Return to the House

“Right now he’s in a phase where if you touch him, and he doesn’t want to be touched, he just says ‘ow.'” Lily explained, of her two-and-a-half-year-old child, PJ. To her brother, Wren, the name, short for Peter Joshua, recalled Prince John’s line in the Disney version of Robin Hood: “PJ! I like that, do you know I do? Put it on my luggage. P.J.” Lily had only just resisted giving PJ some middle name starting with B, mainly because of the family’s entreaties to spare the child of future mockery from peers, although Wren knew all too well that such prevention was impossible.

Wren’s allegiance was with Lily, evidenced, perhaps, by his progression and regression through a series of terms of enfearment for PJ, including “the ejected,” “the thing from her black womb,” “the small assassin.” After he was convicted by an episode of “Grace & Frankie” wherein Mallory told Brianna that if she didn’t want to spend time with her kids then she wouldn’t be spending time with her – he apologized to Lily over the phone. Amends should be done in person, of course, but Lily, her husband Shane and PJ lived on the west coast, and anyway, she responded with, “you don’t have to apologize. I like all your nicknames for him.” Currently the three were staying at Lily and Wren’s parents’ house in the country for a couple of weeks, but Wren lived in the city, so he dashed back and forth, staying at the former Friday through Monday, the latter Tuesday through Thursday, and feeling like James Bond in that scene from Goldfinger, where the laser is about to slice him in half. Wren was easily overwhelmed.

However it’s easy to be overwhelmed while you’re reading the New Testament. Wren and a group of his friends were going through it together, and the further he got, the more disturbing Jesus became, particularly the passage describing that “when an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.” Wren felt worse than the first. But no one was doing him any favors. Not the friend who sent an article declaring his Theology “puts kids on the street…tears families apart…[and] is a murderer.” And certainly not the friend who texted him the video.

It was a video of someone Wren didn’t recognize at first. A guy he had sporadically seen at parties for years, who was really outgoing or completely gay, and either way, adorable. Once, their interaction began to resemble flirting, so Wren said, “you’re trouble,” though in truth he was saying it to himself. In the video, everyone was on the porch, and since it was mid-Saturday on a holiday weekend in Wisconsin, they were almost definitely drinking. The friend was attempting to coach a kind of confession out of the guy, but he was resisting it with a goofy bashfulness that captivated Wren. There was an edit in the footage; the friend had stopped and started recording again. The guy seemed a little more prepared this time. With the chaste sincerity of a junior high boy, he said that he remembered Wren, liked him, would like to see him again. The video wasn’t long, but it was long enough to reach into the center of Wren, turning a knob slowly, opening something quietly.

He couldn’t watch the video again, he had to watch the video again, it seemed like The Ring, a curse that would end him; would reverse all the realizations, the repentance, the painful and tedious shuffling in the right direction he had done with his head down. It was a threat to celibacy, to recovery from approval, to a sane future. And it had come from a friend. Wren called his therapist, went over it all, went over it again. “It’s like some injured rabid animal,” he said. “It’s vulnerable, it’s dangerous, but I can’t stop staring at it. I want to come closer, but I don’t dare. To go closer is to go backward.”

Meanwhile PJ was going forward and getting cuter than ever, with red hair, an entourage of action figures, dolls and animals, an affinity for pink and black cars. Actually, he was Wren Redux, and everyone said so, even Wren, who relished in sharing with all his friends that PJ’s favorite words were “no” and “go away,” after which he would quip, “so we have that in common.” It was sort of an All About Eve situation, with Wren as Margo and PJ as Eve, and no attempts at rational thought on Wren’s part – that the child was not developed enough to be a threat, that they weren’t even in a Mankiewicz film – would shake the comparison. It was not that Wren disliked PJ. He didn’t. But he had a feeling the child was a little clone, some horrible replay, the moment when you see something about to fall and cannot form words of warning.

On a Friday, Wren closed his parents’ front door and set his bags on the carpet. Like much of south Wisconsin, they would travel north for Independence Day, to a cabin which contained the best of Wren’s childhood memories. Most of the children from then were having children now and Wren would have to sleep on the couch. Everyone was very apologetic about it, but Wren assured them the couch was the single man’s bed. And it was in a room for living.

Mother must have heard Wren close the door because she appeared from around a corner and with delighted eyes she stage whispered, “PJ discovered the dollhouse in Grandma’s basement.” Grandma had given it to Auntie, then Auntie had given it to Wren, and now it was being given to PJ. Wren followed mother to the dollhouse, which had been moved and placed onto two side tables, just at PJ’s height. She said he had circled it for hours, talking incessantly, putting the dolls in, taking them out; he was doing it now. Wren noticed the house was empty and remembered aloud: “there’s no furniture because it’s all in a box at my apartment.” PJ did not hear him.

