The word of the day is busy. Can anyone relate?
In the past two weeks, I’ve done every extra thing I ever do and then some. When I finished writing student narrative comments for midterm grades, I started working on a freelance writing job that fell into my lap from the sky. That work would have been easier if it didn’t appear in the same week my student service learning group was hosting a film screening and panel discussion on Tuesday night to raise awareness about HPV (click here to see a seventeen minute film that might change your life).
And those complications were complicated by the fact that on Thursday and Friday night, I had a rehearsal and performance of a staged reading of Angels in America (more on that in a minute).
Oh, and it just so happened that in the same week I had agreed to preach a sermon, and I was trying to learn a bunch of piano pieces to be able to play in church the following Sunday. For good measure, let’s toss in the dentist appointment to trade out the temporary crown on my back left molar for a permanent one. That appointment took an hour and a half before the dentist realized the permanent crown was defective and I’d have to reschedule and come back in three weeks.
Did I mention I’ve been busy ?
What I haven’t been is reflective. It’s finally Tuesday morning, and I have put a check mark in every single box. I’m at the front end of two glorious weeks off, and I finally have time to glance back over my shoulder into the whirlwind. What’s coming into focus is a group of chairs in a blowsy room in the back corner of the Peggy Ann Findlay Performing Arts building.
It’s Thursday afternoon, a few weeks ago. Three-thirty, to be precise. I’m sitting in a circle in the green room with a handful of students, two drama teachers, and three other colleagues. The students are highlighting their scripts, eating cheese and crackers from a plastic tray in the center of the circle. I was their age and a lot less busy the last time I did anything like this.
“When we reach a difficult scene,” Meghan explains, establishing the ground rules, “let’s just read it. Then we’ll stop and talk about it, and see if we think we can do it.” The play we are about to read is Angels in America, and if you know it, you’ll understand why reading it with high school students could get complicated.
The mood in the room is relaxed and expectant. None of knows quite what we’re in for. What unites us is that we are the people who said “yes” a few months ago when Meghan sent out an email saying, “We’re going to do a staged reading of Angels in America. Who’s in?”
The plan is to read the play from start to finish in the next two and a half hours and then to read it on stage tomorrow night, followed by an audience discussion; we’re calling it a reading and a “talk-back.”
Tony Kushner’s masterpiece deals with the AIDS crisis in the 90s; both the language and the themes are adult and explicit. Thursday afternoon in the green room we press on. Students and colleagues are becoming new people as we bring our characters to life. Students are saying words we’d correct them for if they said them anywhere else. Here, we’re just correcting their pronunciation. (One good teacher moment came when the unasked question took the floor–whose job is it to correct a student’s pronunciation of fellatio? If memory serves, none of us stepped up.)
We make it through one of the most explicit scenes: a character who has abandoned his dying lover is seeking punishment through a random encounter in a park. A little nervous laughter from the students and the adults, and then, “It doesn’t feel gratuitous,” a student says. “It shows us how bad he feels about abandoning his partner,” another adds. They are competent, these kids, and wise. The scene stays in.
I am playing an old rabbi who presides over a funeral in Act I. Later, I play Hannah Hill, mother of Joe, a gay Mormon man. When Joe tries to come out to me in a late night phone call I agree with him that his father never loved him, tell him to stop being ridiculous, and hang up on him.
By six o’clock we’re nearing the end of the reading and we’re all spent. It’s been an emotional afternoon. We’ve laughed and cried and created something intimate and holy together.
It strikes me that one of the things we’re doing in this little circle is dropping the pretenses that normally shape our relationships with each other. For this teacher/student thing to work during the normal school day, teachers pretend the adolescents they are teaching are more innocent, less complex than they are; students keep up their end of the bargain by pretending their teachers’ lives end at 3:20, and that we’re more innocent, less complex than we are.
Tony Kushner says that the thing about live theater is that you have to show up for it. Friday night, we sit in a straight line across the stage, a music stand in front of each of us displaying the name of the character we’re playing.
After the performance in the talk-back, a man in the audience thanks us. “I’ve been HIV positive since 1990,” he says. “I’ve lived through everything in this play.” He talks on, and I’m far from the only one weeping. Others praise the students’ courage in taking on these adult roles.
Another student expresses her gratitude for the chance to participate, saying, “Now I know I have all these questions I didn’t even know I had.” Teacher friends will understand that there is no higher praise.
The moment I’ll carry forever, though, happens when a tenth grader a few chairs down from me addresses the man in the audience. “I’m a gay man,” he says, “and it hasn’t always been easy for me.” He is choking up as he adds, “but it has been so much easier for me than it was for you. I just want to thank you for everything you did to make my life easier.”
I’ll skip the part where the whole room is crying. Another student in the audience rescues us and brings the light back when she comments that she just “got to hear the head of her school say the F-bomb nineteen times.”
And just like that, the evening came to an end, and just like that, my insanely busy two weeks have dissolved into these few quiet moments when I can look back and catch my breath.
One of my favorite poems is James Wright’s “A Blessing.” You can follow the link if you want to read the whole gorgeous thing, but it ends with these lines:
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
And that is exactly how I feel. Looking back on these crazy, busy weeks, I’m struck by the fact that I was never stressed out. Life was over-full, and yet time felt ample. Each claim on every busy day claimed it fully, and then left the other times alone. I think that for the first time in my life, I might actually be learning to understand what the Buddhists mean by being present.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t miss some things. I kept my head down in my busy march from commitment to commitment. That explains why I was so surprised this morning when I walked out the front door to get the paper and was shocked to see the flowering plum in the front yard in full blossom.
I hadn’t seen it coming. Surely over the past few weeks I could have noticed the swelling buds , the water-color green of leaves eager to emerge. There must have been signs. Spring doesn’t turn on like a light switch; it meanders in like a ten year old boy, pausing here and there to kick a rock, or run a stick along a fence, or chase a dog.
So often when I’m surprised it’s by bad news; a phone call jarring the night or a tragedy scarring the world.
This morning I’m surprised by the way the light is sifting through pinon branches, by how much noise these gabbling desert birds can make, by the way this sad old earth has cast off winter one more time.
While I was too busy to pay attention it came back to life; it burst, inexplicably, and at last, into blossom.