A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Close

Many years ago, while reading Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography, I came across this arresting line: Never go to the theatre with your head full of what you don’t like. Words Redgrave attributed to her father, actor Michael Redgrave. I was reminded of this wise counsel recently while perusing the program notes for A.I.M by Kyle Abraham’s dance performance at Jacob’s Pillow. Abraham’s troupe is noted for blending a wide range of dance styles in its repertoire, an approach that has made the company “one of the most consistently excellent troupes working today” (The New York Times).

But A.I.M’s notable achievement might never have come about. In an interview with LifeandTimes.com, Abraham recalled going to see the Joffrey Ballet at age 16. He did not go to see the ballet as a form—Abraham was a club dancer then—but to see some dances within the company’s piece Billboards because they were performed to a song cycle by pop superstar Prince. Yet that night, as they say, changed Kyle Abraham’s life. What he witnessed on that stage inspired him to step outside the narrow confines of his own experience in dance, to begin exploring and creating what he now calls his “postmodern gumbo…a hybrid of movement sensibilities inspired by a lot of postmodern, modern, contemporary, and ballet forms and even some social-dance vernaculars as well.”

But what if Abraham had gone to Billboards convinced there was nothing of value in ballet itself? If he had closed his mind, his sensibilities to everything but the Prince song cycle? How much in life do we miss because we “go to the theatre” with our minds made up? Or engage in discussions to talk but not to listen? Or simply close our eyes to what is inconvenient to see or disturbing to consider? And why do we do this? I mean, what risk is there in exploring a subject further or considering other takes on a topic?  It commits us to nothing. And it just might open up our life as it did Kyle Abraham’s.

If You’re Right, Then I’m Wrong

We tend to fear challenges to our beliefs. Psychology even has a name for this inclination: belief perseverance. Picture an Inquisition dude at Galileo’s trial in the 1630s—hands over ears, vigorously shaking his head—“No,no,no! The Earth does NOT revolve around the Sun. God’s greatest creation is the center of the universe!” Or Earl Landgrebe, GOP congressman from Indiana, famously defending Nixon in August 1974—just days after the Watergate tapes came to light. “Don’t confuse me with the facts,” Landgrebe said. “I’ve got a closed mind.”

Unsplash: Obie Fernandez

Belief perseverance (also referred to as “conceptual conservatism”) prompts us to actively reject any and all information that contradicts or outright proves our convictions false or flimsy. And if we step back for a moment, it’s easy to understand why this not-infrequently annoying trait is so powerful. After all, our beliefs can feel like the glue that holds us together as we try to make sense of a constantly changing, complex world.

But that doesn’t alter the danger refusing to reconsider our beliefs can pose to ourselves and others (think of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the movement to “Stop the Steal!” when there was no steal). Even in far less fraught circumstances, it’s still a losing strategy. A diminution of self. A blind eye that puts us at the mercy of anyone with a desire to pull the wool over it for their own ends.   

At some level, we all recognize this. I mean, what adult still believes in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus? Growth is the result of challenges to our assumptions. It’s evidenced by a viewpoint that expands far beyond the narrow focus of early home life to encompass a panoramic vista of the human condition and the world in all its contradictions.

If we’re lucky, those challenges just keep on coming. If we’re wise, we embrace them. Allow them to enrich our understanding and, thus, our experiences throughout our lifetime.

Identity Crisis

Unsplash: Caroline Veronez

We also fear losing our identity—how we see ourselves and wish to be seen by others. So we tend to seek out and embrace anything and anyone who affirms our picture of ourselves and the world around us. Psychologists call this confirmation bias.  As a concept, it’s the photo-negative of belief perseverance. In everyday speak, it’s called wishful thinking. It’s like the child who, wanting to go to the picnic her parents caution may be rained out, desperately searches a gray sky for signs of sunshine.

When I was 12, I wrote passionate poems about the evils of science. A child of my times, as we all are, I could only see science as the atomic bombs that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the Agent Orange that defoliated Vietnam—part of the “herbicidal warfare” waged there by the U.S., sickening and killing the Vietnamese and our soldiers in the process. As the napalm bombs that left huge areas of unquenchable fire in their wake. I loved the Byrd’s song “5D (Fifth Dimension)” with its line: And I saw the great blunder my teachers had made, scientific delirium madness.

I still love that song for its embrace of a loving universe, but I have learned a lot since then. Allowed a lot of facts in. Realized that my take on science in 1967 contained some truth, but ignored many, many other truths. Because along with weapons of mass destruction, science has created life-saving medicines and technologies—where would we be today without the COVID vaccines? Science created deadly herbicides like glyphosate, but science is also working to prevent further bio-diversity erosion and the poisoning of our earth, air and water. A team at MIT recently developed a portable desalination unit that removes particles and salts from ocean water to render it safe for drinking. The machine weighs just 22 pounds and requires less power to run than a cell phone charger. It can even be driven by a portable solar pane. Science has been destruction. It has also, and more often, been life and hope.

Unsplash: Nathan Dumlao

Asking questions, listening to others, testing their ideas—and yours—teaches you virtually everything is far more complex than it first appears. When I was young, I had clear-cut solutions to all of society’s many problems. Well, I’m still in the same fights I was then—the struggle for racial equality, for the rights of women and LGBTQ+ persons, for preserving the earth and all its creatures (great and small), for universal healthcare and high-quality public education. Yes, I’m still in those fights, but now I understand the solutions are more complicated than I first thought. And the questions not infrequently outnumber the answers. This can feel overwhelming at times but, as every good scientist knows, it’s the questions that drive the most significant, the most enduring solutions. Anyone can act, but to act intelligently—that’s a different, and far better, course.