Cliff and Susan

Between productions at a theatre company, it can be slow. Paused Ingmar Bergman movie slow. During these periods, Cliff, the Office Manager, spent most of his time trying to do tasks that couldn’t be done yet, trying to create tasks, or trying to do other people’s tasks without offending them. He was a taskhole. If it was a how-slow-can-you-go day, he would read plays that the Artistic Director was considering for the upcoming season. Sometimes he would just read random plays from the theatre’s library. That’s how he found Quality Street by J.M. Barrie, also known as the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Quality Street is kind of Napoleonic-era hybrid of Taming of The Shrew and Cinderella, only it doesn’t feature a shrew, or a fairy godmother, just a Phoebe, who feels her potential has expired, her looks have faded and life is a memory. Cliff liked her immediately. Plot had never been a priority to him, but for the reader, we will chart some of Phoebe’s course. As a young woman, she loved a certain Valentine Brown, a man who, typical of men, didn’t realize his love until enlisted in the army and serving in another country. Increasing the tally of cruel incompetence, Valentine had recommended an investment, to which Phoebe and her sister, Susan, devoted all their savings, only to see them evaporate.

Upon Valentine’s return, years later, they are operating a school “for genteel children,” though such a phrase flatters itself more than its subject. Valentine is shocked at the sight of the once sprightly “Phoebe of the ringlets” – older, tired and overworked – which she interprets as rejection. Through a comical series of misunderstandings and opportunities, she finds herself impersonating a younger and invented relative, Livvy, with the intent of reviving Valentine’s interest, or perhaps, having her revenge.

Cliff simply static clinged to this play. Was it his desire to be desired? His terror of being discovered? His fascination with the stage directions, which felt like a novel and read like a diary? Whatever the reason(s), Cliff wanted the company to produce Quality Street. He wanted a Barrie fan to direct it. He even wanted to play a character. Not Valentine – not any of the men, actually. He wanted to play Susan, the sister of Phoebe. He wanted to play Susan as a brother.

Here, perhaps, it is important to note that Quality Street is in the public domain. It was now in Cliff’s domain. He was going to remodel. No, not remodel, just redecorate. The Artistic Director believed the script was overrun with characters, needing some reigning, some discipline, some editing. Cliff agreed, although he would clarify it was simply the long distance relationship between one era and another; in person, in performance, it would be perfectly relatable, as is.

But he agreed; he didn’t want to jeopardize the Artistic Director’s approval or anyone else futzing up the script, although he was going to futz it up. While that was a crime, it was still legal, so there wouldn’t be consequences. Admittedly, Cliff wondered if, as a writer, he was violating some literary equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath? Maybe, and to justify it, he repeated to himself that the editing would be a minimally invasive procedure. Not long after beginning, however, he found some tumors:

MISS SUSAN. Phoebe, I have a wedding gift for you.

PHOEBE. Not yet?

MISS SUSAN. It has been ready for a long time. I began it when you were not ten years old and I was a young woman. I meant it for myself, Phoebe. I had hoped that he – his name was William – but I think I must have been too unattractive, my love.

PHOEBE. Sweetest – dearest –

MISS SUSAN. I always associate it with a sprigged poplin I was wearing that summer, with a breadth of coloured silk in it, being a naval officer; but something happened, a Miss Cicely Emberton, and they are quite big boys now. So long ago, Phoebe – he was very tall, with brown hair – it was foolish of me, but I was always so fond of sewing – with long straight legs and such a pleasant expression.

PHOEBE. Susan, what was it?

MISS SUSAN. It was a wedding-gown, my dear. Even plain women, Phoebe, we can’t help it; when we are young we have romantic ideas just as if we were pretty. And so the wedding-gown was never used. Long before it was finished I knew he would not offer, but I finished it, and then I put it away. I have always hidden it from you, Phoebe, but of late I have brought it out again, and altered it.

PHOEBE. Susan, I could not wear it. (MISS SUSAN brings the wedding-gown.) Oh! How sweet, how beautiful!

MISS SUSAN. You will wear it, my love, won’t you? And the tears it was sewn with long ago will all turn into smiles on my Phoebe’s wedding-day.

It was a scene Cliff couldn’t play, not at this company. But he could play it so well. Like Susan, he had been to many weddings, had given away the same gown, again and again, fully involved in someone else’s courtship and marriage, but feeling everything from the periphery, always out of sight, and yet, never overlooked by the author, right up until the end.

