Stay focused

In the wake of the election earlier this month, I found myself asking the same question everyone seemed to be asking. What now? At my survival gig as a bartender I instituted a loose rule in the final few weeks leading up to Nov. 7th that his name was banned from conversation. This was an effort to escape the media storm, the endless barrage of news stories that choked up my news feeds, costing me hours of my time spent in anxiety inducing binge reading sessions.

That rule fell quickly in the week following the confirmation that our next four years in this country would be shaped by a man who has never held elected office. My regulars gathered at almost nightly that week, the need to be around others driving them from their homes and into the bar stools, and on everyone’s lips was that same question. What do we do now?

It all felt so very unlikely, so impossible to imagine a future in which our president would be him. If this were an eighteen hundred’s melodrama then in the 5th act a messenger would come riding in with a letter stating that a previously unknown wealthy relative had died and suddenly there would be enough money to save the family farm, happily ever after. But I hate melodramas, and he is our President elect. It seems unlikely that there is a last minute reprieve coming.

There isn’t much more about the situation I can say that hasn’t already been said by people smarter and more qualified than I am, so instead I’ll leave you with the words of my friend Steve Cannon, writer, poet, activist, and hell of a cool guy. Steve is 81 years old and has been without his eyesight since 1989. Once, I asked him what it was like to lose his vision so late in life. He replied that he was pretty bummed out…for about a month. But then he realized that he was hardly the first person to lose his vision, and that if everyone else managed to get by, then he certainly could.

Suffice to say, for an old blind guy Steve has seen some shit.

I called him the day after the election, and true to form, he was ready with these words of encouragement.

“Stay focused. This is not the time to roll over and die. Now we get to fight twice as hard.”

Back in class the following Tuesday we hardly talked about the events that had transpired. It didn’t seem worth it; all of the complaining in the world wasn’t going to change anything. The world might have felt like it ended, but here we were, all of us gathered in the same place, doing the same thing that we do every Tuesday afternoon. Geraldine and Migina wrapped up their run through of a scene from Annie Baker’s new play “John” and, when finished, Geraldine turned to Cay.

“This is the hardest damn thing I’ve ever done in this class,” she complained.

Cay laughed and replied, “That’s what you said about the Shaw. Why is this scene in the play?”

“We talked about that…” Migina answered. “We realized that this is the only scene without [my boyfriend] Elias. The scene for me is a breath of fresh air, and I think she’s realizing that she’s not boring, that someone is taking an interest in her.”

“And if this scene wasn’t in the play, what would happen?” Cay asked.

“Well, I wouldn’t break up with Elias.”

“Exactly. You give her strength that she didn’t expect. Even those who don’t appear to have it have strength. Which Elias doesn’t see, right?”

“Right” Migina agreed.

“He types them out. So if this scene wasn’t in the play, it would make it much harder to do what you need to do.”

Migina and Geraldine in Annie Baker's "John"

Migina and Geraldine in Annie Baker’s “John”

I recently came to a similar realization in my own life. Two weeks ago my live in girlfriend and I called it quits, marking the end second major relationship in my adult life.  Currently I am in the peaks and valleys phase, that awful land of highs and lows and lows and highs. A few things are getting me through this phase. Friends, family, and of course, art. A trip to the Guggenheim for an Agnes Martin retrospective left me floating for a full day. The Kerry James Marshall exhibition “Mastery” provided me a sense of much needed perspective in a time of both personal and national strife. I recently found a study that said reading fiction makes you a more empathetic person. The next day I went out and bought “Best Short Stories of 2016” edited by Junot Diaz and devoured it over the course of a week or so.

Back in class, Cay asked Geraldine what she felt her character got from the scene.

“Companionship…someone taking an interest” Geraldine replied.

“Right,” said Cay before putting her focus on Migina again. “You know how there are some people who you only spend a short amount of time with, peripherally, who for whatever reason make you feel valued? You can drop the social mask and be yourself.”

“It’s a breath of fresh air.”

“Exactly. And often it’s the people who you suspect the least. You just get dropped off here, I don’t think it was a pleasant drop off. And you expect to go upstairs but instead you stay down here and you get curious. And that curiosity is such a powerfully human thing.”

Curiosity.

Artists come from all walks of life, but the common denominator seems to be that everyone who has ever taken up the cause is curious. If there is a through line that can be drawn from the Greeks to the Guggenheim, I think it would be done using a pen made of the stuff.

Annie Baker must have been curious when she wrote this play. Cay pointed out during this discussion that that what makes Baker is great playwright is that she frequently explores the characters that exist on the fringe of narrative. Geraldine’s character, an aging bed and breakfast owner operator living near Gettysburg, would in most plays be a peripheral character at best. In this scene though the character is integral to the plot, to the realization in Migina’s character that her relationship is over.

Maybe I am projecting my own experience onto the play, but it seems to me that Annie Baker is also interested in empathy as a theme. At a point in their talk Geraldine’s character tells a story about having run into an old coworker at the grocery store. The coworker was a doctor in a hospital where her character worked as an assistant during a low point in her life, mostly scrubbing out bedpans. The doctor had always been cold to her, but when she saw him in the grocery story he asked how she had been since leaving the job. Geraldine’s character gets to tell him that she is happily married and running a bed and breakfast with her husband.

“That,” she says “was a very nice moment in my life.”

Cay asked Geraldine why her character feels the need to tell that story.

“Well, it’s my way of saying my life got better, and yours will too” she replied.

Art has value, whether people want to acknowledge it or not. I felt that deeply during the last class, a class that I didn’t want to come to the day after moving my things out of another New York City apartment and trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces of my life yet again. But Steve’s advice echoed my head, and Agnes Martin building a career despite a life long battle with schizophrenia reminded me that people have gotten through more difficult experiences than the ones that I’m dealing with, and class has always been a way for me to get in touch with those two most human things, curiosity and empathy. So I got up and I got showered and I made my way over to the studio because like Steve says, now is not the time to roll over and die. Stay focused.

 

 

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