Let’s Be Us

a detail from my painting, May You Be

a detail from my painting, May You Be

[continued from Put Down The Hammer]

It is night and I am sitting alone in the sanctuary. I’ve been setting up chairs for a performance and now that the job is complete I’m taking a moment to savor the silence and review this day.

The temperatures have been unseasonably warm and when I opened the back door this morning for Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog I was greeted by the sound of birds singing. It was an April sound in the middle of December. I was so taken by the sound that I called Kerri, “Come and listen to this!” We stood in the doorway for many minutes. It was beautiful as well as a little disconcerting. “El Niño or global warming?” I asked.

Arnie wrote a comment to my last post. He asked: Can it be that we don’t want the ‘we’ in our society – we aren’t comfortable with the ‘we’ and only feel our identity by living out the “us and them”? I am an idealist but, of course, he is right. David Berreby wrote a terrific book called, Us and Them. We are hardwired to perceive the world through a lens of Us and Them. It’s a survival imperative to distinguish between friend and foe. However, a point that is most salient to me: the delineation of Us is mutable. It is not a fixed state but largely circumstantial. That is especially true in this modern age. There is an out of fashion phrase used to describe these United States: a melting pot. There could not be a better metaphor for an ever fluid definition of US. We need not melt but we do need to acknowledge that we are in the same pot. “Give us your tired, your hungry, your poor,…” is central to our national identity (not always central to our national rhetoric) and is a sacred, central statement of an ever-changing US.

We are among the first humans in history to have the pleasure of seeing our planet Earth from space and, as it has been said, from space there are no visible borders. The definition of US depends upon how far out we pull the camera. From space WE are the human race. There are a bevy of alien invasion movies that carry a common theme: when attacked WE inhabitants of Earth will pull together. Or, said another way, until there is a THEM that invades from another planet, WE will be incapable of recognizing full inclusion in the Earth pot.

To Arnie’s point, there is a lot of responsibility that comes with WE. A few months ago, Kerri and I were in Chicago for the day and passed a homeless man, holding a filthy cardboard sign asking for help. He was young, in his early 20’s, and more filthy than his sign. He was suffering. We walked by him. On the train home we had a long conversation about our responsibility to that young man or to any member of our community that is suffering. Many years ago I was with a student group in Bali. We were invited to Udayana University and one member of our group gave a talk about homelessness in America. Our Balinese hosts were shocked. “How could a member of your community be without a home?” they asked. The concept was abhorrent to them, unthinkable. “You are the wealthiest people on Earth…,” they stammered. Later, a Balinese professor said to me, “When you came here today, we wanted to be like you Americans. As you leave, we are proud to be Balinese.”

Us. Them. We. Like me. Not like me. Me. Little words with far-reaching impact. I am not the same person I was only a few years ago. I find it infinitely hopeful – especially now – that, just like me, the delineation of US is mutable, ever changing. It begs the question, Who are WE? And, to another of Arnie’s points, the answer to the question depends upon where we decide to place our focus.

Be We.

a detail of And Now.

a detail of And Now.

“We need to create this together,” I said. We were discussing a project, a collaboration. 20 whipped out his phone and began searching frantically for something.

“What are you doing?” I laughed.

“Ah,” he said, “Here it is.” He smiled and read to me a definition of the word, ‘we.’ “You and I,” he read, “I and another.” He chuckled, adding, “Oh, I’m not sure I like that word.”

We. It’s a little big word.

At dinner the other night, Brad asked, “Now that you are married does your relationship feel any different?” Kerri and I both smiled. Yes. There is something bigger than ‘you and me.’ It’s hard to explain the change except to say that there is now a ‘we,’ a relationship that takes precedence over any single individual concern.

I was married many years ago and now know why things didn’t work out. We’d established our relationship on the sandy foundation of a bargain: I’ll help you if you help me. Bargains like that do not sound so bad until trouble comes. Bargains are predicated on what you get from the relationship. Marriages, I’ve learned, are built upon what you bring to the relationship. In a bargain there is no ‘we.’

Yesterday Skip and I talked about art (among many other things). It’s been my experience that art happens in the ‘WE’ space. Actors have to bring their gifts in service to the play. In fact, they cannot fulfill their gifts unless they are in service to something bigger than themselves. A self-serving actor essentially locks the audience out of the play; WE is not possible when an actor is oriented to what he or she can get from the experience. Magic happens when an actor is oriented according to what they bring to the experience. It’s the tragic misconception of art in these United States: art is not about self-expression; art, when properly understood, is the creation of WE.

another detail of And Now

another detail of And Now

A few weeks ago we watched a movie, Always, and this line (not a direct quote) jumped out and smacked me on the head: to gain your freedom you first must give it away. Gifts are not fulfilled unless they are given. People are not fulfilled until they give themselves to WE.

[to be continued]

Change They to We

photo-2

the next step in my painting, The Weeping Man. He’s nearly complete

The word that’s captured my recent attention is the word “they.” I’m captivated by language choices that might at first seem insignificant but, once unpacked, are profound. “They” is one of those words.

“They” caught my attention when 20 was making us dinner. His recipe included fennel and, until we googled it, we thought anise and fennel were the same thing. While we Googled for truth, Kerri asked, “Why would they name something twice?”

“Good question!” I replied and then asked, “Who are ‘they?'”

“Good question!” she echoed as the Google oracle brought us clarity about our fennel/anise confusion (as it turns out they are two different plants). Google was not very useful in clarifying who “they” were.

So, this week I listened for samples. Some of what I heard: “Why would they do that?” (a conversation about women in another culture). “They don’t care about us.” (what else, politics). “Don’t you think they cause their own problems?” (referring to a situation in a local minority community).

“They” can be a word of distancing, a word of exclusion. If you want to mess with the meaning, simply change the pronoun. For instance: why would we do that? We don’t we care about us. Don’t you thing we cause our own problems? “We” is inclusive. “We” makes us participants. “We” makes us culpable.

a detail of Weeping Man.

a detail of Weeping Man.

What if, in our current state of mis-education for instance, we stopped asking about our policy makers, “What are they doing?” And, instead, asked, “What are we doing?” What kind of action or meaningful discussion might ensue if we simply refused to use the word “they?” What if, as artists, we stopped asking, “Why don’t they get it?” and instead asked, “What don’t we get?” Artists do not create in a vacuum. Our expression might be individual and unique but without a community to receive, debate, appreciate, revile and otherwise engage it, has little purpose. After all, “they” are “we” if our language will allow us to see it.

the previous photo/stage I posted

the previous photo/stage I posted