Surely by now the reader is a little disoriented, however Cliff has sworn me to secrecy about the ending of Quality Street, but might I remind everyone that the script is available online, to which, alright, I will not link here, but it’s easily found and Cliff is furious with me now. I would only exacerbate his fury with some theories on how dominant culture had not done any favors for him, just the refusal to truly represent people, instead pressuring them to plead guilty of their most unusual trait. Yet, in Quality Street, here Cliff was, represented and accounted for.

How could he cut the scene? How could he rewrite it? He didn’t need to make Susan in his image, she was already in it, she was a reflection, and you can’t change a reflection without changing the reflected. Naturally, he would still edit the play, he would still lobby for its selection and delight in its production, if that were to be. But he would not be written in to the story. He would have to write another.

Times Like These

“See you sometime,” Daria said, her voice cracking – grief? amusement? – but there was no watch, no clock on which you could find sometime; it did not exist. She would never see Evan again. Not in this Starbucks, in the office, or meetings, or onstage during his weekly presentations, which was, oddly, when she felt closest to him. A fixture over her life was being ripped out of the ceiling.

It had been wrong, of course, for Daria to bestow such authority on Evan. Such influence. Such power. Of course there were many wrong things about it, not the least of which was she viewed Evan as a father – appropriate, since her father had been gone since her 8th birthday, whereas Evan had never been here. He made eye contact, provided nonverbal feedback, used reflective listening. The effect was like one of those convincing sidewalk drawings – you were sure it was real, but it wasn’t, just art covering a hardness.

But none of that mattered. Well, it did, but it wasn’t supposed to matter for her recovery. Daria was only responsible for her recovery, as her sponsor told it. Tell that to her feelings. As of late they were like a computer, plugged in, turned off, consuming energy without using it.

After they parted, Daria got in her car, pushing the brake pedal, tapping the ignition button, shifting to reverse. Then she sat there, foot on the brake, scrolling through contacts, finding her sponsor. As she was about to push call, she realized that behind, and across, Evan had been waiting to pull out, watching her tail lights. Now he was slowly backing up. Daria slipped the phone over to the passenger seat, afraid that he would see, would know she was calling someone, would know it was about their meeting, would know she was talking about him rather than to him, once again, seeking approval from him, support from others, validation from all.

Stopping at the exit of the Starbucks, Daria looked around to be sure he was gone, then called her sponsor, who didn’t answer. At the beep, the words ran out of her mouth and did laps in the air. “I don’t know what I’m talking about,” she said. But she did: gradually, imperceptibly, this job, this boss, this man, Evan, had become the standard to which her and the world were compared; they were a measuring tape that had unspooled all the way and now retracted rapidly into itself, stopping with a snap, without a tab to pull it out again.

Daria had enrolled in a beginner’s improv course and tonight was the first class. The instructor led them in some basic exercises and games, the point of which were to act instead of think. To say “yes.” To make a decision in the moment and not spend another one regretting it. Surely this was a forgotten spiritual discipline; energetic meditation? As though her mind were a full suitcase, stopped for exceeding the weight limit, and she was joyfully yanking things out of it and tossing them over her shoulder, not caring what they were or where they were landing. Now now now. She would only do now. Not The Spectacular Now, a film about an addict and the addict who wants to save them. No – just now, without adjectives, without doubt, without analysis – Yes.

As she drove home from class, Foo Fighters came on the radio. “It’s times like these you learn to live again.” Next week would be another improv class. Daria found her soul already pressing into it, like a cell phone against a window in a building with poor reception, wanting to be heard.

In The Cards

“Hannah’s engaged, did you know?” Valerie asked Devon, as they converted the couch to a bed. “No,” he replied, attempting to nestle a pillow in its case with repeated tugs. “She was probably going to tell you during this visit. I’m sorry,” Valerie shook her head and sighed.   “No,” Devon gave the pillowcase a good yank, “it’s better for me to be prepared.”

They discussed the particulars. How long had Hannah and her partner been dating? How long had they lived together? Devon didn’t know the answers to these questions, hadn’t asked these questions, had only exchanged texts with Hannah occasionally. His nomination as board member of the church, the crisis that erupted only weeks later and rolled into the next year, had kept his attention localized. The crisis, of course, was about gay marriage, and now it was moving from hypothetical to practical, from there to here, a toggling of the mind; for a moment Devon’s whole system became humid, thick, almost panicky. After he and Valerie said goodnight, he sat on the bed, wondering why Hannah hadn’t told him, wondering how she would tell him.