I’ve Got It All Together (Not)

Admitting to ourselves and others that we don’t “have it all together”—that we harbor uncertainties, have gaps in our knowledge, or are totally clueless about the issue at hand—can make us feel very vulnerable. “I’ve got it all together” is the mantra of our age. Social media has made it possible for people to “package” their lives for public consumption: See me. I’m in my beautiful home, surrounded by my perfect family (the kids all spectacularly successful), dining at elegant places and traveling the world without a care. It’s a dream life!  

In most instances, I’m willing to bet, the only solid truth in that carefully-scripted presentation is the dream part. Which is ironic because a truly secure person can admit to screw-ups and uncertainty. A truly secure person knows that no one “has it all together.” A truly secure person is open to new ideas and different takes.      

Like a self-described club dancer who goes to the ballet to see how they’re dancing to Prince and comes away profoundly changed.

Kyle Abraham could have gone to Billboards with a head full of what he didn’t like. He could have refused to be influenced by anything else, fearing it would weaken his identity as a club dancer. But instead, he opened his mind to the possibilities. And that opening up made him a stronger dancer, a magnificent choreographer, one able to draw from the rich diversity of dance the world offers.

Everyone can learn from others. Even my cats, Tibby and Coosh, understood this. One of their favorite treats was butter wrappers, especially on a warmish day when a rich layer of the good stuff stuck to the wax paper. But butter wrappers can be a real challenge, as Coosh discovered. With every lick, the wrapper slid along the tiled floor, making it hard for him to get a satisfying mouthful. His brother Tibby, however, quickly developed a strategy—place one paw on the wrapper to keep it from sliding. A couple of wrappers later, I noticed Coosh had adopted Tibby’s technique.

Cooshy didn’t defend his (unsatisfying) practice. He didn’t feel it made him “less of a cat” to copy his brother. He simply grasped that Tibby’s method resulted in MORE of the good stuff. You’d have to be stupid not to adopt it.

How sad it would be if we encountered every new experience, every new idea or piece of information with our mind already made up. If we never expanded our understanding or outlook. Never grew beyond the Tooth Fairy. Because growth is life.     

NOTES FROM THE ROAD: LONDON, PART 2

As you know if you read last month’s post, Ed and I spent all of May in the home of my heart, London—a city I have visited some twenty-odd times since doing a semester there in my student days. London always stirs my senses, my thoughts, my emotions. On this trip, I kept a loose collection of notes during our rambles about the city (you should have seen the mess that was my purse by the end of the trip—ticket stubs, programs, even Sainsbury’s receipts, all inked with impressions I wanted to share with you). More, I confess, than could comfortably fit into a single post, so once more and with feeling I give you “Notes From the Road: London, Part 2.”

Sunday on the Heath

Hampstead Heath on a sunny Sunday—it’s magical. We start by going down the High Street through Hampstead itself to where the heath really gets going [Note to any urbanites out there: a heath is open, uncultivated land, with lots of heather, gorse and coarse grasses], stopping along the way at The Hill Garden—a tumble of green lawn, dense gardens, and a lily pond. Rising above this idyll is my favorite spot in the universe, The Pergola. Built by Lord Leverhulme (of Lever Brothers, think soap), and later donated to the city, the Pergola is a long L-shaped elevated walkway with pillars that support a latticework “roof” covered in roses, wisteria, and a host of flowering vines. It’s a popular spot for wedding and fashion photographers. But most of the time, it’s a sanctuary of silence and beauty.         

From The Hill Garden, we wander over the heath—wooded and densely green in May—down to Golder’s Hill Park. It’s a great lifestyle, this wandering from park to park. If only I had the dosh to do it year-round! Anyway, Golder’s Hill Park is a huge family-friendly space with a croquet lawn, a café and ice cream stand, tennis courts, gardens and fountains. It also features a small zoo, home to a dozen deer, several rare donkeys, ring-tailed lemurs, coatis, and a variety of birds—Eurasian eagle owls, white-naped cranes, and kookaburras among them.

The birds are kept in the kind of large cages—about 25 feet in height and twice that in length—that allow them to fly, but not far. Or high. While watching the speckled pigeons, I noted this fact the park had posted:

A speckled pigeon’s lifespan is 3-5 years in the wild and 30 years in captivity.

That’s quite a striking difference and, on the surface, a real boon to the birds. They’re fed daily. They face no predators. And their lifespan is extended by a factor of 6 to 10. But… their flight is severely restricted. They never soar.

As I watched the birds—pecking at seeds, preening, shifting from one roost to another—it struck me this is the trade-off we’re always facing: freedom versus safety. Not just on a physical level, as these birds are, but emotionally, mentally, psychologically. Freedom versus safety. The one with its risks, but also its joys. The other with its certainty, but also its sameness, its predictability, its confinement. Of course, we’d all like to have both, but when push has come to shove in my life, I’ve always chosen freedom. And that, as the poet Robert Frost said, has made all the difference.

Off-the-Cuff #1

Anecdote from our guide during a fascinating tour of the old tunnels on London’s Underground (the Tube): Hundreds of thousands of Brits sheltered overnight in the Tube tunnels during the Blitz in World War II. So full were the platforms that some even slept on the escalators. These folks received quite the wake-up call when the stairs beneath them buzzed into life each day at the station’s opening. 

