Self-conscious and sweating at table work, I’m not getting it. Jack is uneasy in his chair. I’m the lead of this lyrical adaptation of Calderón's Life is a Dream and I’m not impressing him. His directorial agita is my fault. I’m pushing. Nothing like watching yourself push as an actor; it’s a hellish double down. Even if a wave of presence leaves you aground, being “in the moment” as you rehearse invariably improves you. Right now I am neither in the moment or in the ball park. I am too busy judging myself to locate this room, much less my scene partner Korey or the words of the play leaving my mouth. Life is indeed a dream, a nightmare.
At the end of our third day rehearsing, there’s little enthusiasm. I’m staring at a jungle of work ahead with no clear path. At the Jane Goodall exhibit at the Natural History Museum last week, I read a journal entry she wrote early in her posting at Gombe in Western Tanzania. She admitted acute disappointment at not being able to approach the chimpanzees. She took to sitting at a look-out point with a scope, becoming a bird so as not to threaten. A bird’s eye view is what I needed in the early days of Sueño rehearsal but when you’re the lead of a play, there’s barely a side-line. Being the protagonist is immersive. It can blind you with ego and import. Waiting for the elevator, I am gripped by self-talk. Litigating my faults as an actor and a leader, Jack clears his throat (I will learn when I know him better that this is his prelude to saying something meaningful) behind me.
Turning to him, he looks at me for longer than is reassuring and says, Make sure your curiosity is bigger than your heartbreak. The elevator comes. He gets in it. I stand there until the doors close, quieted but exposed, then take the stairs. Art and process – at best - mirror how we’re living. I thought about Jack’s instruction endlessly during the pandemic; repeated it ad nauseam to the Studio actors. Days of irredeemable losses, death, uncertainty and isolation estranged curiosity. The only constant visitor was anxiety, curiosity’s bad uncle. Couldn’t get that fucking guy to leave; he overstayed an overstay of his welcome.
I’m grateful to the artists who got to curiosity quickly in quarantine, more so to the scientists, researchers, doctors and nurses who never surrendered theirs. But my personal pandemic arc – steeped in privilege – meant learning how to be curious about my heartbreak. Parker Palmer, an author, teacher and activist, writes about his depression in Let your Life Speak the way Jack cut a clearing for me in Sueño rehearsal all those years ago. Palmer describes years of ignoring and outrunning a shadowy presence behind him, then one day turning to ask it, What do you need from me? Oddly miraculous how acknowledgement, which only costs us our curiosity – and some kindness – is a way forward.
And how does one feel close to anything – or alive for that matter – without acknowledging heartbreak? Driving down Santa Monica Boulevard on Monday to teach and then on Wednesday for my OBGYN appointment, I see two naked people, first a woman, second a man. They are in extreme duress for circumstances I can’t assume; alive, shaking and naked as they came. I think about my powerlessness, I open to their obvious pain for as long as it takes for the light to change. I think, We are not doing well, this grave period is not over and we are hurtling towards greater pain if we keep clinging to our systems, ignoring ourselves, each other and the planet. For so many, life is a dream of us and of them, an assertion of prejudice, judgement and separation. If it’s the dream of difference that helps us sleep at night, what a prolonged nightmare we have in store.
When my son is born, he will be skin, eyes, blood, breath, bones, belly, a nervous system, limbs, hands and feet like the rest of us. With any luck, the first thing he will do is cry, announcing his fury, his joy, his confusion, his humanness to the world. According to the books I’ve read, given time on my chest immediately after he is born, he will begin what’s called a breast crawl– his first act of curiosity in which his need to thrive equals his need for soothing. A crawl feels right; low, primal, thirsty and alive. In this new now, may we curl into curiosity’s strong arms, acknowledging where we’ve been with good questions (Life, what do you need from me?), with ample heartbreak and with an innocent cry for more time and as much love as can be spared.