The weather that night was marvelous, early spring in the south, but the more persuasive reason for taking a walk was Robert DeLong’s album In the Cards, which Devon had downloaded recently. The guilt of feasting on music was justified by accompanying it with exercise. Devon put on headphones and started out. The music seemed inspired by the night, cloudless, windy. “Don’t wait up for me,” Robert sang. “I’ve got a restless mind.”

Valerie’s subdivision was rather Escherian in its design – circular, incestuous, repetitive. Even though Devon had been visiting for years, he still tended to lose the way. Passing someone’s back porch, there was movement in his periphery. He turned to look and almost gasped. The blackest shadowman crouched towards him. A demon from Ghost? A hit man assigned to him? It was a covered grill.

Still looking at the shadowman, and pulling out his phone from a front pocket, Devon searched “gay” on Twitter. The usual combination of his people and their porn appeared, and, slowly at first, for every user that provided the latter, he blocked. It was obsessive, it was satisfying, like cracking knuckles. He blocked and walked and blocked and walked and felt increasingly safe, strong, grounded, like the boy in that Gaiman novel who is instructed to remain in the center of the fairy ring, no matter what is said, no matter who says it, no matter how convincing they may appear or sound; the attempts are relentless and legion and the boy begins reciting poetry from Alice in Wonderland to distract himself.

About a half a block from an intersection, Devon saw a black car with tinted windows stop, although there wasn’t a stop sign. As he drew closer, the passenger window went down. Just keep your headphones on and keep walking, Devon instructed himself, but 20 feet away, he couldn’t resist, casually removing and resting them around his neck, like jewelry. He heard a few words – the end of a sentence – an interrogative sentence? Then the car drove away.

“Thank you for not drawing a line,” Hannah said the next day, but not to Devon; she was recounting her mother’s reply to the engagement. Actually, Hannah explained it all in a letter, which she gave to her mother, adding, “read it in front of me.” The letter was not the expected ultimatum – affirm this commitment or I will not associate with you – which her mother appreciated: “I just want you in my life.”

Devon felt the same but didn’t say it. He didn’t need to say anything. Hannah was saying anything, and everything – about the trip to Civil War sites, how her partner was so anxious that their accommodations would be in small homophobic towns, the painstakingly romantic proposal, how Hannah got her period the first day – and Devon was just overwhelmed, wonderfully overwhelmed, to be a witness.

Could he be a witness later, too? That was not a question for now. Not for himself or Hannah. Now they walked the city, smoking Marlboros, he a regular visitor, she a resident. At his car, they glanced about for the right background for a picture and settled on a stone wall; leaning against it, they held the phone far back, both trying to fit in the frame.

Shelter

“Do you have any socks with holes?” Grandma asked, and he almost said no, because he was afraid she would offer to don them, and is there anything more uncomfortable than someone donning your socks? Well, your underwear. Not to mention his discomfort with the very word don; it was both casual and formal; it was used in the mafia and the home.

In actuality, the reason she asked was that the local animal shelter accepted donations of holey socks, and threadbare blankets, and fraying towels, which they would use in the cages of the animals; it reminded him of The Velveteen Rabbit for reasons both obvious and not. He had always felt guilty just throwing those things away, but even more guilty donating them to a homeless shelter, like a child being congratulated for pooping.

So he began collecting them for Grandma, who, in her in old age, had developed an appetite for errands. It became a regular occurrence, him giving bags of worn undershirts, disintegrating mittens, etc. to Grandma. It was on one such Saturday that she asked if he would like to accompany her to the animal shelter. Perhaps it was because his Grandma’s voice might be able to cancel the noise in his head – perhaps it was because his only plans were hours away and there was way too much room for trouble – perhaps both of those perhapses were a prelapse – or perhaps they were all because he had just finished his taxes and marked that once again there was no spouse, there were no dependents. Grandma’s husband, Grandpa, had been gone for two years. And her house was getting bigger by the day.

They went to the animal shelter.

There were dogs and cats and children and the adults overwhelmed with caring for them. It seemed to both him and Grandma that unless a parent was enthusiastic about supporting another life, visiting the animal shelter with children was the stupidest decision they could make. But it was an easy to understand stupid decision; everywhere children were smiling.

Observation rooms were designed to look like playrooms. One room had a wall of kennels with animals of varying degrees of scruffiness. He noticed a dog in particular; black and moppy and immobile, just the sort of disposition he understood. He momentarily considered rescuing it, though it clearly didn’t need rescuing, and perhaps that was the reason why he wanted to. A challenge always energized him, unless it was in an area where he lacked talent or there was a high chance of failure. So most of the time a challenge did not energize him. But when it did: look out, look sharp and don’t look down.

