Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Life Is Food

Vessel, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40"

Ever have a day when things connected? When the events unfolded gently, not with a lot of fanfare, but they nonetheless felt inevitable? Not life-changing events mind you, just quiet events that affirm being alive. Sunday was that kind of day for me. It was a glorious autumn morning. I was driving down Old Pecos Trail, under the big, achingly blue New Mexico sky. Yellow chamisa lined the sides of the road, interrupted here and there by purple wildflowers, whose names I don't know. The shaggy contours of the junipers, loaded with berries, looked about to burst with their own joy. I was listening to NPR.

The theme of the program was death, or more accurately, that border between life and death, the territory that is the closest we who are living can get to death without actually dying. One man told a story of jumping off a bridge. He had methodically decided that his death would be best for all. He had analyzed how his death would affect each person in his life and was convinced that they would be better off were he to take that last step into thin air, plunging into the water, and the death just beneath that water, below the bridge. So that's what he did. He took the plunge.

Only thing was the very moment he saw his hands leave the rail, he realized his was a huge mistake, he knew he loved life with all of his heart, he wanted desperately to reverse his action, to be standing on the bridge again, walking back into life and the people there, all the unfinished business, the sloppiness of it all. He hoped, probably more deeply than he had ever hoped, for a miracle. He wanted to survive.

That was his lucky day. A member of the Coast Guard had witnessed the jump and they were there in minutes, pulling him into their boat.

Other stories followed. The story of a neuroscientist who put a comatose patient into an MRI tube and instructed her to imagine she was playing tennis. The areas of the cortex that would light up when a person was playing an aggressive tennis game, or even imagining such a game, lit up brilliantly! Someone was in there, someone in love with life, as limited as that life appeared to those of us out here. There was an imagination at work. Then there was the story of the woman who was not comatose at all. She walked around. She spoke. She could play a game of tennis if she wanted to. A real game of tennis. Only she really believed she was dead. She could sit on chairs and touch tennis balls, but they seemed not real. They seemed illusory. It was decided she too was in there, but she had no sense of self out there. Unlike the comatose woman, she had no emotions to link with her thoughts. She had no purpose. I believe she was devoid of imagination and dreaming. She was among the Undead.

Later that evening in Albuquerque my family saw two vampire plays by Mac Wellman. In Dracula, a contemporary interpretation of Bram Stoker's tale, the director chose to "split" some of the characters--they were played by two actors. When a character would speak or perform an action, another actor, a kind of doppelganger, would repeat the words, and the action, but slightly differently, more softly, with less emphasis. I realized that we the audience were witnessing the in here and the out there selves. We were seeing our own divisions, our own apartness from life, our own Undeadness.

During the intermission we were asked to take our personal belongings and leave the theater, to have a cup of tea in the courtyard. When we returned to the performance space, we were to see the second play, Swoop, sandwiched between the two acts of Dracula. All of our chairs had been turned in the opposite direction for Swoop. Whereas in the first act of Dracula, the back row of chairs was highest up, and the front row, where I'd been sitting, was on a level with the actors, now the front row was highest up, facing a stage curtain several feet above. I eagerly went to the top level and sat down in the center chair. The curtain opened and I found myself staring directly up into the eyes of a vampire, who was looking back down at me. Perhaps that was a stage direction to the actor--look right down into the eyes of whoever is sitting in the front-and-center chair. That would be me! I loved it!

There were four actors in Swoop. All were characters from Dracula, including one character's split selves, who had moved through time and space to hover in the air seven miles above present-day Manhattan. They delivered powerful, far-reaching monologues on the absurdity and beauty of existence, what one referred to as "the blur." Their words swooped down at us, fast and furious. As Bennie remarked later, it was really challenging to follow the ideas and the images, which blurred together like gazpacho ingredients thrown into a blender. We were nonetheless compelled to drink in all that we could. We were hungry for the blood of it all.

As one vampire said, "It is a need to prey (and yes, I delighted in first hearing "prey" as "pray"), that so incessantly needles...needles some to madness, awful woes and bellowing, and some other, happy few, notably me, to my sustaining updraft, my hilarity. I look down through veil upon veil of wispy vapor and behold a city of food."

Yes, it's all about the food. Life is a feast, although not always what we'd hoped for. Sometimes it helps to have our chairs turned in an opposite direction, so that we look briefly, for one dark moment, into the eyes of he who would take our precious life, our blood, our food, from us. To know that the chair we sit on is real, that we have the choice to climb down from the drama, wrap a scarf around our vulnerable necks, and simply drive to a diner. For a bite. It's good to know the ones we hold dear are waiting in the wings for us, with a cup of tea, a bit of conversation over shared food, maybe even a lifeboat.