From around 2005 to 2010, my theatre company, Mildred’s Umbrella Theater, used a performance space called MIDTOWN ARTS CENTER. This is not the Midtown Arts Center that is called MATCH, which is new, clean and not cheap. I don’t think it has enough of a track record yet to be haunted.
If you google Midtown Art Center, that’s the one you’ll see. It’s the only one many people know about.
No, The Midtown Arts Center we used to use was a different one. I know it’s been there a really long time, and it has been declared a historical building. It’s so historical that it’s still standing and being used for theatre, even though it is falling down in places and certain areas of it might even not be safe to be in. This Midtown Art Center definitely has character. Its also haunted as hell.
Midtown Art Center a 3414 LaBranch.
Never mind the holes in the walls that the water would get in when it rained, or the mice and other ‘pets’ that we’d see here and there. That kind of thing is easily gotten past for a needy group of young artists, and it barely phased us. However, this was the site of the two most supernatural events that ever happened to me.
Some photos from shows I directed there: DARK MATTER (2007) and A MURDER OF CROWS (2008)
So, the stage in the space had no work lights, and it had really dim house lights, so basically, if you were working in there to build or rehearse, you had to turn on the stage lights to see anything. Whoever opened up the space for the day (usually me) had to walk from the front door, all the way down a long, dark hallway, to the backstage area to turn on the breakers and the AC. Then, you had to walk all the way back to the front of the space with only the lobby lights to guide you, up a ladder and into the tech booth in the dark to turn on the stage lights. I did this every time on arrival, and I was usually alone, and it always felt like someone was watching me, but that is easily dismissed as paranoia when you’re alone in an old building.
So, this one time, I was walking from the front to the breakers, alone as usual, and once I passed a certain spot in the hallway, it was suddenly cold. Then, I heard whispering that seemed to be getting closer to me until it was right in my ear! It was like… “Sskpskgt… SEE ME!” It sounded like a child’s voice, and I felt the air in my ear like it was someone’s breath. I nearly wet myself! I ran back outside and waited for one of my actors to arrive, and then we went back in together. There was nobody in that building and no way to get out or in besides the front door, which I was guarding until the actor arrived.
Later that same month, when that show was open, another thing happened. Our set had a white cyc curtain across the back with space for actors to walk between it and the wall that was behind it. I had just turned off the AC, and everyone had left, but I could hear a couple of the actors talking outside as I was locking up. No air was moving in the space and nobody but me was in there. I went up to the booth to turn the stage lights off, and as I was about to pull down the lever, I saw the unmistakable shape of a hand run itself along that back curtain, like someone was walking through there with their hand out. I screamed and the actors came running back in and we looked all over that space and nobody was there.
I was never in there alone again, but we did perform there for a few more years after that. We’d probably have gone back there again if the people who run it would ever get back to us. However, I’m very wary of being alone in any theatre, although we’ve had 4 other regular spaces since then, and I’ve never had an experience like that anywhere else.
THE FLU SEASON, by Will Eno (directed by Matt Huff) 2010
My blog gets ignored for a while when I’m busy, but I felt the need to post after the passing of one of my favorite celebrities of all time, Olivia Newton-John. Everyone who knows me knows that Xanadu is my favorite movie ever. I shout to the sky on a regular basis that I love it, and it’s my go-to comfort movie. When Olivia passed, I got numerous messages of condolence from people who know me, as if she were a friend of mine. There is no way I can not blog a tribute to her right now.
Throughout my childhood I had heard songs by Olivia Newton-John on the radio, and I’d seen her photo on an album cover that my mother had, but I had never seen her alive in 3-D. We didn’t have music videos or youtube or streaming yet, so unless you happened to catch a TV show someone was on right at the time it aired, or you went to a concert, you might never see your favorite musical acts in anything but a still photo. That all changed when I was 8 years old, and I saw Grease at the movies.
I loved Grease for many reasons, but mostly because of Olivia. Recently, I’ve been told that schools don’t do it anymore because the message is bad due to Sandy changing to a bad girl to please a man. Also, the world has changed, and people would probably call CPS on you if you let kids watch that movie with some of the content. However, when the film came out, people were a little more chill about that kind of thing, and we all saw it. I was 8, and my brother was 6, and we went with a group of similarly aged kids and a couple of moms from our neighborhood to see it on the big screen. Everyone at my elementary school was talking about it, so I know we weren’t the only kids who saw it.
That’s when I fell in love with Olivia. She was the prettiest person I’d ever seen, and you could just tell she was also nice. Lots of people in movies are beautiful, but something about her transcended mortal beauty. She was like some kind of fairy princess to me. She had an aura of goodness that made her glow in a way I’d never seen anyone glow.