Grandma suggested a stop at the local coffee shop and he agreed as caffeine was the kind of personality supplement he needed. She had a full hand of gift cards and was ready to play all of them on him, but he just ordered a double espresso and she just ordered a peppermint tea and they split a chocolate peanut butter buckwheat cookie and he wondered how many people were aware that buckwheat doesn’t have gluten in it.

They sat by the window, then, to the right of the front door where you could stare at the people who entered without detection. Nearly every time someone came in, Grandma would whisper, “I don’t know them,” as if that were concerning.

“Do you think they’ll move?” Grandma asked, after awhile, referring to his parents.

“Perhaps,” he replied. “Babies have that affect on people,” referring to his sister’s new – and first – dependent.

“You can’t live for your children,” Grandma declared, which he found amusing, since she always lived within four minutes of hers.

“I can’t imagine moving at this point in my life,” he said to the ceiling. Grandma nodded.

They sat there for quite some time.

Jam, Pt I

Billie did her best writing in the car. To be clear – and safe – the writing was in her head. Which is no writing at all. But she felt like a writer with limitless potential at those times. Perhaps it was the small space that contained her, centered her. Perhaps it was the music. She played the most atmospheric music in the car. The Free Design’s cover of “Light My Fire,” anything by The Blue Nile, Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoints, the soundtrack to Wait Until Dark, “You Don’t Know My Name” and “You Love Me” by Kym Amps. But inevitably she would run out of errands, or arrive at a destination, or worse, home, and that wide windshield of vision would be replaced with a blank white wall of Microsoft Word.

Recently it was Billie’s birthday, to which a numeric value will not be assigned, but apparently it was significant enough that her best friend, Lisa, wanted to take her out for a drink, because Billie was a delightful drinker. But, rather unexpectedly, not halfway through the second amaretto sour, the tone of the whole evening became regretful – the other side of nostalgia, not the good side, not the one that should be photographed. Lisa’s regrets beget regrets, and Billie found herself asking Lisa a lot of questions, feeling around for a precise decision or decisions to which the regret was attached. The passion with which Billie pursued it alarmed her; just who was being interrogating here? Was this some sort of Socratic projection? Did the sheer pretension of that phrase obscure its meaning? Simply too much irony here, even for 2017.

Admittedly, Billie wasn’t sure about much of her life, and that was the source for her writing; ergo, she wasn’t so sure about it, either. Did she even want to write anymore. Well, of course she didn’t want to write, no writer wants to write, but she wondered what the purpose of her writing was. Was it some sort of restorative justice. The need to assemble a circle of imagined readers and recount all the wrongs she’d done, the wrongs done to her that made her do the wrongs she’d done. And yet, what if she stopped doing it. What would she do with her evenings. Was this simply a case of misplaced identity. These weren’t questions, they were the companions of an artist. The friends of Job. What an unmerited and melodramatic comparison. It’s exactly why Billie needed a baby, or a pet, or a baby pet, something requiring focus and affection, and of course that is a terrible reason for bringing either into your world. Why was it so difficult for her to find a current – electrical or hydrogenic? Preferably not both as that would be fatal. Billie wanted to find what Richard Rohr called “the flow.” Or maybe it was just that she wanted to be really good at something and really go for it, without getting all guilty and confused.

Then Lisa mentioned the dance party.

It was going to be a Jam, a no-parking-on-the-dance-floor, no-need-to-keep-score, gimme-gimme-more, open-for-business-but-you-don’t-know-what’s-in-store, Jam. It was going to be at Lisa’s 2nd floor condo, but not until her 1st floor neighbor moved out, which was still in process, and all of her friends were just waiting for the date to be texted, the date they would disturb the peace in a protest against status quo, but without a neighbor to call the police.

Billie immediately began living for this event. She pictured her and Lisa like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Sisters, determined to fuck it up so they could get down to business. She started a Gmail draft of songs for the playlist; she was adding, subtracting, dividing and conquering and multiplying the tracks. Let there be Amy Grant, Anushka, Disclosure, Eurythmics, The Gap Band, Goldfrapp, Hot Chocolate, Jamie xx, Klymaxx, The Knife, Ladytron, Little Boots, The Pointer Sisters, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Sam Sparro, Sheila E, Sylvan Esso, Vince Guaraldi, Yaz.

Some nights Billie would sit at the kitchen table trying to write and discovered drinking a little Tequila and playing some Midnight Star suddenly made writing an absolute pleasure. Occasionally this resulted in her dancing in front of the kitchen windows, perfecting some pose, or move, or just ripping off an item of clothing on the beat. Would the dance party be this good? Could it be this good? She knew it could. And it would. She just had to get there.