National Archives Catalog: WWII

On a more somber note, at various loos in pubs across London, I still encountered a few of the old pull-chain toilets. The ones where there’s a water tank overhead and you pull down on the chain to flush. It took me back to my student days in the late ‘70s when these were the rule rather than the exception. In the streets back then, one could still see evidence of WWII, especially along the Thames (a nightly target during The Blitz). The skeletons of bombed out buildings. Piles of rubble in vacant lots. It takes a long time to recover from a war, to restore a city, a country. To move beyond the death, the destruction, the dislocation. I think about this when I see the before-and-after film footage of cities in Ukraine. Such a sad, stupid waste. Of everything. Maybe the madmen who start these nightmares should be strapped into rockets and launched on a one-way trip to deep space. Bye-ee! 

Imagining a New World

The Tate Modern is housed in what used to be the Battersea Power Station on the south bank of the Thames. It is a ginormous building—over 85,000 square feet of display space with vast halls and lofty ceilings—the perfect showcase for the best of contemporary art. Happily, our visit coincided with the Tate’s “Surrealism Beyond Borders” exhibit. Big fans of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst, among others, we’d eagerly ordered tix in advance.

The show’s scope far exceeded the usual focus on Parisian and Spanish artists to highlight a half-century of surrealist works across the globe, from Buenos Aires to Cairo, Mexico City to Prague, Lisbon to Seoul. Works designed, their creators stressed, to “subvert reality. To find the uncanny in the everyday. To tap into our unconscious desires and bring dreams to life… a way to challenge authority and imagine a new world.” And so they did. In gut-punching color and vigorous lines, the paintings and sculpture made bold statements on the struggles of women and indigenous peoples, the inhuman pace of modern life, androgyny, war, and religion.  

Ed and I spent a lively three hours, crisscrossing the twelve rooms of the exhibit to share perceptions, reactions, “must-sees”. But it was a quote, displayed on the wall, by British-born, Mexican artist Leonora Carrington that blew me away: To possess a telescope without its other essential half—the microscope—seems to me a symbol of the darkest incomprehension. The task for the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope.

A timeless truth yet speaking so eloquently—and imperatively—to the hour we find ourselves in now.

Off-the-Cuff #2

From a display at the Imperial War Museum of casings made for the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, killing 70,000 people, this note by historian Ian Kikuchi: From the moment the first bomb was dropped, there was no going back. Even now,70 years on, who has the bomb and who does not continues to shape our world. 

Over the Millennia…   

About 5,000 years ago, people on the Salisbury Plain in the southeast of England started building this enormous thing we call Stonehenge, a circular enclosure more than 330 feet in diameter which is believed to have served as both a ceremonial site and a place of burial honoring the ancestors. It was also aligned on the Sun and possibly used for working out when to plant crops. We were lucky enough to be in London while the British Museum was running an in-depth special exhibit on this wonder of the ancient world which continues to fascinate anthropologists and archaeologists around the globe.  

Monuments of stone arranged in a circle or an ellipse were common enough. The British Isles and Brittany were dotted with them. Israel had one of the oldest, begun some 3,000 years before Stonehenge, but Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world. It took about 1,500 years and countless generations to construct. Your father built Stonehenge—dragging 25-ton slabs of sandstone overland, using sledges and ropes (the wheel had not yet made it to England)—as his father had done, and his father before him. As you would do, and your son. And his. It… was …s-l-o-w. It was also a communal undertaking—everyone pitched in.  

So, what happened? Why did structures like Stonehenge cease to be built over the centuries? To make a long story very short, people started clearing the land and farming. At first, it appears they did this communally, but hierarchies developed as the quest for metals—copper, bronze, gold—and the luxury items that could be made from them—items that conferred status to the owner—made their way into trade with the outside world. As humanity became more global, people became more territorial (sound familiar?). Working for the community became working for one’s family, accumulating both property and private wealth. 

On the day I came back to the flat after seeing the Stonehenge exhibit, I was greeted by this headline on the daily paper: Shell Oil reports over £7 billion (more than $9 billion) profit in first 3 months.

“Progress”—it’s a funny thing. A bloody thing. An inevitable thing. But I can’t help feeling that somewhere along the way we might have made better choices.

Off-the-Cuff #3

Unsplash: Marcel Heil

Soho sits in the heart of London. Just south of Oxford Street, north of Chinatown, and right off the Charing Cross Road. In the “Swinging ‘60s”, its Carnaby Street was the destination for the young and fashionably hip. Soho is also the lively hub of the city’s LGBTQ+ community and has been since the 1600s when sodomy was a hanging offense.   

[A bit of history here: Henry VIII, that notorious beheader of wives, created the first anti-gay laws in England (The Buggery Act of 1533), and like the fate of his women, the penalty was death. This was changed to imprisonment in the 1800s—with a side of hard labor as Oscar Wilde discovered—and finally de-criminalized in 1967. Five years later, the UK Gay Liberation Front organized its first Pride march—an annual event to this day—and same-sex marriage was legalized in 2014.)

Yes, Soho is alive with the pulse of the LGBTQ community, but everyone goes there. Gay, straight, trans, black, brown, white, the young, the not-so-young—all crowd the streets of this vibrant area lined with clubs, pubs, restaurants, and sex shops with names like Agent Provocateur and Harmony. Mary Poppins, the stage musical, is playing at the Prince Edward Theatre.

Unsplash: Kelsey Chance

Ed and I have rented Airbnb flats in Soho several times, and one of our favorite eateries in London, Balans, is here. Balans serves excellent food and is open until 5 a.m., a real plus to those of us who like to dine after the theatre. It is also one of the most welcoming places in the universe. We ate there several times on this trip, and during our second visit, Ed tapped my arm. “Look around.” I put my fabulous scallop dish on hold for a moment and did a visual 360 of the room. Every table was packed with people laughing, talking. “No one’s on their phone,” Ed said. It was like spotting a Golden Pheasant, so rare and wonderful was the sight. A sight that’s still possible when people stop putting each other into categories—inferior, superior—and just start hanging out together. As Sly and the Family Stone sang: “I am no better and neither are you. We’re all the same, whatever we do … Different strokes for different folks, and so on and so on and scooby-dooby-dooby. We got to live together.” That’s Soho.   

