Performed at the Soundtrack Series at the Long Center, January 31, February 1, 2014
I would like to take this time to apologize to a woman who served briefly as my therapist in 2008, the one who accused me of being in a spiritual crisis. Melissa? You were right. I was wrong.
My very independent mother had been moved back to Austin and was being placed into a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s disease. She’d been deteriorating for years and no longer could drive, cook or no be safe on her own. She was angry and overwhelming. I was angry and overwhelmed.
The therapist was a very nice woman and we got on well for a few sessions until she told me that I was having the aforementioned crisis of a spiritual nature. I didn’t react well to this news.
You should know all this first:
My father, a composer and conductor from a long line of artists, musicians, performers and writers, died in 1978 in South Carolina, a sudden sudden change in our life. My mother bereft, depressed, and desperate, moved to be with her sister in Athens Georgia to provide a physically (if not emotionally) safe place for me to grow up. I came of age in that small arty town filled with magnolia trees, a strange combination of preppie clothes, tail-gates and musicians in thrift store clothes.
My mother loved classical music, and hated nearly all of the bands I’d listen to, but she enjoyed REM, in part for their lyrical voices, their beautiful minor keys, but in greater part probably because she worked with Michael Stipe’s parents and felt fond of the fellows. She had married a musician after all. She knew what they were up against.
I did my best to survive while growing up with a grieving mother who was hard to connect with, and REM provided a soundtrack for my life from 8th grade onward until I went to college at UGA. I played REM certainly, since my mother wouldn’t complain and I Believe especially, with its inscrutable lyrics that I would puzzle over like a seeker at the Oracle of Delphi.
I graduated with a BFA and I left Athens as much to find my fortune as due to too many memories, every road, every house, showed the patterns of grief, which layered on from my mother, our escape here after my father died, the town was just too hard to live in.
I ran, feeling this intangible mysterious pull to Seattle.
My mother drove with me all the way across the country, a 5 day ultimate awkward mother daughter road trip. We talked little but listened to I Believe playing over and over on a squeaky cassette tape as we crossed the plains into Colorado. Proud mountains arched ahead, wide flat skies behind my Toyota truck, me both terrified trusting in the call to leave home for the unknown.
Sometimes, in the car, I held her hand, like a child.
My mother helped me unpacked my things and she cried uncharacteristically as she went to the airport to fly home. I can’t imagine how hard that actually must have been, to leave her only child in a faraway land but she knew it was time. I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t cry back, though I tried.
I didn’t listen to I Believe for very very long time. We visited infrequently.
Seattle was new and I dove into its strangeness. I moved from sweet southern folksy pop for Nirvanic grunge, discordant and loud. It was then and there I moved fully from childhood religion to the church of theater.
I’d gone to lots of churches as a child. As a child I was baptized Presbyterian and remember weeping at the radical idea of another human being sacrificing himself in such a painful way for love of us. My relationship to spirit had long been fraught.
As I aged, I explored reincarnation with my mother (who was seriously into Shirley MacLaine at the time so it bonded us), witchcraft and crystal mysteries, all of which were supported in that small arts town, and even my liberal Episcopalian youth group.
But, Seattle brought me perspectives on the politics of organized religion, the power mongering and media manipulation of the rising evangelical Right. I developed a big city agnostic attitude, along with my martinis, Doc Martans, social justice work, and producing theater year after year.
I rejected edicts from on high claiming why someone should or shouldn’t be able to marry, or what I should and shouldn’t do with my uterus. I felt that modern Christianity was marketing ploy, a consumer item, responsible for all kinds of bad public policy and used as a bludgeon to hurt people.
Religion was rejected by rote, even after moving to Austin and having family, children with questions of their own.
Plus, everything was fine, with my lovely kids, and lovely family, and exciting and adventurous friends, and job that had to do with giving and connecting and the social justice volunteering and the joys of improvisation, and the awaking of sexual exploration and writing, a kind of magic of its own.