The Christians

“A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see,” writes Lucas Hnath. “A place where the invisible is – at least for a moment – made visible. The theatre can be that too.” At the Steppenwolf production of Hnath’s play The Christians, we were in a theatre, but it felt like a Christian church. The two have been, if not separated, then in separate bedrooms, for quite some time; yes, there is Christian theatre, and there are plays with Christian characters, but even that distinction signals the estrangement, creating in both a negative space, populated with caricatures projected by assumptions.

Hnath’s play counters all of that from the moment it begins. At Steppenwolf it began five minutes before curtain, in a stage design masterfully indistinguishable from any American megachurch, with a full worship team. Some of the audience seemed a bit shifty. “Now this is subversive,” I said into my friend’s ear. The louder the worship became, the louder the people behind us talked. Admittedly, I was struggling to read a mixture of social cues from my understandings of theatrical and religious environments and the audience’s varying reactions. I can’t sing along, I thought, but I can clap. So I did. I can’t pray with the actor playing the Pastor, I thought, but I can smile when one of the worship team makes eye contact. So I did.

When the Humana Festival originally commissioned a play from Hnath, he studied the venue and its audience. Of his potential scripts he chose The Christians “because I’d come to learn that the festival has two very different audiences: the local Louisville audience and the theatre industry that comes in from out of town. And I had learned…getting to know subscribers, that a relatively high percentage of local attendees identified as Christian, while a comparatively high number of out-of-town attendees identified as ‘not’…[it was remarkable] how similar the reactions were. More or less, it seemed both ends of the audience in Louisville were on the same page. However…in NYC, the audience was very eager to hear the play as a satire. Most nights there were big laughs from the very start of the play.” It is difficult not to see this as a parable of how when we don’t love “the other” as our neighbor, they become our enemy. Even more difficult not to see is the “powerful urge to communicate” described by the Pastor as Hnath’s desire for the theatre to be a place where Christian ideas can live.

“‘There is only you and your fellow man,'” the pastor preaches in a sermon that follows the opening worship set, recounting words spoken to him by God. “‘You wanna see Satan – ? There’s your Satan. You wanna see Hell, you look around.’ And [God] said, ‘There is no Hell. And there is no reason to tell people that they’re going to Hell. Because they are in Hell. They are already there. You gotta take them out of the Hell they’re already in.'” If this reminds you of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, you are not alone, although after mentioning that book, we might be alone: it is a belief that divides groups of people like redlining, as they contend just what the blood of Jesus is saving us from.

Yet one of the triumphs of Steppenwolf’s production, and K. Todd Freeman’s sensitive direction, is the unity in diversity – hinted in the script, perhaps, through some shared language of church cultures – but embodied in the non-traditional casting.* And consequently, intractably, the church’s fracturing reaches the very bones of the play  – Greek tragedy** – because it is disconnecting people who urgently need to be sharpened and purified, together, in the presence of God.

“I think what you did was actually incredibly selfish…” the Pastor’s wife remarks, toward the end of the play. “You haven’t thought about how what you’re doing affects other people.” Hnath has confessed he was supposed to be a preacher, but didn’t want to “worry about other peoples’ souls.” Then he was supposed to be a doctor, but didn’t want to “worry about other peoples’ bodies.” If he doesn’t still worry about both, the conversations of The Christians indicate he thinks deeply about them, and invite us to think deeply too – as an us.

– – –

*Formerly “colorblind casting”, this replacement term inspires the question of what tradition, exactly, is worth honoring here.

**In an interview conducted by Young Jean Lee and featured in the Steppenwolf program, Hnath states “the bones of the play are Greek.” All of the quotes in this post are from that interview, except for the first, which is from Hnath’s preface of the Overlook Press publication of The Christians.

Shadowboxer

“It’s your old roommate,” I said after the beep, “calling you because I just saw La La Land. It technicolored my world. And now I’m walking around Milwaukee in winter without a coat because I just saw La La Land. I’m sure you’ve already seen it, you’ve already lived it, so call me back already.” I ended the call. A text message appeared. My support group was cancelled. I was relieved, but not a good relief; it was the kind of relief you feel when approaching an intersection where someone is standing with a sign asking for money and the light turns green just in time so you don’t have to sit with them and your conscience.

In the back of my mind, The B Team – who might simply resent never getting a TV show but that is no excuse – had begun plotting something bad. Details undecided yet, but definitely sexy and bad. So I counterplotted by accepting a weeks-old party invitation from friends. We sang traditional carols and then selections from Fiona Apple’s first album along with a keyboard played by an organist and accompanied by incredible amounts of alcohol. “You made me a shadowboxer, baby / I wanna be ready for what you do / I’ve been swinging around me / ‘Cause I don’t know when you’re gonna make your move.”