A couple of years later, Xanadu came out, and again, a group of us went to see it. I was mesmerized by it. It had everything I loved: roller skating, music by ELO, colorful costumes, a fairy tale plot, and especially Olivia Newton-John, who was finally appropriately cast as the goddess she already was. I was 10 years old, and I’d found my favorite movie of all time. It imprinted on me like no other film I’d ever seen or have seen since. Later, I watched it again on cable when that finally happened, and I have owned it on VHS, DVD and now streaming. I watch it at least 3 times a year. I make sure to share on social media that I’m watching it, and I try to get others to give it a try so they can also bask in the glory that is Xanadu. I consider it my responsibility. It is a public service.
Now, I know all the shitty things that critics have said about that film, and I don’t care. They often miss the point of art, in my opinion. Also, I heard that Michael Beck, who plays her love interest in the movie, has said that the film ‘ruined his career’. I believe he overestimates himself a bit with that statement. He was flavor of the month right then because he was popular in some other film right before it, but he was the least fabulous thing about Xanadu. In fact, any decent looking guy with a talent for wearing jeans and speaking English could have been cast in that role, and it wouldn’t have made any difference to the film. He barely matters and didn’t even sing in it. Cliff Richard sang the songs we’re supposed to think are him. His acting is mediocre, and his career would have probably tanked anyway once that started being obvious. How anyone could be bitter when they got to be part of the best film ever and actually touch Olivia Newton John AND Gene Kelly is beyond me. I thought he was cute when I was 10, but he was dead to me after he said that nonsense. He needs to sit down.
But back to Olivia… In addition to her fairy princess looks, her angelic voice, and her obvious inner beauty, she was also an activist for animal rights and the founder of a cancer treatment center in Australia. She has used her fame to raise money for both causes for most of her life. I wasn’t surprised about either of those things. I could tell from the first moment I saw her that she loved animals, and her long battle with cancer made her want to help others who were suffering from it.
Olivia has been ridiculed as too soft or mainstream in the past. Someone even said she is what would happen if “white bread could sing”. But her reply was, “well, white bread is very popular, so I’m going to take that as a compliment.” She always saw the positive in things, and I agree. She wasn’t edgy or weird. She was popular. She didn’t write her own music or lyrics, but her voice was one of the best voices of our time. She was lovely and charming and perfect.
Olivia, you made the world better by simply existing., and you will always be in my heart.
Sometimes a photo pops up on social media, and at first glance, it’s just a random photo of random people. To anyone who wasn’t there, that’s all it is; completely unremarkable. It’s a fairly boring photo of some attractive people sitting passively and fairly expressionless, posing for a group photo. It almost looks like one of those school class photos from elementary school in the way it is laid out.
However, if you were there, you might be transported to the moment of the photo. There are humans involved, and if you were there, and in the photo, you know exactly what was going on with at least one of them.
This photo was an early play done by my theatre company, Mildred’s Umbrella Theater. It was an original play called TOMORROW MORNING. It was written by our playwright at the time, John Harvey (top left), with input by myself (in the jean jacket) and Greg Dean (down right). We had just had our first successful show a few months before, and we excitedly cranked out another one in a very tight window of time when we had the space again.
The play was about a train taking a group of people to the Auschwitz museum, but they eat some drugged food and a wormhole opens in time , and they find that they are really going to a concentration camp. Two of the actors were waiters who turned into Nazis at the end, and one was a singing angel on a separate platform that watched in horror as the events unfolded, and reacted in song. The idea was really ambitious, and we didn’t have enough time or resources to fully realize the project, and it was kind of a mess when it opened. It had some really good moments, but we needed more time to make it what it deserved to be. We learned a lot from that show. Here are some photos from the show. they aren’t the best. We were just learning to be digital at that point, but you can tell that the show was far more interesting than the cast photo.
If you just look at that cast photo with us in our street clothes, it looks like a passive cast photo, but there is so much going on when I look at it. There are so many stories here.
I think I was coerced into sitting for this photo, and was really about to lose my mind trying to get the show up and not kill anyone. I was pissed off at everyone by about this time (you can see the tension if you look closely). Not that it was anyone’s fault. I just was acting in the play, and producing the whole thing on a shoestring. Back then, I always ended up dealing with the set, and picking up slack in every area of the show, so I was super stressed out every time we opened anything.
A few people in this picture don’t speak to each other anymore. There are 2 friendships and one romantic relationship here that ended very tragically.
There is one person in the photo that none of us talk to anymore. Several of us have that person blocked from our lives in every way.
Two of these people are now married to each other and living in Europe. I keep in touch with them.
One of these people now lives in New York, and another lives in Austin. I still talk to them online.
Of the ones who still live in Houston, I am still very close to two of them. I run into two of the others once in a while, and we say hello and remember each other fondly.