Until my mother became ill.
Alzheimer’s is an ugly disease, robbing the bearer of their dignity. It’s ugly for the family as well. She and I had been at arms length over the past 10 years, and I didn’t handle her return gracefully.
I was unmoored. Resistant. Afraid of her and of the memories of my father’s death, our strained mother daughter relationship, come home to roost. As she became more and more ill, I was doing more and more theater, more and more activism specifically around sexuality, sex instead of death perhaps. I was totally over my head.
My mother was in the worst stage, waking up in a fog, agitated and violent at times, extremely afraid. And because of her confusion, and me being the only caretaker, she was blaming me for all of it, all while I tried to manage a job, young children, marriage, my life. So when I went to visit this therapist, I was looking for were pragmatic tools to help get through the hard patch.
At this point in therapy, Melissa looked at me and told me I was in a spiritual crisis.
I told her I wasn’t.
She did the same thing the next week and I got even more agitated. I reacted strongly to the idea of God in anything having to do with me, my mother, her disease, you name it. “Let’s move away from this topic.”
Two sessions later, she brought it up again. I quit with a few choice words. I stewed and sputtered for weeks about it. Thing is? She was right.
I spent those years ignoring the signs that I was myself carrying-I was at once seeking for solace in the midst of despair. I placed all my action into social justice, in heart in mothering and then counseling students, my faith in producing and holding space for performers, I was doing the work of the family business.
Finally, in 2012, it happened.
During a trip to North Texas for a special concert celebrating my father’s music, I sat listening to the profoundly spiritual strains of his work. In that great hall, I felt his depth and devotion to god and to making the world better. He was as progressive of a democrat as they come, a Christian and he meant it, what Christianity meant for real. I thought about his family, their history, mine.
Right then, in that concert hall, I counted off one by one the long line of relatives and realized they weren’t just artists but ministers, missionaries, choir directors, pastoral counselors, vestry, elders, and deacons. My mind was blown.
I thought my own path, about the people, writers, performers and audience at the show I co-produce, BedPosts (which more than one person has called a kind of church) and had an epiphany! It was right there in front of me. The family business wasn’t art! It was RELIGION. I’d been doing it all along!!! All I could say was, OH FUCK as silently as possible as I sat there in the concert hall, freaking out.
Back in Austin, I listened to Life’s Rich Pageant again, listened to “I Believe” and like a bell, there it was in the lyrics, clear and sweet and plain.
I believed. In what? Coyotes? My calling? What did that even mean in a world where my life was taking care of someone dying in dribs and drabs, someone losing parts of themselves over a 10 year slow moving brain melting crisis with nothing to be done but witness it.
While it wasn’t a Road to Damascus moment, I sat with this new awareness for months.
Not long after, pneumonia grasped my mother. I sat with her for 5 days as she slipped away, the ultimate awkward mother daughter road trip. I held her hands as she faded, slowly, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to go, how hard it must have been to be trapped, but we knew it was time.. I packed her belongings and I’m not ashamed to say that this time, I didn’t have to try to cry.
So yes Melissa, I was having a spiritual crisis. And I went ahead and stayed in the desert a long time, cause I don’t like being told about my business and sometimes I need that realization to sidle up to me and just sit next to me for a time before I can look it in the face. Which always turns out to be looking back at my own face, yes? Me, waiting for me to catch up. Hi there.
I still don’t like organized religion. I still think that human systems are only as healthy as the humans in them which means the humans leading them have to do their own work first.
I believe in the connection between all living things, and that theater is a way of embodying energy that is transformative. I believe in the holy work of listening and bearing witness to each other’s stories as we strive for justice.
I believe, is the thing. If not in “god” then in the clues woven into complicated 80’s lyrics like a benediction waiting to be discovered. In a joyous hymn of coyotes, rattlesnakes, and trusting the call, in a wild force of love.
I definitely believe in that.