The next day, my head feeling kind of heated and full, like a crock pot on warm, I sat with my sponsor in a coffee shop, surrounded by people alone together. “It’s all about geography,” he said. “It’s true you did stumble, but the place you stumbled from, and the place you stumbled to, are different now.”

“Yeah, but that was weeks ago and I still haven’t deleted his number. I’m going to, I am, but I just can’t yet. You know, it’s not like I met him on craigslist. I met him at a conference in Chicago once a few years ago. And it’s not like we’ve done anything besides text – ”

“But it sounds like you will,”He smiled.

“Listen you fucker,” I smiled back.

“I’m concerned for you.”

“You should be.” I stared across the street at store windows crowded with lights and merchandise. “There’s a montage in La La Land…have you seen it?”

“No.”

The montage is towards the end, a whirlpool of references and originality, color and shadow, pulling all of the movie’s past, and possible futures, right into the present. Watching it, I felt like a car being dragged out of a body of water. And there was a lot of water, as the patrons who sat next to me can attest. Even describing it to my sponsor, I could feel tears being forecasted, an angry red blotch moving behind my eyes.

“Anyway,” I transitioned, “after the movie I collected myself and walked around without a coat and called my old roommate who lives in L.A. and left a message,” I nodded once, as if it were a period. “I don’t know why I came back here, nine years ago. Why did I come back? Why did I join this church? Why did I move into the neighborhood? Why am I trying to recover? Everything is falling apart. The things I was always eventually certain of, the good, right and pure things, are falling apart. At least if I had stayed there, maybe I would have a movie.” I stared across the street again as a woman walked into a salon called Samson & Delilah. “The truth does not negate or alleviate our feelings,” he said. “But the truth is, you’re a pioneer,” he said. “And maybe you’ll still get your movie.”

A day later, my head colder but no clearer, I asked the Internet – that medium ever ready to call up enticing visions – for help in finding friends from my previous life nine years ago. Regrettably one of the friends has the same last name of a certain love interest in Twilight, and suddenly pink fruit was ripening all over Google: pictures of sexy wolfmen, teenagers played by twentysomethings in Young Adult films, half-naked, advancing towards me.

This fight has never been fair.

Closing the browser window, I texted an addict friend, fingers ramming the buttons: “I’m considering posting in casual encounters that I’m looking for a jock to climb.” He texted back: “lol noooo climbing leads to cramps and indigestion.” He forwarded a letter he sent to his local paper: “I had a hard time accepting who I was, and for years…these icons [Prince, David Bowie, George Michael] let me be myself for the duration of an album. Those moments got me through. Carrie Fischer was comedic gold who showed no shame in being crazy…she was just like me…I sometimes fought with many substances because…I had demons I didn’t want to face. I took my hidden life to the very edge, and I almost died…[but I] got help and sobered up…I became me.”

Back Here

Anytime someone asked me what I did for Thanksgiving, my answer was “you mean the ‘Gilmore Girls’ revival?” Actually, anytime anyone has asked me anything for the last two weeks, I have answered in the form of Gilmore Girls. I do not mean talking fast and making references – that is the manner to which I am accustomed – I mean my world has assumed a new shape. And old. Sort of like a pair of jeans you find at a thrift store which are exactly like ones you had years ago that were shrunk in the dryer – shrunk in the dryer that started on fire – shrunk in the dryer that started on fire which became a pyre – shrunk in the dryer that started on fire which became a pyre for jeans you admired* – and so when you get another pair, it’s like going back, but you’re here, and it’s good to be back here.**

Here is Stars Hollow, the town of “Gilmore Girls,” which many viewers have suggested*** would be an ideal setting for “The Twilight Zone,” while seeming to forget that it practically was – in the episode “Walking Distance.” A 1959 Mad Man “living at a dead run” is fleeing Manhattan in his car through the countryside, when he stops at a gas station and recognizes the area is within walking distance of his place of birth, Homewood. At some turn in the route he is transported 25 years ago to his childhood, a place in the summer, with a merry-go-round and cotton candy and band concerts. That atmosphere is very breathable to me. When someone asks where I’m from, I always end up listing several towns, saying “I’m from East Troy. It’s Stars Hollow. It’s Mayberry,” then explaining the reference and/or justifying the comparison with: “We have a square. And a trolley. And a vintage ice cream parlor.” So I understand why the man in “Walking Distance” stays home long enough to realize how much he’s longed for it, only to learn, in his father’s words, that he doesn’t belong. “You’ve been looking behind you,” the father says. “Try looking ahead.”