When we are all gone, this photo will go back to being unremarkable. A photo like this means nothing if you weren’t there.
I came across a picture of you online. You are the me of I2 years ago. You are standing in an art gallery, next to a carved, wooden horse, wearing your favorite blue dress with the seahorse embroidered on the skirt. You are there because you directed and produced a play in that art gallery. You are smiling, but you are miserable. You aren’t even really sure you will survive. I’m here to tell you that you will. Eventually.
You started a theatre a few years before with nothing but dreams and fairy dust. It consumes you, but it never makes you full. You are the only constant, but nobody seems to see you. They only see the people you are putting in the light. You don’t want to kill it, so it’s killing you. You try to walk away, and people say, ‘No! We need you’. You’re afraid that if you leave, you’ll have to leave behind your self-worth, which is tied to that theatre like a battered hostage. The money you work hard to raise pays everyone else, but there’s nothing left for you, so you also have to work in other places for money so you can live. Twice, you worked 48 hours straight with no sleep so a show could open on time. You once went seven years in a row with no vacation.
Three months before this picture was taken, your marriage fell apart. One week before the photo was taken, a rebound relationship that you fell into in a panic crashed and burned, leaving you feeling like trash. You have friends, but you’ve been away from them so much working that they often forget to invite you anymore. You turn to unstable types that make a point to be where you are to get a piece of what you’ve created. They wear the faces of friends, and your head is such a mess, you can’t tell the difference. It’s just nice to have someone to talk to sometimes. When this photo was taken, a person you thought was a friend had just turned on you. She had sucked all the blood she could from you and found you not to be useful anymore. While you stand here smiling, she is tweeting about what garbage you are. You think she might be right.
You are ashamed that you are falling apart, that you are spending all your time working or drinking wine alone That you lash out at people in messages That you cry almost every day. That you have wondered more than once if anyone would care if you just weren’t there anymore. You stay on that lonely island that you created because it seems like all you have, and if you leave it, it will die. Or maybe you will die. Everyone else will go wherever they all go when they don’t need what you have to offer them there, and you will be stuck where you are, holding an empty bag.
You need rest. You need help. You need therapy. There is no time for any of that. You are a wreck.
I am here to tell you that it will get better. Not right away. You still have a few more pretend friends to deal with and a couple more shitty relationships, because all you really want is love and security, and you keep missing the mark. The universe will finally lead you to someone worthy, and you will marry him. Your real friends will forgive you for all the years you were crazy. They will welcome you back with open arms. Others will shut you out and never forgive you, but you don’t need those people. They think they are nicer than they actually are.
You will never find a fairy godmother. You will never be fully appreciated for your sacrifice. But you will find a way to find your worth in other ways. You will find ways to make it not matter so much.
I look at you, pretty, blue-dress girl, and I give you a hug in my mind. You are in the last days of your youth, and you can’t even enjoy it. You have done something great, whether you or anyone else can see that you have. I’d never want to be you again. You are a sad, lonely wreck. But you’ll be ok eventually.
With all the social distancing, many people have not seen anyone in person from outside their household in months. I am one of them. As we are social creatures, I, like others, have connected more online. I don’t want to stop doing that, but it feels like some interactions have been worse than they would have in person, and it’s seriously giving me a headache.
When Trump was elected president, I couldn’t even believe that there were so many people in this country who would vote for such an ignorant, narcissistic buffoon. I thought most of them had to be evil, or at the very least stupid. They quickly identified themselves on social media by posting memes about how ‘liberals are crying because they lost’, and sometimes I was surprised to see who they were. When I tried to explain that the reason many of us were upset was not because we were ‘sore losers’, but because we were terrified that a very dangerous narcissist was now in a powerful position to do terrible things to our country, they called me names and continued to jeer at me. It was like going back to elementary school trying to talk to them, and I eventually realized that no amount of reasoning was going to change their minds, and that while some of them are evil, and some of them are indeed stupid, most of them are neither. Some of them are just brainwashed. They have been conditioned with this ‘us and them’ mentality over many years through a steady diet of very specific and concentrated news sources, and politics have turned into a game where they’re metaphorically sitting in a sports bar, hurling insults at the losing team.
Currently some people in this group are holding ‘anti-mask’ rallies, protesting for the right to infect themselves and everyone around them with a deadly disease, because they have been told that a global pandemic is a lie by the other ‘team’, which is being supported by the entire rest of the world. To make it worse, they are using the slogan, “We can’t Breath”, which is deliberately mocking the race protests that started when a man was suffocated to death by a cop. I know that sounds evil, and the leaders of it are certainly are, in my opinion, but a lot of the followers just don’t see the istuation as real. I have talked to some of them, and they really think democrats are making up the black people being murdered and the Covid-19 pandemic just to piss them off and control them. So they join in to root for their home team. They seem to me to be in some kind of alternate reality, and while I admire the people who are still trying to talk them out of it, I really think it’s a pointless waste of energy. They need deprogramming, like people who have been rescued from cults. Until that is acknowledged, nothing will change.