Bargaining with the Devil

Among the fourteen evenings we spent at the theatre, for me the most arresting was a drama titled “The End of the Night.” The play, based on a historical event, chronicles the wee hours of April 21, 1945, as three men meet at the home of Dr. Felix Kersten. Besides Kersten, there is Norbert Masur, the Swedish delegate for the World Jewish Congress… and Heinrich Himmler, commander of the S.S. and the chief architect of the Holocaust. In terms of power, he was second only to Hitler.

The times are fraught with danger for the German High Command. World War II is winding down. The Allies are advancing. Any day now, they will discover the concentration camps.    Hitler has made it clear he wants all surviving prisoners to be murdered before they can be freed. Himmler has no trouble with Hitler’s wishes, but he has begun to think about saving his own skin, about holding off a final annihilation in order to bargain with the Allies. This is why Kersten had invited Himmler to his home this night. To make a deal. A much bigger deal than any he has previously been able to wrangle from Himmler.

Felix Kersten is Himmler’s therapeutic masseur. He came to Germany in the days of the Weimer Republic. Fabled for his talented hands, he soon became the masseur to Berlin’s wealthy class. His success bought him a big house in the city’s wealthy quarter and a German Aryan wife. Then came Hitler and, with him, Himmler, who suffers from torturing stomach pains. He wanted Kersten to be his personal masseur and doctor. At first, this was a request, then a command: Serve me or be sent to the camps.

As Kersten listened to Himmler’s horrific details of Nazi atrocities, he began to see a way he might yet make some good come from his situation. Instead of taking money from Himmler for his services, he would trade each massage for a life, sometimes two. In this way, he was able to win freedom for some of those Hitler deemed unfit to live. The hope Kersten harbors in the early dark of April 21 is, with Masur’s presence, to save thousands of Jews before the final slaughter.

Both men have to endure several hours of Himmler’s anti-Semitic rants, lies, and pompous self-vindication, but at “the end of the night” Hitler’s right-hand man signs an agreement to release several thousand Jewish prisoners to Masur who will transfer them safely to Sweden.

The play lasts a mere 80 minutes, a full hour shy of the running time of most productions, but it posed a powerhouse of troubling, thought-provoking moral questions: Should Kersten have fled his cushy life in Berlin when Hitler rose to power? Should he have declined to be Himmler’s personal masseur even though this would have meant a one-way ticket to the death camps? Do the ends ever justify the means?

Norbert Masur’s host did not flinch before Hitler’s henchman, in fact was gracious—which was uncomfortable to watch—but his method got things done. It’s a historical fact that Kersten saved a number of Hitler’s victims—Jews, homosexuals, political opponents of the Nazis. As the play is constructed, Masur is our “in” to the human dynamics of this meeting. Clearly uneasy with the monster that is Himmler, he nevertheless must, and does, place his trust in Kersten.   

A Last Glimpse

Riding London’s Underground, one is confronted by a host of posters—what’s on in theatres and the cinemas, ads for products and shops, service notices about healthcare, safety. Travel come-ons. My favorite was a large bright notice pasted on the tunnel wall across from the platform at Tottenham Court Road (and likely in numerous other stations). A rainbow of hands is marked with the words: WE STAND TOGETHER AGAINST HATE. To the right of this, the copy runs:

London stands together against hate directed at someone on our transport network because of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity. If you experience or witness a hate crime, report it to a member of staff or by texting [number]. In case of an emergency call 999. 

#TogetherAgainstHate

London: I can’t wait to go back there.

Notes From The Road: London

As I mentioned up top in last month’s post, Ed and I spent May in London. A place I haven’t seen since the fall of 2019. A city that has been the home of my heart for the many decades since I first landed there, a student studying Shakespeare and contemporary British drama at the University of London for a semester. Some 250 years ago, Dr. Samuel Johnson nailed it with these words: When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. Let me assure you, I ain’t tired of life!

One of the great perks of being a writer is your time is your own. One of the snags is that you’re never really “off duty.” So, to bring you something fresh while reveling in every moment of my beloved city, I jotted down notes as Ed and I visited galleries and museums, watched plays and listened to concerts, strolled the city’s many parks and tipped back pints in pubs. What follows are moments/impressions/reflections: Notes from the road.

The Kindness of Strangers

On our way to Russell Square Park—an idyllic space to read, daydream, and watch the local children chase pigeons (don’t worry, the pigeons are way ahead)—we walked up Montague Place, a quiet street that skirts the back entrance to the British Museum. A lovely tree-lined street, whose trees on that early May morning were sending up clouds of pollen. I quickly donned the cloth facemask I’ve carried everywhere since The Plague hit, but too late. By the time I reached the top of the road where the park begins, I literally could not get my breath. WATER was the only thing on my brain. That and not collapsing in the middle of the crosswalk.

Then I saw my salvation, right inside the park gates—an ice cream van!   I don’t know if you can asphyxiate from pollen [turns out you can, but it’s exceedingly rare], but I wasn’t about to put it to the test. I rushed over. “Water!” I choked out between spasms of coughing. The woman helming the van immediately tossed me a bottle of H2O. “No charge,” she said.    

Honestly, I’m not sure what I’d have done if she hadn’t been there. The café on the other side of the park was too far. I would have collapsed before I reached it. After that, I made sure I was well-masked on tree-lined streets and armed at all times with a bottle of water. But the ice cream vendor’s kindness stayed with me. London is a city where I have often experienced kindness from strangers. I believe there may be a connection here between the kindness of individuals to one another and the way their society models (or doesn’t) inclusivity—this city, this nation, this world belongs to all of us.

