Tag Archive: reality

  1. We Were Always Wanderers

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    “What was it that called me: madness or reality?”

    — Clarice Lispector

    I do not think I am too young to have regrets; to worry that my heart is so violent and desperate that it cannot be loved; to have felt emotions of such terrifying grandeur that I am left raving and wild upon the New Haven Green, daring God to exist. If I am old enough to be committed to a psychiatric hospital against my will; to be told “having you at school would be unsafe for the community,” then I am old enough to look back upon my twenty years and wonder: Why do I want to live? And the butterfly — as it drifts among the flowers?  So easily crushed and yet she dares to be delicate.  To live and be delicate.  Oh what madness drives the earth to give birth to itself (the mangoes full of sweet juice; the grasses lush; the peonies, fragrant as grand dames at the opera), what madness drives it, each spring, to be born? Only to die? The dying earth is my nightmare and my nightly worry. Don’t you see that reality is so delicate? Don’t you see that flowers die because we stop believing in them? I watch the leaves fall from the trees and wring my hands. Spring is a season of weeping because the perfume of the flowers barely exists. I know that it will soon be gone and I may not grasp it. But because it barely exists it leads me into a reality that is all the more intense for being delicate. All is refined; all is fragile. This reality is my immaculate and secret life. It cannot be touched except with eyes closed and breathing gently. I try to save it; to save it I believe in it all the more. But every year and in despair I discover again: Spring was a dream after all.

    Yet some mornings I look at myself in the mirror and think: to be this beautiful I cannot die. Ah but I am beautiful because I will die. (That is what I discover, dreaming of last spring’s flowers.) But I do not want this beauty. Take it from me. I pray to God: Take it from me. But God (who is a voice I created in the garden), God says: Look again at the flowers. So like a nun I bow my head and silently accept this stricture. I watch the flowers and speak to them and listen to the perfumes they pass between each other for this is their language.

    If I am old enough to die (as did the eighteen-year-old boy who crashed his car into a tree my sister’s senior year of high school), then is it not true that all the myriad emotions which play in my heart (as I delight in the unfolding of colors at dawn, as I walk worrying from class to class, as I read “Mrs. Dalloway” in the desert) demand my reverence? So when I see a six-year-old crying I do not think: If she only knew how much harder life will get. Because I remember when I was six and Michael coerced me into getting naked in front of him, into taking a shower with him, because I had to learn “not to be modest.” I remember the shame I felt when I told my mother, and the vague fear I felt when I saw his picture on Facebook last night. (For he was looking at me.) At what point did that fear begin to merit your attention? And take on value? Become tragic? Worthy of a narrative? Was it at six? Or twelve? Or twenty? Or will it not become so until I’m forty?

    (And I do not think this fear is any more significant than my fear of touching doorknobs. For I struggle against the doorknob daily and think of Michael only every so often. At what point do you stop telling me, “Ah, but you are young! Give it a few years”? The doorknob stands before me and I tremble. You would not laugh if I told you that Michael had forced me to nakedness (I wasn’t even comfortable using a urinal for fear of being seen); why laugh when I tell you I cannot touch a doorknob? or when I stutter? Every conversation terrifies me (what if I am boring? or make you angry? what if you no longer want to be my friend?). For when I speak, my crown tumbles from my forehead. My majesty is lost. Only in silence do I remain enthroned. Only in the garden.)

    (What matters is not what it is, but how I’ve felt it. But here we are understanding only “what makes sense”.)

    I refuse to accept that what I felt at three is any less tragic, any less magnificent than what I feel at twenty. (Or that what I feel now is any less than what you feel at thirty, or forty, or, for God’s sake, twenty four.) Innocence is a state created after the fact. It is created nostalgically. For we cannot bear the idea that we have always suffered; that children, too, suffer. That all of human life is suffering. So we piece together from the dreamy sweet fragments of childhood a state of grace. But it was always piecemeal. Innocence is a false idyll. Children, too, are part of the grand tragedy.

    (Some have wondered if my gender identity is a phase. But don’t you know that the first piece of clothing I wanted to buy was a bikini? “A green bikini,” I thought. “Just for me.” Yet even then I knew it was forbidden. Even then, as a three-year-old child, I knew that my desire was a scandal. I yearned; I yearned. And how can you say my yearning then was foolish; immature; fleeting? When I remember it seventeen years later?)

    Delicate being that I am, the slightest disturbance along the filaments of those thoughts by which I remain tethered to life shakes me dreamless and dead. (I fall before the barbarous shock of a phrase; an unlovely reflection in the mirror; a passage I cannot decipher in a book. The smallest disagreement throws me into disarray; I cannot bear it; and I have stared at my reflection, rearranged my hair and rubbed my eyes, until the image it produced matched my inner vision of myself, which would suffer, pierced and bleeding, when I looked unlovely (for the crown would tumble; I would be a fool). And to read a book by an author whom I hold dear, and to come upon an incomprehensible passage, is as if I were denied a goodnight kiss by my own mother. Who am I, after all, if I cannot understand that which I love? But is it true that what we love most is most incomprehensible to us? For I cannot understand an orchid in a glass dome. Nor can I touch it; the glass denies me; the air of the orchid denies me; its majesty and detached beauty. I can only fall down in praise.) But I do not believe my emotions are more valuable than those of anyone else because I have a mental illness.