Recently, there was an ad put out by sensible Republicans to try to convince MAGA-Hat people that they should not vote for Donald Trump again. It was a nice try, but I can tell them for sure that it’s not going to work, because they don’t mention in the video that they are Republicans. They need to tell those people they’re on the same team if they want them to listen, and then work hard to start helping them to de-program. The video is here, if you’re interested. It looks just like something a liberal group would produce, and it is useless. https://twitter.com/murphymike/status/1268997121446801408?s=20
I had to cut contact wtih a lot of people in that mindset because my own mental health is worth too much to me to let anyone push my buttons, and nothing I say to them will matter anyway. Then I realized that I have a different problem: extremists on the liberal side. These are usually people who I mostly agree with, but they are so extreme in expressing their views, that they seem like they’re playing the same game as their right wing counterparts. They’re just wearing the other team’s colors. They seem to live to rant endlessly about every celebrity who uses the wrong pronoun or tweets something that might be interpreted as a slight to someone. They sit at their computers and painstakingly correct everyone about every tiny mistake in whatever the ‘right’ way of saying something is at the moment. They seem to take great joy in finding things other people do that give them a reason to express how offended they are. They are self righteous and relentless, and they are generally armed with good grammar and at least a moderate gift for intelligent debate, which makes them harder to dismiss as crackpots.
I usually agree with the general basics of the beliefs of these far lefters, so I just let them say what they want, and I don’t argue with them. I just try to ignore what they say when I don’t like it. I agree that people need to be called out when they are wrong, but I just don’t agree with their methods. Therefore, I can respect their space and keep myself from arguing with them on their own turf, but often, when I share something on social media myself, one of these types will latch on to a word in the headline or a icture of a celebrity who is loosely related to the situation, and start railing at me and anyone else who has the misfortune to be looking at it. Other innocent bystanders might comment with a slight objection, or maybe they’re just not agreeing in the right way, and they are then dragged into self righteous, inflexible debate for hours if they don’t just flee the situation. If I ask them to stop, I am ‘oppressing people with different opinions than mine”. If I just delete the post, I must be ‘uncomfortable talking about my bias or secret bigotry’. They can’t imagine that it might be because I just don’t like endless, un-resolvable arguments over details. That I don’t want to see my slightly less liberal friends, or elderly relatives who aren’t as good at arguing get publicly humiliated. I’m all for civilized debate, but if I know from experience that someone is about to jump on a soap box and refuse to listen to anyone else, I’m deleting the conversation. I don’t care how ‘right’ you are about what you’re saying. We have enough bullshit to deal with in 2020 for that to ever be worth it.
I don’t know what is in other people’s minds, but it looks from where I’m sitting that for these people, being right is far more important than other people’s mental health or even friendship. Some of them have a particular pet argument, and others are like that about almost everything. I knew a white man whose pet arguments were racism and sexism. He was very vocal about how against both of those injustices he was, but he spent a lot of his time telling black people and women how they should feel about their oppression. When anyone called him on it, he would freak out and claim to have been ‘attacked’ for his views. There is no way to win or find a compromise with someone like that. No matter what side they’re on.
Are they also brainwashed? I don’t know. I didn’t notice this happening any more than I noticed it with the other ones. Maybe they feel guilty about whatever privilege they have or seem to have, and they’re trying to prove they’re not bad people for it? Perhaps they have become so bored with the echo chamber they’ve created for themselves that they’re desperate for a debate and have no more conservatives left in their lives to argue with. Whatever it is, I’m exhausted with it. I guess some people think arguing is fun, but I don’t. With these people, I’m usually on the same side of the issue. We’re almost always just arguing about a tiny detail, and that is just draining.
Both extremist teams seem to me to lack empathy and don’t seem to remember, online anyway, that actual humans are complicated. Every person comes to every situation with their own complicated baggage. They bring with them everything they are born with, everything they’ve experienced and everything they have learned. All of these things factor into a person’s interpretation or reaction to the world. The difference between the two extremes is that one side isn’t pretending to care, while the other side loudly and adamantly claims they do. Maybe it feels like a game to a lot of people to argue online because you don’t have to look into a person’s face while you’re tearing them down. Everyone is just an avatar and black and white text on a screen, so it doesn’t feel like they are real.