Eid-in-the-Square Brings a City Together

london.gov.uk

I was reminded of that last thought on our first Saturday in London as we made our way down to Trafalgar Square to check out “Eid in the Square,” a city-sponsored festival to celebrate Eid-al-fitr, the end of Ramadan (the Islamic holy month of fasting). Ed and I had watched the prep crew set up dozens of food stalls the day before in anticipation of hordes of hungry people. They weren’t disappointed. Thousands of Londoners thronged the surrounding streets and packed the square to chow down on kebabs, tagine, baklava, and much else while enjoying musical acts such as the Baha Yetkin Sufi Ensemble—a band whose playlist ranges from Ottoman “standards” to songs by pop diva Sezen Aksu—performed on a large stage erected for the event.

We stopped to chat with a man working the festival—he was available to answer questions about Islamic texts or tenets—and had a lovely conversation about the need for tolerance, inclusiveness, and harmony in the world. 

Googling “Eid-in-the-Square” back at our rented flat, I discovered that this was its 17th year. The festival was developed by the Mayor of London “in partnership with London-based arts, culture and grass roots Muslim organisations … to bring communities, families and friends together to enjoy the celebrations.” One member of the community advisory group, Azmat Suleman, tagged himself as “events and engagement manager with a passion for interfaith and intercultural events.” Well, “Eid in the Square” certainly restored my faith in humankind’s ability to get along, to share in each other’s holidays, to come together to celebrate and enjoy good food, lively music, a beautiful Saturday.

Off-the-Cuff #1

After perusing book titles at the Waterstone’s on Tottenham Court Road for our end-of-trip book spree (we’d already done the same at the Trafalgar Square Waterstone’s the day of “Eid in the Square”), we took a lunch break in the shop’s small but tasty café. The tables were nestled among shelves of psychology, history and science books. Glancing from left to right, I was amused to see a fair selection of books on happiness—how to be happy, how to be happy again, how to be happy no matter what’s happening—and just two shelves over, The Sixth Extinction. Ah, the alpha and omega of modern life.    

Paying Homage

Whenever I’m in London, I make a trek to the British Library up on Euston Road. It’s a magnificent building—one of the largest libraries in the world with close to 200 million items on 388 miles of shelves—and its Treasures of the British Librarycollection contains a copy of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies—commonly known as The First Folio—which I pay homage to on every visit.

The modern theatre was born with Shakespeare’s generation of playwrights and actors (I could write a dissertation on this, but will spare you) when spelling was not yet standardized and the need to preserve works from the stage, even great ones, not so keenly felt if at all. As successful as Shakespeare was in his day, only about half of his plays appeared in print during his lifetime.  Without his theatre pals, fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, who compiled The First Folio after his death, we might never have known Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, and many other of The Bard’s works. By comparison, of all Christopher Marlowe’s plays, only Tamburlaine, Edward II, and Dido, Queen of Carthage survive in texts that “can be relied on as adequately representing the author’s manuscript.” So, I stare at Shakespeare’s portrait on The First Folio’s opening page and marvel at the role chance plays in fate.     

Too Little, Too Late: A Tragic Tale of Greed and Indifference

But rare books and documents are not the only thing happening at the British Library. They regularly feature thought-provoking exhibits. On this trip, it was “Breaking the News.” From the Great Fire of London to #BlackLivesMatter, the exhibit encouraged us to explore five centuries of UK news through broadsheets, blogs and objects from our own collection with the aim of challenging and changing the way we think about news.        

The stories on display chronicled heroes, villains, and celebrities. Some were funny, some tragic, and some reveled in deception—disinformation wasn’t born yesterday. But the one that sticks with me is the coverage of the deadly blaze that destroyed Grenfell Tower, a public housing high-rise, in June 2017, “the worst UK residential fire since WWII.” The fire raged for some 60 hours, while 250 firefighters and 100 ambulance crew members battled and braved the inferno to save the lives of the nearly 300 residents. In the end, 72 tenants died.

There was nothing particularly shocking or “new” about the tragedy itself. Safety concerns had been raised repeatedly but largely ignored. Corners were cut on the fixes that did occur. Excuses were made. Blame was shifted. To wit, a year before the blaze, an independent assessor had highlighted 40 serious fire concerns, only half of which were addressed, and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority had served Grenfell Tower with a fire deficiency notice the tower’s management group must act on—but didn’t exactly. A major refurbishment in 2016 only added to the problem: exterior rain-screen cladding was laid over new insulation boards—a common means of preventing exterior damage to buildings—but in Grenfell’s case, both the insulation and the cladding were made from highly combustible materials. The cheaper option, of course. When a faulty fridge-freezer started a fire on the fourth floor, the flames shot out of the kitchen window and set the cladding on fire. From there, the inferno blazed out of control, engulfing most of the building.

In the years since, as investigations have proceeded, politicians have lamented the tragedy—“should never have occurred”, “forever in our memory.” Kensington and Chelsea TMO (a tenant management organization)—the largest entity of its kind in England—has had its contract terminated by the local borough council. Another tragedy for the history books.     

What resonated with me most were the stories of tenants refusing to talk to the press in the immediate aftermath.  Where were you when we needed to make our voices heard? they cried. We blogged about these safety concerns and demanded someone fix the situation, but you weren’t interested! WHERE WERE YOU THEN?!  It’s a damn good question.