    Though sometimes I have wondered: am I ill or is my sensibility simply more finespun?  Do I feel more subtly the trembling of the earth?  (This delicacy is my coup de grâce — for though I suffer, at least I suffer aesthetically.)  As Clarice Lispector wrote, “Our best eye is at the same time more powerful and more delicate.  [But] does this only happen to our eyes?  Could it be that those who see things more clearly are also those who feel and suffer most?” But then I think of that boy who died at eighteen: If his emotions were not then as valuable as yours now, what was the worth of his life? We are only the trembling of emotion as it comes in contact with the world; with flowers; with trees; with the bodies we love. We exist only in that contact. Do not deny me that. For I have fought so long to fall in love with the world and confront every day the failure of that love. Reality is too delicate for me. I am rudderless, I am adrift. I am tired. There are only ever fragments of a revelation — nothing comes together. Someday I will fall out of love and it will end just like this: without an ending.

  2. Reality Through the Shadows

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    How real is a shadow, when it is so filled with emptiness? This question, and the theme of innocence, forms the running thread of Athol Fugard’s most recent play, “The Shadow of the Hummingbird.” As both writer and actor, the production at the Long Wharf Theatre signifies Fugard’s return to the stage following a 15-year absence.

    “The Shadow” centers on two characters: Oupa (Fugard) who is old and weighted with knowledge, and his grandson Boba (Aidan and Dermot McMillan) who is young and vibrant. Oupa and Boba are noticeably different: While Boba rushes to catch a glimpse of the bright hummingbird feeding outside the window, Oupa is satisfied looking only at its shadow, flitting across the wall. When Boba comes to visit Oupa for an afternoon, the two embark on a journey to examine the importance of knowledge and the cost of gaining it. It is a story about generations: How age separates two people and how their love can bring them back together.

    The play opens in Oupa’s living room, set in present day Southern California. The home has a cozy feel to it: bookshelves crammed with notebooks and journals, a worn couch near the center of the stage, a basket of fishing equipment in the corner. Oupa enters the stage looking for his glasses. “Spectacles, spectacular!” He announces. He is charming and eccentric, and as he finds his glasses he begins rifling around for a journal entry. His constant mutterings of the word “shadow” are the only clue we are given to what the entry might be.

    As Oupa searches through the piles of notebooks, he reads some of them aloud. These entries, which are taken from Fugard’s personal journals, range in their scope. Some are lighthearted, like descriptions of birds from his home in South Africa. Others are haunting; one entry recalls Oupa desperately opening windows to dispel the darkness within him.

    While Oupa reads, we are moved by his frailty: He drops his books, he has trouble getting up. At one point he barely makes it to the couch before he collapses in a heap. The set aptly exposes Oupa’s worn state: As he moves from the cluttered desk to the fraying couch, he seems to be aging and weakening. As props, the journals reflect his life; they are eclectic and worn, they are frayed on the edges and peeling at the seams. In the same way, the shadow entry reflects Oupa’s vulnerable condition, in which he questions what can truly be known about reality and reflects on the shadow of a tree limb on his bedroom wall. Oupa knows the shadow is nothing, yet from its movements he cannot help but feel that it is real.

    Boba breaks through the play’s darker mood, rushing onto the stage and yelling, “Oupa! Oupa!”. His grandfather responds by commanding him to “draw his sword,” and the two engage in an imaginary play-battle. But after the mirth subsides, we see hints of a tense relationship between Oupa and his son-in-law (Boba’s father), whom he unapologetically deems an idiot. But for Oupa, it is clear that Boba is the center of the world. The actors’ tender portrayal of the characters captures with sincerity the essence of a grandfather-grandson relationship. When Oupa rubs his arthritic hands, Boba immediately moves to massage them. When Boba’s eyes wander over the bookshelves, Oupa tells him the cookies are under the Bible without missing a beat. There is a synchronicity between the two actors that gives their dynamic an added depth.

    The relationship between the two also mirrors that of teacher and student. Oupa tries to teach Boba about knowledge, quoting Tolstoy and introducing the child to Plato. When Boba fails to understand the allegory of the cave, Oupa grows upset. Boba’s indifference to his teachings makes Oupa frustrated, and he tries harder still to drill into Boba the difference between reality and knowledge.

    At the end, the play returns to shadows. Oupa tells Boba that his only dream is to be able to look at shadows like he once did as a baby. He gazes at the shadow of the hummingbird because he wants to regain the innocence that would allow him to think catching a shadow is possible.

    The play concludes on a dim note, but there’s a bright kernel to be found. Despite Oupa’s learned nature, what he really wants is to look at the world like the young and naive Boba. The knowledge of the shadow’s transience doesn’t stop him from admiring its dance.