In order to live in a society, we must deal with other people, and other people are separate, unique beings. They have their own minds,and yeah, some of them are wrong in their speech and behavior. Hell, we all are wrong that way at times (even you, PC Peter). Sometimes minds can be changed, but running at people acting like a pompous know-it-all with an ax to grind rarely changes someone’s mind. It usually only makes people angry and defensive. People on both sides need to chill the fuck out and choose their battles if they are actually trying to get people to listen, instead of having everyone they talk to that isn’t exactly like them quitting every conversation in defeat and frustration.
If it’s just arguing that is fun, I recommend these people who feel that way finding each other and having a group for it or something, instead of continuing to alienate everyone else in their lives. Don’t we have enough sadness and anxiety in the world at the moment without creating more? Just a suggestion.
This week, I started watching Mrs. America, which is about the women on all sides of the women’s liberation movement in the early 1970s. Later in the week, I had a totally unrelated conversation with my mother, where she expressed regret to me about how much she missed out on doing in her life. She’d never really directly said that to me before, although I did suspect she might feel that way at times. It occurred to me that she was a young woman at the time as the events portrayed in that show. She just wasn’t important enough to anyone with power to have her voice heard about it, and I suddenly felt very sad about how hard that must have been for her.
Mrs. America starts with Phyllis Schlafly, whose mission was to hinder progress on the Women’s Liberation movement. The first episode is from her point of view, which made me a little skeptical about watching it because I didn’t want to see her as sympathetic. The show in general deals with every side of the issue, including the way mainstream feminisim leaves out black women and gay women, but the main struggle is between the feminists and the women hell-bent on keeping them down.
After watching that first episode, I still didn’t like Schlafly, but I could see how a selfish person who truly knows nothing of other people’s hardships could end up in her position. She is basically framed as a woman who originally had other political interests, but settled on gender issues because that was the only way the men would let her into their politics. She used the desire that other women had to have rights as rungs in a ladder to get a little higher in the world, before pulling that ladder right up behind her. Just like the women she oppressed, she wanted more than just marriage and kids. She wanted to be a person, so she found a way to get what she wanted by keeping options away from other women. I think she is worse than the patriarchy.
What really strikes me watching this though, is the place of privilege that a woman had to be in to get her voice heard at all in 1972. In the show, and in real life, these types have cushy, safe lives, with financial security, and husbands with enough power in the world for them to matter. There is nobody who isn’t white in their lives except their maids, who had to be working women in order to support the lifestyle that the Schlaflys of the world were clinging to. That didn’t seem to matter to the conservative white women, because their ideals didn’t apply to anyone of color. The ridiculous thing is, they were fighting for a right they already had so they were not really fighting FOR anything. Their real cause was to fight against the rights of anyone who wasn’t like them.
My mother was a young woman at that time, and the influence of people like Phyllis Schlafly affected the entire course of her life, sweeping her along on a path that she didn’t necessarily choose for herself. She wasn’t in a place of privilege, and there wasn’t anyone in her universe to help her change course.
My mother is from a middle class family. She was pretty and intelligent, with a love for books and a talent for writing, among other things. She had loads of natural potential. But her parents were from Oklahoma. They were children of the depression. Their parents were poor people who had flooded into Oklahoma during the land rush, hoping to make some kind of life for themselves. They came from a long line of hard working people, who were trapped in tradition, with conservative voices leading their choices in life. Nobody went to college to help broaden their experience beyond their own community. There was no role model to tell my mother that she could do anything bigger than her parents had done. She wanted to go to secretarial school and learn a skill to at least make a living, but her mother talked her out of it and persuaded her that marriage was the best path. So at 18, she married the boy from down the street and had a baby soon after. That baby was me.
By age 26, she was divorced, had three children, and was remarried to a man who could support a family so she could be a full time housewife and mother like she was told she should do. He was domineering and abusive, but instead of telling her to leave him, her mother told her that it must be her fault, and she needed to work harder to make him happy. She had found a provider, and it was her job to keep him, or the failure was on her. My grandmother didn’t invent this idea. She learned it from the patriarchy. She was only preaching the same bullshit that the anti-feminists were also preaching. They were all brainwashed into believing it was true, and passing it on like a bad gene to their own daughters.
When my mother finally got the courage to leave her husband after her mother passed away, she was left with three kids, no money and a foreclosed house, because he literally disappeared on her. She found herself having to work 2 low-paying jobs just to keep the bills paid, because she had no skills besides being a wife. She was 35 at that point. She almost worked herself to death for years, trying to make sure her children survived to adulthood.
