying that love is the great commandment. Further, he says that he will not reject those whom God sends to him; we need not interpret this to mean that God will only work salvation through Jesus. God may send others on a different path, but that does not mean we should love them less. And while there may very well be a bodily resurrection promised by God, I find it equally probable that eternal life and being raised up are statements about spiritual existence and experiences.

There are a lot of hard times around our cabin doors these days. We all have our lists of woes and grievances. I know I do; my health is becoming more problematic on several fronts. But I am in a much better situation than others sitting in the pews and residing in our prayers. I couldn’t get up here this morning and tell you all you need is Jesus and everything will be alright. Because that’s not true. Well, it kind of is. It doesn’t mean that faith will restore you to physical health, or that God will raise from the dead someone you love who was killed by institutional violence. Yet, notice what God did with Jesus; Jesus made God’s priorities, his priorities. Jesus suffered and died an unjust death, but he died how he lived: with radical love in his heart, and words of compassion on his lips.

I can’t lie to you and say that faith will heal you if you mean restoring a limb or revivifying the dead. But God’s promise seems to be that when we center on love—for God, for ourselves, for others—we can endure all things. It may not happen the way we want; it may involve our suffering and pain, even our death, but there’s a promise that love will endure. There’s a profound statement that if we want the most authentic, connected experience of life we can have in our short times here, God has given us a way to make that happen: love. Real, difficult, messy, sometimes exhausting love. It is the closest we get to resurrection, at least until the last day. It is what God sends when we ask for patience, or a reason, or for strength. So, in that way, yeah. If God sent you to Jesus then he’s all you need, because Jesus helps you prioritize your needs. As the Psalmist writes, “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” Amen.