Off-the-Cuff #2

The friendliness of people everywhere. They smile and speak to each other (and us) in pubs, in theatres, in the parks. Yesterday, for example, I was watching an egret who was avidly focused on something just beneath the water’s surface at Regent’s Park. Two women, also noticing the bird, joined me and the three of us tried to figure out exactly where—and what—the prey was. A nice moment. A good thing—sharing it with others.

Sanctuary

Kew Gardens, a short tube ride from Central London, bills itself as the most biodiverse place on Earth. Its mission statement is at once both succinct and hugely important: Plants and fungi are vital to the future of food, clean air and medicine. We’re fighting against biodiversity loss to save life on Earth. Its Wakehurst wild botanic garden in the southeast of England houses the Millennium Seed Bank, the world’s largest seed conservation project, with an underground collection of more than 2.4 billion seeds from around the globe which scientists are conserving for the future.

But as significant as these missions are, Kew is much more. It’s 300 acres of sanctuary—a place of healing and reflection. Of sky and earth, of trees and gardens. Its five-acre lake is home to a variety of aquatic birds. We always spend a day there, and it is always hard to leave.

As I sat on a bench, surrounded by trees many generations older than myself, I laid down the book I was reading, and just… breathed. Just breathed and let all the fear and uncertainty of our troubling times flow from me and dissipate beneath the green awning of the trees above. I watched a dozen downy goslings follow their mothers to the lake’s edge and launch themselves into its clear, calm waters. After a time, on the back of yesterday’s theatre ticket, I wrote: The brilliant works of humankind—the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”, Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. These things feed my soul. At Kew, the wilds of nature nurture me—I can lose myself in its still, calm, green. BOTH art and nature give rest and re-energize.

A Different Sanctuary

St. Martin-in-the-Fields, on the edge of Trafalgar Square, has always struck me as more of a social center than a church. A religion of community. It offers lunchtime and evening concerts in the nave of the church. It runs a cozy café downstairs, appropriately named “Café in the Crypt.” It hosts art exhibitions curated by charitable orgs. Built sometime before the 13th century, it offered London’s first free lending library and during WWI, its vicar provided refuge for soldiers on their way to France. It has been called “the church of the ever open door.” As Ed and I sat in the nave, enjoying an evening of concertos by Bach, Vivaldi, and Mozart, I picked up one of the donations envelopes dotting the pews. It read: “No matter who. No matter what. We’re here to provide opportunity, sanctuary and support for everyone. We are St, Martin’s and this is what we do.” 

I can only add to that: Amen.

Be Kinder Than Is Necessary

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” (Winston Churchill)

[NOTE: Off to my beloved London, as I mentioned in April, for the first time since 2019. So I’m leaving you with an “oldie.” I hope you will find it a “goodie.” It’s message, I believe, is even more urgent now than it was when I penned it over three years ago. Until we meet here again in July, enjoy the summer. Tank tops and flipflops forever!]

I was driving along in August—98 degrees in the shade, rush-hour traffic inching forward, some Cars tune on the local oldies station—when I noticed a bumper sticker on the Honda to my left: Be kinder than is necessary. Something lifted in my heart. A breeze penetrated the mug. At the next opportunity, I pulled over to the side of the road and jotted down those words on the back of a grocery receipt. Be kinder than is necessary.

To say we live in divisive times is like saying arsenic will kill you. Duh. And there are real issues we must confront attached to these divisions—racism, immigration, misogyny, healthcare, the environment, democracy itself—but that’s in the aggregate. On a molecular level, each of us deals with the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker—our neighbors and fellow community members. Not cardboard demographic representations. Not a frenzied TheRUMP rally mob screaming “Lock her up!” Or a deluge of polls dividing us 60/40, 40/60, 50/50. But real people with real faces. If we want to build a better world, this is an excellent place to start.

Wax and Wane

Texas Highway Department

Homo sapiens are a quirky little species. We are both caring and cantankerous. Principled and sheeplike. Social and self-absorbed. Among our many tendencies is the kindness we demonstrate in moments of major crisis—natural disasters, wars:

Houston resident Jack Schuhmacher rescued numerous people trapped by the rising flood waters of Hurricane Harvey, ferrying them to safety in his 17-foot fishing boat.

William Rodriguez, a maintenance worker in the World Trade Center, was in the basement of the North Tower when the planes hit on 9/11. Realizing he had keys to all the building’s emergency exits, Rodriquez led firefighters up the stairs, unlocking all the doors as they climbed so the people inside could escape. The building could have collapsed at any moment, but Rodriquez kept going. His bravery saved hundreds of lives on that terrible day.

International Auschwitz Komitee

Hermine “Miep” Gies, her husband, and three other Dutch citizens risked their lives for more than two years to hide Anne Frank’s family and four other Jews from the Nazis. It was Miep who grabbed Anne’s diary in the mayhem of the arrests, keeping it safe until Anne’s father returned from Auschwitz in 1945.

Sadly, the sense that we’re all in this together tends to go dormant once a crisis wanes. People return to insular mode, making a living and looking after their own turf. Petty concerns predominate and rancorous rivalries erupt. Twitter wars ensue. But the reality remains: We ARE all in this together every day. If anything ultimately dooms us, it will be our failure to recognize the truth of this.

Beyond Necessity

Be kinder than is necessary. But, what is “necessary kindness”? Is it merely good manners—holding the door for someone carrying a child or packages, thanking someone who does the same for us? Is it mouthing the expected platitudes in certain situations? I was so sorry to hear that your father died/ I hope you’ll find another job soon/ Wishing you a speedy recovery. Perhaps the word necessary here serves as a synonym for the minimum response required to not be thought rude or heartless. We are busy, busy people after all, and it’s just not possible to extend ourselves to all the need out there.