I was there through all of this, watching my mother give up her life, first for the happiness of a man, and then for the survival of her children. Being a wife and mother looked like the worst way in the world to lose your personhood. It looked like slavery to me. I didn’t feel that way because of feminists telling me. I felt that way because I saw it happen my entire life, to my mother and others. I’m sure there were plenty of people whose experience with this is different, but my beautiful, smart and talented mother sacrificed her entire youth to being a slave, because of ‘family values’ that were pressed upon her every time she tried to do something different with her life. She was born a bit too early to benefit from any women’s rights movement, and her family and community were driven by the ideas pushed in their faces by their churches and by conservative leaders, binding women to abusive men, or leaving them abandoned as single mothers with no skills to make a living.
My mother didn’t respond by pushing that same crap on me and my sister. She made sure we knew we had choices. She never pressured me to do traditional things, but she supported my sister’s choice to do so. She never told me to get married, and supported my decision not to have children. She is a feminist hero. She survived all the shit that the patriarchy threw at her, and then broke the freakin’ cycle.
I am proud of her strength, but I weep for that young woman that she was. I weep for all of the young women who didn’t really have options, and I thank the ones who kept up the fight with other people in mind besides themselves, because without them, my life would have been totally different. So, I understand trying to make Phyllis Shlafly a person with reasons for what she did, but she can bite me.
Women are still trying to hold each other down in the same way Schlafly did in the 70s. Why? Is it fear that their own choices will be taken away from them if other women do something different and everyone discovers that they can? Is it jealousy that they wanted to do something different and they weren’t brave enough? Or is it just an absolute lack of empathy for or other people? I don’t know. All I know is that the Shlafllys of the world were the ones whose voices mattered, and their words and actions hurt a lot of other women, then and later, and even now.
Since the stay-at-home order, life has crashed into a wall. When it started happening, I was freaked out. Our trips were canceled, the theater I run was frantic about what to do about our shows, classes I teach were being forced online, people I know started losing income, and more and more people were being hospitalized. Would everyone I know become homeless, get sick or die? I was a ball of stress and fear those first few days.
I spent my entire spring break working nonstop to get my classes online. My brain was cluttered. I had this sense of panic, as if the fabric of the world would literally come unraveled if I stopped for a minute and just let things go.
However, a few days into it, I started feeling this weird peace. I went out for a few minutes to walk my dog, and I was flooded with nostalgia. I suddenly felt the reality that I wasn’t a slave to a calendar or clock, which is a feeling I haven’t had since I was 14 years old. It felt like even my heartbeat had slowed a bit. My brain was only acknowledging the present, and I wasn’t even thinking about work.
When I was growing up, my homelife was a war zone. My house was dominated by an unstable stepfather who made daily life into a minefield. His temper might have partly been because he was a workaholic. If he was home, we constantly had to be doing some kind of work. If we weren’t doing homework, we’d better be doing chores. If you weren’t working, you were lazy and a freeloader. Also, because of his job, we moved constantly. I’d just get settled into a school, and it was time to pick up and move again because he’d been transferred. My life was a blur of movement and discord most of the time.
After a stressful trip to Disney World when I was 8 years old had left unpleasant stains on my psyche, I chose to spend my summers alone with my grandparents in Oklahoma. My friends definitely didn’t understand why I chose to do that instead of going to Carlsbad Caverns or Mexico with my family, but I needed it.
My grandparents had a small, cozy house with a giant backyard. There was an old mimosa tree with flowers that looked like pink feather dusters, a crab apple tree with a swing hanging from the branches, and a row of pear trees in the back that always had fruit.
My granddad built me a gazebo with a porch swing on it. It had trellis posts and a ceiling, which were covered in honeysuckle and trumpet vines. He rigged it with electricity so I could bring my record player out there. We called it “the Bower.”
Once a week or so, my grandmother took me thrift store shopping, and I got books and random junk to make crafts. There was a secondhand book store a block away that I could go to trade in old books for new ones. I wasn’t lazy. I got things done. I climbed trees and read books. I discovered Beethoven, The Beatles, old soundtracks, Big Band music and jazz. I created art, wrote stories and played with my grandparents’ dogs. I learned to cook, did crossword puzzles and had conversations with my grandmother about philosophy and religion and life in general.
It wasn’t exciting. It was calm. The days were long, and the world turned slowly. Nobody cared what I was wearing or whether my hair was brushed. No alarm clock got me out of bed in the morning. I got up because I wanted to. I couldn’t wait to start a day that was all mine. By the time it was over, I was usually ready to return to regular life, but I never missed it while I was away from it.
When I was 15, I got a job, and I worked all summer. Since then, I’ve always had a job. Sometimes two jobs. Down time feels like a criminal act. Even when I’m on vacation, I’m working. I don’t think I am unique in this kind of life. The current situation is shining a harsh spotlight on just how precarious most people’s situation is, even if they constantly work.
