Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Lost in Fantasy: Wild and Reckless

There are times when we confuse our real world with fantasy. When this happens in a story, it’s utterly absorbing and rich.

The show, “Wild and Reckless” is comprised of Blitzen Trapper’s performance of ten songs, three from past albums, as the band tells a story written for Portland Center Stage. The result is a wonderful amalgamation of a rock concert, a musical, a fantastic alternative-universe Portland, and a tale of addiction and heartbreak. It is indeed, an absorbing and rich show, and a haunting musical performance.

It’s darkly thrilling in a visual and sensory way, riddled with a network of zapping lights, and infused with the roots rock music of Blitzen Trapper. There is a delightful comic-book aura that at times had me cackling with laughter—in sync with the cackling scientist of the show, wonderfully warped and nerdy, played by percussionist Brian Adrian Koch. But soon this delight gives way to deep pain, as we watch the narrator (guitarist Eric Early) grapple with fear and desperation in telling his story. It is the story of a young man entering the city seeking to establish his music career. But what he finds is the love of his life: a woman who becomes hooked on a deadly substance.
We learn about lightning dust, and lightning junkies, and get a lesson from the professor (Marty Marquis, keyboard player) on certain of these lightning dust addicts, who take the pain of others within themselves. “They are as rare as unicorns.”

And I’m thinking about all the ways we intermix our pain with fantasy, and confuse saving others with saving ourselves.

“I knew I had to do something to save her,” the narrator explains, when he sees his love growing sick and weak. He admires her for the way she, herself, puts herself out for others who are down and out. “For her it was so easy to give everything away.” (Laura Carbonell,  as the Girl, has a wistful sultriness that adds lovely female energy to the show.)
Yet neither our hero nor his girlfriend can make the distinction between self and others. She spends her time feeding her habit or stealing things to bring comfort to the downtrodden. He tosses his career aside and puts his integrity and entire world at risk to follow her as she falls deeper and deeper into addiction.

Street and club names are wonderfully recognizable as Portland, but in this fantasy world, elements don’t work normally. It’s not what you think. And it never will be.

In the same way, I reflect on the times I have tried to lose myself in another person, in this one’s problems, in that one’s life, in whether or not this one loves me. It’s all unreal.

That unreality sends us into the dark, sticky, web of playing the role of the rescuer, the lover, the obsessed. It’s easier to escape personal pain than face it solo. We escape through distractions, yes, and through drugs of all kinds—but also through “helping.”

Before long, we’re lost. “[Y]ou can’t go home,” the narrator concludes. “Is home a place? Is home a person?”

Those unanswered questions point to one place, one person, that deepest sense of home, one alternative universe it is so difficult to know and love: one’s very self.  
Photo credits: Kate Szrom

Monday, March 6, 2017

Through the Loneliness: His Eye is on the Sparrow

Sad, soulful eyes. That’s what I notice when Maiesha McQueen takes the stage in His Eye is on the Sparrow at Portland Center Stage. It’s mesmerizing, the way she embodies this character in every dimension, the way her eyes rove over the audience with depth and knowing – and it’s easy to be swept into the story of Ethel Waters’s life, so beautifully expressed in word and song. 

I have always been fascinating by tragic childhoods. As soon as I was old enough to know that my own home was not “normal,” I watched anyone closely who found happiness after early tragedy.

Ethel Waters’s 1896 birth was the outcome of a child’s rape. Her grandmother tried to provide for the destitute household in Whore’s Alley. “And me always hungry,” says Ethel.

The hunger, and the emotional hunger, were devastating. 

“Ethel I born you,” her mother responds when Ethel seeks a sliver of caring. “Ain’t that enough?” Her grandmother can barely stand on her feet at the end of each hardscrabble workday, and has no affection or support to express. I love the way McQueen makes us feel these characters, even though they never appear onstage.

Neglect, to a child, leaves a deep aching loneliness. It is a feeling that can haunt you the rest of your life, even when you’re surrounded by love. It surfaces at the strangest times: walking city streets in the sunshine, rounding an aisle in an antique store, holding out hands to receive a dozen roses. It refuses to be pushed away.

And so I understand when Ethel is brought to a Catholic school and left with the nuns, and her heart cries, “Alone.”

When Ethel gets into trouble, one of the nuns makes an astonishing invitation: “Eat lunch with me.”

Whenever one being offers presence to another, the chance for something miraculous happens. We learn that, despite what that old nagging feeling tells us, we are not alone. A door opens, and we become aware of other presence, Divine presence, an uncanny expression of our own being.

This presence unfolds us creatively, helps us discover all that which lies in the moment, including creativity, art, and music.

Every time Ethel sings, it is clear she has something incredible and rare.

And yet that loneliness resurfaces, time and again. By the time Ethel leaves the nuns, she has grown to love her school. “Only now me all alone,” she says.

The insidious thing about loneliness is that it can cause you to hold tight to the wrong people, for the wrong reasons. “Someone wants to marry you,” Ethel’s mother says, when a man shows interest. “Now you ain’t gotta be a whore.

All of this is made a thousand times harder and more complicated  because of racial mistreatment. When Ethel gets in a horrible accident, she is sent to the state poorhouse because “there are no hospitals for coloreds.”

Once again, a kind soul appears, someone giving the gift of attention. “Keep that light inside you honey, and find the way out of here,” the helper says.

Ethel’s persistence, her singing, her talent, her sense of humor, and her ability to seize every chance – they vault her from injury, injustice, pain, and poverty.

Yet loneliness dogs her steps. “Do I even know how to love?” she asks, well into adulthood and struggling in her marriage.

Oh man, if that question isn't familiar to me! 

And then she sings, and learns, and relearns to sing:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, 
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home, When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

She is singing herself back to the awareness of that Presence, back to the open door of love, despite all the locks and fears and bars that convince the mind of its utter aloneness. 

Seeing, with those sad and soulful eyes, that she is always seen. 

It is the work of every lonely human.