Until it’s us. Our sorrow. Our disaster. Our need.

Fortunately, being kinder than is necessary rarely involves the sort of mortal risk Miep took in hiding the Frank family. Sometimes it’s just—literally—going that extra mile.

In my student days, while doing a semester at the University of London, several of us decided to go to Paris for a long weekend via the Hovercraft from Ramsgate to Calais. Taking the train to Ramsgate was easy, but we had no idea where the docks were once we debarked. This was in the days before GPS and Smartphones. You got around mainly by asking the locals “Which way?”

The woman we asked for directions in Ramsgate could have reeled off a list of street names and left/right turns, as most people do. But she didn’t. Instead, she offered to walk us to the ferry landing, despite the fact that she was on her way home after a day of work, despite the fact that the docks were in the opposite direction of where she was heading. “It’s only a mile or so,” she said cheerfully, and off we went. I have never forgotten her.

A Simple Gesture Can Mean A Lot

Sometimes that extra shot of kindness is as simple as picking up your phone.

The summer I got into my VW Bug and moved to Boston, I had just written my first novel. I had an IBM Selectric III, but nothing in the way of connections to editors or publishers. About a month after my arrival, I went for a haircut. During the usual salon banter, the hairdresser, Donna, asked what I did for a living. I explained I was the editor of a business publication for retailers, but what I really loved was writing fiction. Then I told her about my novel.

Now, she could have said that’s nice or I wish you luck or how exciting. But instead she said, “My cousin is an editor at Addison-Wesley. They don’t publish fiction but she might know someone working at another house. I’ll give her a call if you like.” I liked and she made the call right then. Her cousin invited me to have lunch with her in Reading (then-headquarters of A-W), at the end of which she called her old college friend, an assistant editor at Random House. My manuscript went out in the mail the next day.

I received a lovely, enthusiastic note about the book from this woman. And though a senior editor later decided not to go with the manuscript, I was really grateful to my hairdresser, her cousin, and the RH assistant editor. It was my first experience wading into the often muddy waters of publishing, and their kind support kept me going.  

Kindness is also about compassion—bending the rules when people need help.

After a health emergency put the kibosh on a trip to London and Sicily—just days before we were scheduled to leave—I was faced with cancelling a slew of theatre tickets or losing a lot of $$$. Our Air B&B reservations and flights were refunded because we had trip insurance for those, but theatre tix always come with the disclaimer that all sales are final, no refunds. I wrote the various box offices anyway, briefly explaining our situation and asking if anything could be done. All but one of the twelve theatres refunded our money, and many wrote words of sympathy, expressing hope that Ed would be better soon. I was deeply moved by their kind notes and willingness to respond in a human way to a human situation.

Paying It Forward: The Ripple Effect

And sometimes kindness with a capital K simply comes down to paying it forward.

Jerry took his first trip to America when he was just 23. Sent by his London employer to represent their firm at a meeting in New York City, he was cabbing to what he desperately hoped was the correct address. Upon sharing his anxiety with the cabbie, he was stunned to hear the man say, “Don’t worry. I’ll wait out front for you while you check it out.”   

Jerry couldn’t believe it. After everything he’d heard about the stereotypical New Yorker—self-absorbed, indifferent—he was blown away by this man’s kindness. “I promised myself right then that I would always seek ways to do something nice for Americans visiting the UK.” 

He told me this story as I was dining out with two friends in a cozy restaurant off London’s Baker Street. Jerry was a regular—knew the owner, the kitchen staff, loved to mix American-style cocktails for the diners. Overhearing us chatting, he came to our table to ask what part of the States we were from, a conversation that lasted well into the evening. And then he offered to take us to Pinewood Studios and show us around. He worked for Lloyd’s of London in their film insurance wing, and was scheduled to for a meeting at Pinewood in the morning.   

We were excited—Pinewood Studios is a legend in British filmmaking. Fiddler on the Roof. The Man Who Would Be King. All of the Bond films. Jerry picked us up from our dorm in Regents Park the next morning and drove us to the studio where we enjoyed a tour of all the major sets and lunch with Pinewood’s director.

Show A Little Faith

When I finally managed to make it through the drive-time traffic last August, I googled Be kinder than is necessary. The full quote, variously attributed, is Be kinder than is necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

One of the bummer side-effects of our deeply-divided society is the suspicion and uncertainty it breeds among everyone. Rather than nodding and smiling at people we pass, we are now sizing them up at twenty paces—seeking clues from their clothing, hair, make of car, accent, job, vocabulary—and making snap assessments. The anger out there becomes anger everywhere.

Is this making us happier? Is this solving our deepest, most pressing problems?

Categorizing comes easily to our species, but people as individuals are a lot more complicated than that. Yes, we have a swamp of BIG pressing issues and we need to fight for a more humane, just, sustainable world, but if we can’t show a little faith in each other, can’t open our hearts and stand by one another, what hope do we have?

Kindness—it may be a ripple that expands across the globe. That extra effort. That extra step. The opening of our generous hearts. Because we ARE all in this together. Every day.  

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and… Tomorrow

After we’ve had dinner, watched the news, perhaps caught an episode of Mrs. Maisel or Midsomer Murders, Ed and I often read short stories to each other from one of our many anthologies. Several months ago, we shared an extraordinary piece by Willa Cather.

The Story

 “A Wagner Matinee” tells the story of a woman in her early-to-mid 50s. An educated woman who had traveled to Paris and taught music at the Boston Conservatory in her youth. A woman who has spent the past 30 years living in a “grim wooden fortress” (as the narrator, her nephew Clark, puts it) in the wilds of the Nebraska frontier with her “shiftless” husband who she met on a summer trip to the Green Mountains when they were both quite young. After the wedding, he’d whisked her off to the prairie and she hasn’t been further than 50 miles from their farm in the three decades since, until the death of a relative requires her presence in Boston for a few days.