I don’t want people to get sick or die. I don’t want people to lose their income. I want this to not be happening. But I feel like, in a way, the earth is taking a breath, and I am getting to take a breath with it. I’ll be glad when it’s over, but I also know that I don’t want to go back to my life exactly as it was before. This is a wake-up call.
Decker is a professor at Houston Community College, and the artistic director and co-founder of Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company.
I’ve never been a religious person. I’m not really a “joiner” by nature, for one thing. I don’t even like exercise classes. I prefer to find my own path with things. I have absolutely no bad feelings to people who do believe a mainstream religion, as long as they don’t ever use it to hurt anyone or as a tool of discrimination. It just doesn’t work for me.
I think if you get to the core of any religion, they’re all basically good, with the focus on just being a good person. They’re also basically alike at the root of them all. However, some of them have been mucked up along the way with negatives that were added here and there for the benefit of people who wanted to control others, and those are the parts I can’t deal with. Any religion that has the slightest hint of misogyny will be dismissed immediately in my world, and that includes most of the major ones.
I like Buddhism because there is no ‘God’ that you are supposed to worship. The whole religion is about how life equals suffering, and the idea is to learn all the lessons you need to learn as a spiritual being. Nobody is expected to master it. We are all just expected to do our best. Nobody is going to Hell. We are all just trying again until we finish learning. This makes sense to me. We are human to learn and grow, not to be punished just for being what we naturally are.
The five basic rules of Buddhism (in case you don’t know)
To avoid taking the life of beings. Most people agree that it’s not ok to kill other people, but this rule doesn’t apply to just humans. The idea is that all living beings have the right to their lives and should be respected. This makes sense. Civilized and enlightened people are compassionate toward animals.
To avoid taking things not given. Obviously, don’t steal things, but to me, this extends also to things that are not material. Basically, don’t take anything that wasn’t meant for you. I think it applies to forcing people to do things for you that they don’t want to do, or taking credit when someone else deserves it. Exploring this in myself, I need to be mindful that I don’t use passive aggressive behavior to manipulate anyone into anything. That’s something that might happen unconsciously, if we don’t stay aware.
To avoid sensual misconduct. A lot of people think this is only about sexual misconduct or excess, but it also extends to gluttony or any excess. As physical creatures, we each have our own issues with this. I feel like hoarding material things might fall here, too.
To refrain from false speech. It seems like this only refers to lying, but it also extends to any speech that is harmful to others, like gossiping or slander, or just saying mean things to someone. This one is the hardest, I think, because sometimes my harsh speech is reacting or retaliating, and that is an impulse that is harder to control sometimes for me. Also, gossip happens at times. I’m going to try to keep that in check.
To abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness. It seems they aren’t judging people for drinking or doing drugs because it is pleasurable, but only because it causes people to lose control and break the other 4 rules, which makes SO much more sense to me than ‘ don’t do anything fun because fun is not allowed’, which is what some of the other religions always seem like they’re saying to me.
These things are not rules that are there to make people unhappy or that one will be punished for breaking. They are guidelines to follow to further your path to enlightenment and happiness. That makes sense to me.
I like Wicca because it is based in nature, and the balance between masculine and feminine is fair. One is not better than the other, and both are needed for the world to work. There is some magic involved and deities (It is important to note that they are Gods AND Goddesses), which usually makes me skeptical, but if you take that as a metaphor for respecting and connecting with nature, it isn’t really that weird. Physics is just as weird, and nobody really understands that either, so I can take that part in stride.
Nature is Divine- respect everything, from plants to animals to elements. Um… care about the planet AND respect life. How could that not be right?
Karma/Afterlife– No sin, just consequences for your actions, and a cycle of life that happens until you get it right and are ready as a spiritual being to move on to whatever is next.
Personal responsibility – be responsible for your actions and accept the good or bad consequences that you bring to yourself. Totally logical.
Harm None– no harm should intentionally be done to another being.
Respect for others beliefs– Here we go! Each person must find their own spiritual path without coercion. Is there another religion that specifically states this? Because it is very important to me that this is part of my own belief system.
The main idea of both of these paths is to be aware and responsible for your actions, and to have compassion towards other living beings. The big dilemma for me personally is that while not enough concern for others will generate negative Karma, too much concern for others can be a hindrance and can also bring negativity. The challenge is to balance it. I used to always put everything other people wanted before my own needs. I wasn’t always doing it because I am a good person. I was doing it because I have been conditioned with the particular events of my own life that my needs are not important, and making other people happy is the only way to hold value. I found myself resenting it, and that makes for bad thoughts and actions, and generates bad Karma, which to me is just bad energy that builds up when you are failing at being a good person for whatever reason. It is logical that bad actions and thoughts bring a bad response.