As a writer, what is behind has always possessed more potential than what is ahead. When I watched the first season of “Gilmore Girls,” I was staying with my sister, a teacher, who had the entire series to that point on DVD. While she was at school, I was getting schooled by the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, particularly in the reference, a hyperspecific metaphor. It was a technique I had observed elsewhere, most notably and obsessively in Myra Breckinridge. The reference uses literature, film, music, history – as coordinates for a specific moment, an X marks the spot, the X a cross, of course, one line being the time you are in, another line being the time of the reference, so you are here and there, the one who knows, who can be asked for directions.

“Gilmore Girls,” now more than ever, acknowledges that it is “never or now.” A vital member in the original cast has died, everyone has aged, and the world of 2016 is not as we remember it in 2000, or 2007, the years when the show premiered and ended. Its creator and sustainers, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, left the original run a season early, due to lack of support from the network. The actors were never certain what the final episode would be. So this is one revival where everybody took Arlen and Koehler’s advice to get happy – and get ready – for the judgment day: this might be the end, more than the might before, and a manic energy, an emotional undertow, shoots through the series like an arrow, to a bull’s eye ending, those famous last four words to which Amy alluded for years. But I didn’t watch for those four words. I watched because, in a small way, it was a resurrection, and I always want to believe in that.

“You hardly ever get a chance, at any point in life, to appreciate the moment you’re in, while you’re in it,” said Lauren Graham, who plays Lorelai Gilmore. “I was just walking around [set] like…’you’re here, and thank you so much for being here’…I was just a freak, I had so much appreciation it was actually very overwhelming and…I’m not a person who cries very easily. I would cry every day.” Graham rightly insists that crying in character is different than crying as yourself, but still, it is not difficult to believe she cried every day; there are so many gradations of grief in her performance. I’ve never seen such a range, in any of Graham’s performances, or anyone else’s. Indeed, for a character and actor renowned as fast-talkers, some of their finest moments in the revival are silent, grounded in truth and floating on emotion.

“Without silence there is no solitude. Though silence sometimes involves the absence of speech, it always involves the act of listening,” writes Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline. Foster’s book does not mention “Gilmore Girls,” but surely that is because his most recent revision was 1998? Watching the revival, it was like someone was listening to me and speaking for me, simultaneously, in a rapture of understanding. I was in my sister’s living room, 10 years ago; I was in my parents’ living room next to my sister, now. And when Sam Philips’ song played over the final scene, just as it played over a similar scene in the original series, we wept together. I felt like one of my hands was holding the past, just as the other was holding the present – and even though both were empty, my eyes were reflecting light.

 ~ ~ ~

*Apologies to Rose Bonne, and you. I just couldn’t stop.

**And hear ye, year ye, those who aren’t familiar with the show: become familiar with the show. Start at season 1 and watch through season 6 and skip season 7 – the only season without Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, which was basically Madame Tussaud’s wax figure of Rowan Atkinson, frightening, lifeless and without purpose – and proceed directly to the revival, “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.” It’s all streaming across that beautiful banquet hall called Netflix, booked solid with reboots and reunions.

*** James Poniewozik in The New York Times and Todd VanDerWerff at Vox, to name a few who can write.

The Lion of Lucerne

At a distance, the monument, a rock relief, reminded me of Petra; emerging from the stone, both composed of – and separate from – its source; real and fantastical. There was also a sense that I was discovering it, although surrounded by people taking selfies.

The subject is a fallen lion, spear thrust into his side, with only a shield for a pillow. The lion’s expression is almost unendurably anguished, a tangled but clear knot of emotion: sadness so ancient and deep it must be woe, an agony of confusion, a total resignation. There is such nobility to him, such beauty, the death seems an injustice that cannot be understood, only witnessed.

“He’s so sad,” I said through a throb in my throat, not really to anyone; I said it, trying to send the sadness back to the Lion, but it was a cord tying us, taut. I looked at the spear in His side as my father read aloud from his phone:

“The Lion of Lucerne [was] designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen and hewn in 1820–21 by Lukas Ahorn. It commemorates the Swiss Guards who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution, when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris…”

Even after hearing this, I couldn’t receive the monument as anything other than a tribute to Aslan, however chronologically incorrect and thoroughly disrespectful that may be. For those who haven’t met Aslan, he is a character in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, “the lion, the great Lion [who] isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.” Aslan allows Himself to be slaughtered in exchange for the life of a traitor.

I wanted to walk away, I wanted to be alone with the Lion, but neither were possible. I could not contain the tears, so I collected them, one at a time, with my finger. “Nothing is black and white,” my father concluded next to me, putting away his phone. My eyes felt red. They were looking into the eyes of the Lion.