Clark is shocked by his aunt’s weather-beaten appearance when she steps down from the train, her “semi-somnambulant” state. For reasons Cather doesn’t go into, Clark spent a portion of his boyhood on her Nebraska farm helping his uncle ride herd. He recalls his aunt working from dawn to midnight, cooking for her husband and six children, ironing and mending their clothes, while she listened to him recite his Latin declensions and conjugations. She introduced him to the joys of her former life—Shakespeare and Greek mythology—and taught him scales and exercises on the little parlor piano her husband had bought her after fifteen years of marriage, a span of time “during which she had not so much as seen a musical instrument.” My aunt, he says, was the source of “most of the good that ever came my way in boyhood.” But Clark recalls a darker moment, too, a warning his aunt gave as he was struggling to play a complicated piece: “Don’t love it so well,” she cautioned, “or it may be taken from you.”  

Clark has planned a surprise for his aunt—a Wagner program performed by the Boston Symphony—but he now fears she’s too timid to venture out. Her thoughts seem completely consumed by the fear that she’s forgotten to leave instructions about the feeding of a weakling calf or the freshly-opened mackerel in the cellar that will spoil if not quickly used.

As they enter the concert venue, his aunt appears subdued, but when she clutches his sleeve during the Tannhauser overture, he realizes that this music has “broken a silence of 30 years.” And at the “seething turmoil of strings and winds” in the prelude to Tristan and Isolde, he notices her fingers moving, recalling perhaps the piano score she had played long ago. He reflects on the tragic waste of this once lively woman’s life until, suddenly, he hears a gasp as the Prize Song begins and finds his aunt has tears streaming down her cheeks. “It never really died then,” he realizes—”the soul which can suffer so excruciatingly…so interminably, it withers to the outward eye only.”

As the concert ends and the audience leaves, she cries out “I don’t want to go! I don’t want to go!”, and Clark recalls that for her, just beyond the concert hall is a future of “the tall, unpainted house, the cattle-tracked bluffs”, the turkeys picking up refuse outside the kitchen door.

What It Has to Say to Us

Reading Cather’s story, I was reminded of one of the most profound observations I’ve ever encountered, a quote from author Annie Dillard:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

For Clark’s aunt, the days of a talented musician, a lover of literature and the arts, have been entirely consumed by menial house and farm chores in a life she shares with a man she doesn’t love in a place devoid of everything that had once sustained her soul, everything she truly cherishes. It doesn’t get much grimmer than that.

And yet, how often do we allow the tedium of things we don’t really care about to smother what truly ignites our passions? We promise ourselves we’ll get back on track, back to (fill in the blank with what matters most to you, the things that bring your life joy and give it meaning) once the kids are more independent/things slow down at work/the house is in order/we’re earning more money/we’ve ended an unfulfilling relationship. In view of the Cather story, I’ll call this state of limbo “life in Nebraska” (apologies to any Nebraskans reading this; it’s just a metaphor). Samuel Beckett called it Waiting for Godot. If you don’t know the play, let me give you a hint: Godot never arrives.

In the past two years and counting, for many—maybe most—of us, life has too often felt like it was on hold while we waited for “normalcy” to return. Waited for the life we really wanted to live/meant to live/would enjoy living to resume or at least begin. And while we waited, we filled our anxious days binge-watching the endless stream of series on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime. We posted on Facebook and tweeted on Twitter. This, we could console ourselves, was at least better than getting lost in opioids or drowning in alcohol. Or putting a gun to our head and pulling the trigger. But, really, it was just another version of “living in Nebraska.”        

And if we somehow dredged up the energy to do/enjoy what matters most to us, we often found our plans sidetracked, our energy subsumed by untangling the mess the pandemic made of most every interaction with the outside world. Hours spent straightening out health insurance claims, searching for available vaccine appointments, cancelling reservations, making reservations, getting a driver’s license, registering to vote, enrolling in almost anything from college to Medicare. Nothing drains energy so quickly as feeling thwarted at every turn. Like Clark’s aunt, lost to the more robust life we’d once enjoyed, we hunkered down and waited for a better day. Tomorrow, we promised ourselves, tomorrow I will get back on track.

But like Godot, tomorrow never comes. It is always today, always NOW. This is our life. And it’s going by whether we grab it and live it or not. Energy isn’t really about the time we have—we’ve had long stretches of time since the pandemic first hit. It’s about the use we make of those hours and days. Energy breeds energy. Use it or lose it.

I’m not writing of this from some lofty perch. Throughout the pandemic, as the pace of global warming quickened and the threats to democracy here and around the globe increased, I daily talked myself down from the ledge and pushed ceaselessly to get words down on paper. But limbo is a strange place to write from. To live from. Everything was tinged with anxiety, and fighting that anxiety consumed enormous energy. I usually rip through a first draft—just write, write, write. Revision is for improving, polishing, and you can’t revise what you haven’t written. Underneath all this—the biggest stress, I realized—was the sense of my life going, going, and what was I doing with it? In early April, the birthday fairy dropped another one on me and I decided I must simply plow ahead. Just do what I love because I love it. No second-guessing. No worries about the outcome.

So, if any of this sounds familiar to you, I say it’s time we make a pact to get the hell out of “Nebraska” and resume or start the life we mean to be living. Get off the couch, turn off the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter notifications, and as Nike advised: Just do it! So that, at the end of each day, we have the sense we have lived that day. If we can manage that, then according to Dillard’s wise observation, we will spend our lives living.