So anyway.. I guess I’ve created my own label. I am a Buddhist Witch. I am going to do my best to follow the rules of being an enlightened person, aligned with nature and respectful of science. I’m going to try and fail and try again. I encourage everyone to craft their own path. If you have one already, good for you! If not, find something that makes sense to you,and that holds you accountable without making you feel like a bad person if you mess up. Good luck!
A couple of weeks ago, I found out that my friend Wayne was dying. It shouldn’t have been a shock. He had cancer several years ago, and he was in remission, but it came back, and he was losing the battle.
The death of someone you care about is a life-changing event in anyone’s life, no matter how it happens. You not only lose someone you care about, but you also have to think about the fact that it will happen to all of us eventually. I have had people in my life pass away before, but it has always happened either suddenly, like an accident or heart attack, or it happened far away, so I knew it was happening, but I didn’t actually see it. I always said before, “I wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye.” However, even when you do have a chance, it’s not easy to actually say it. You don’t always do what you think you will do.
Wayne was not just any friend. We were married for a while about a decade ago. Our marriage ended for various reasons, but not because I didn’t care about him. I’ve had plenty of relationships where I needed to purge the person from my life when the romantic part was over, but I never married any of those people, so I feel like my judgement of him as a person was right. It was only our romantic compatibility that was wrong. At any rate, he always remained important to me.
I didn’t divorce him right away when we broke up because he was diagnosed with cancer, and he was on my health insurance. He didn’t tell me when the cancer came back because I had found my soul mate and was getting married again, and he didn’t want me to feel responsible for him. I feel like we could call that love.
So, of course when his family told me he was sick again and going into hospice, and I should come right away if I wanted to visit him, I went. By the time I got there, he was already standing on the platform of his upcoming journey, preparing to board the train. He seemed like a hazy version of himself, but he was still trying hard to be present, and conscious of not wanting to seem helpless.
We chatted like it was just a regular day. Nobody mentioned death. We joked with each other and recalled funny stories. He mentioned that he was worried about his cats. His family couldn’t keep them, and he worried about their fate when he was no longer able to take care of them. He reminded me that they were mine for a bit when they were kittens, before we broke up. I wanted to tell him I would make sure they were ok when he was gone, but I didn’t want to talk about him being gone, and I knew I would cry if I let myself think about it, so I just said, “I remember.” I relayed messages from friends who were thinking of him. Some of them were hoping for his recovery. His relatives were still trying to get him to eat. We were all in the land of the living, trying to hold him there with us.
When I came back two days later, he seemed to have boarded the train, even though it hadn’t yet left the station. I sat with him for a while, but I wasn’t sure he knew I was there. I told him I would let him rest and that I would see him tomorrow. Why did I say that, like I thought he would be better the next day? I should have held his hand and told him it was ok, and to let go. I always imagined myself being the strong kind of person who wouldn’t let denial hold me back from the right behavior in that situation, but I turned out not to be. This isn’t something you actually know about yourself until it happens.
The next day, I came back, and it was clear that he was leaving us. His consciousness was somewhere else, and his body was a shell full of pain. I started to accept it by then, but I wondered if it was too late to tell him. In hopes he could still hear me, I told him I loved him, and that a lot of other people loved him, and I promised him I would make sure his cats were ok. He died a few hours later. I wonder if that’s all he was waiting for. I think that’s possibly why he wanted to see me. He knew I would take care of his pets.
I spent several days crying every time I thought of it. My already busy life was packed with helping to organize a celebration of life event for him, and I was also frantically working to find a home for his cats. I was moving nonstop and was able to distract myself, but now and then I would see something that reminded me of him, or come across something that used to be his. I had been given a couple of things of his that were prized possessions when he was well, and I felt like I was stealing from him because I had them. Sometimes, I would be eating, and I would feel guilty that I was doing something that he could no longer enjoy, or I would be outside, wondering if the last time he was outside, if he realized it would be his last time to feel a breeze. Every little thing I did in my daily life seemed so ridiculous and unimportant. I spent a lot of time wondering what the point even is in doing anything when it’s just going to end anyway. Everything that is you will just be gone, so why do we do anything?
That feeling still comes and goes, but it’s starting to come less frequently. There is no way to really live if you think too much about dying. Forgetting about it most of the time is the only way we can keep having a life that matters.
I don’t know where he is. I don’t know if he just stopped existing, or if he went somewhere else, or if he was born into a new baby somewhere, or if he’s still lingering on the edges of here where he can see us. All I know is that he is not here anymore, and I am. Everything that is him is no longer here, and everything that is me will also go away. And that is going to take me some time to get used to. I also know that as time goes on, the reality of it will fade for me so I can feel like things matter again. Meanwhile, forgive me if I don’t fully participate for a bit. I’m still saying goodbye to my friend.