Creating a Backstory

Michael Armenia in the role of Federzoni, the lens grinder, in “Life of Galileo”, 2013.

Federzoni is a lens grinder. That’s about all Bertolt Brecht gives us in his play, “Life of Galileo” which was written in 1938. Although from the text of the play, we can surmise a few things more, notably that he is a student and assistant to Galileo Galilei, the protagonist. And unlike Galileo and other assistants, Federzoni cannot read Latin. Yet, with no formal education, he is passionate about learning. So, who is Federzoni and why is it important that we know such a trivial character?

Federzoni isn’t the easiest name to pronounce merely because it isn’t familiar. As it is all that Brecht gave us, let’s give him a first name and call him Enrico. You know what? Let’s take it a step further and give him a nickname.: Enni or Enny or perhaps Rico. I did not do this much when I played Federzoni in 2013. But, I did create a backstory, just enough to give an identity or individualization for a character whose stage presence was brief.

A lens grinder naturally grinds glass. And Galileo knew Enrico was one of the best lens grinders in all of Venice, making eyeglasses fashionable since their invention in Italy at the beginning of the 14th century. Enrico was skilled at his craft, but everyone makes mistakes. One day at the grinding wheel he was distracted and the wheel propelled fragments of glass into his right eye, blinding him. And so I wore an eye patch as a physical manifestation of the story and this gave the character a distinguishing feature. What made this skilled lens grinder lose his focus (the pun is only partially intended)?

It was his passion for knowledge and learning. He was a true philosopher – he loved (philo) wisdom (sophia). But without a formal education, the best he could do at the time was to work with Galileo and vicariously satiate his hunger for a universe revealed by Copernicus to be heliocentric. He did not read the works of Copernicus in Latin, but he had read De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi (On the Infinite, Universe and Worlds) written by Giordano Bruno in 1584, which among Bruno’s other works was the most damaging to the world view of the Catholic church.

[Bruno connected Copernicus’ heliocentric theory with the idea of other populated worlds orbiting other stars. So, not only was the earth no longer the center of the universe, ‘man’ was no longer at the center of the universe. Vatican alarms went off! You can just imagine theologians pacing: “And what of man’s God and the savior? Was Jesus Christ the savior for other people on an infinite number of worlds? Are their other saviors for these worlds? The Bible doesn’t speak of these worlds, only man and our world. And the Bible is God’s word. So, no! This heresy cannot be allowed. ” Copernicus’s works were not prohibited by the Vatican, but their teaching was. Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. Galileo recanted and was put under house arrest.]

Let’s now conclude as much of the backstory that I gave to Enrico. Although Bruno had written many works in Latin, he had also written a number of dialogues in Italian, his mother tongue. For he truly believed that in order to effect the religious reform which he desired, his work needed to be accessible by peasants and farmers as much as the clergy and scholars. The concepts in De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi , one of Bruno’s dialogues that was indeed written in Italian,absolutely fascinated Enrico. The day after he first read the dialogue he could not help visualizing these other worlds that Bruno suggested. Even at the grinding wheel these thoughts dominated. While his mind’s eye saw visions of world’s revolving around what had been previously thought to be the ‘fixed’ stars, his real eye saw shards of glass as his hands relaxed and slipped off the wheel. One could say (to corrupt a phrase from another brilliant man not yet born at that time) he ‘saw a universe in grains of sand.’

Creating a backstory can be a formidable instrument in an actor’s process of forging a character. No matter how large or small the role, there is infinite room for a backstory; limitations exist only in the actor’s mind. In fact, the smaller the role, the larger the backstory should be. Non-speaking characters should have the largest backstories – at least, that is what I would encourage my cast members to explore throughout the rehearsal process. Write it. Draw it. Paint it. Sculpt it. Talk about it. What results could be described as magic; with an audience having no knowledge or sensory contact to any backstory, they are still affected by it through the actor’s performance. In the alchemical process of creating a character, the backstory is the philosopher’s stone added into the alembic while the heat (energy) of an actor’s work is applied. The backstory once instilled in the actor’s imagination is transformed on stage into authenticity, belief, truth – all which can be exuded merely through a posture, a glare in the eye, a facial tic, or her gait as she exits stage left.

There’s no end to a backstory. It can be transformed into a work of art. I’ve taken one to that extreme. A backstory of a very minor character in a tense drama was flushed out into an epilogue, and finally into a short play called A Streetcar Named Napoleon.

So, who’s your character? Write your story. It doesn’t need to live on the written page or in a blog (although that could enhance the effect). A home in your imagination is all that’s required to bring magic to the stage.

Meaningful Synchronicity: Enameling

Looking through my art books today in the throes of reducing my personal library by at least fifty percent (what I call “The Great Culling of 2020” which I’d like to write about later), I pulled from one box ‘The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini’ illustrated by Salvador Dali. I had saved that book for decades, as well as ‘Essays’ by Michel de Montaigne (also illustrated by Salvador Dali) because the illustrations are outstanding, some of Dali’s most magnificent work! As it was highly prized by two of my favorite mentors, Giordano Bruno and William Shakespeare, Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ is on my short list to read this year and awaits my attention on a shelf in my bedroom . But as I held Cellini’s book in my hands, I wondered if I shouldn’t also consider reading it, too. Perhaps the fact that Dali illustrated both books speaks to the virtue of Cellini’s writing, as comparable to that of Montaigne. But the illustrations were the only reason that this autobiography was in my box of art books in the first place.

I decided to open the book to an arbitrary page and read a little. Here is the first sentence that caught my eye, the first sentence of the second paragraph just above the middle of the page:

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I must not omit the exquisite art of enamelling, in which I have never known any one excel, save a Florentine, our countryman, called Amerigo. I did not know him, but was well acquainted with his incomparable masterpieces. Nothing in any part of the world or by any craftsman that I have seen, approached the divine beauty of their workmanship.

I then flipped pages, read an occasional sentence, and it did seem more and more intriguing as I went along. But why should I submit to reading the biography of this 16th century Italian artist? Why not another? So I set the book aside with the others I planned to keep and repacked into the box.

The next book I pulled out, one I often used as a reference from time to time, was ‘Outlines of Chinese Symbolism & Art Motives’ by C.A.S. Williams. Differences in book subjects as well as their cultural disparity made this consecutive book selection from the box seem quite random to me. . . or so it would seem. I opened to an arbitrary page from which I would also begin a journey of flipping from spot to spot. I opened to page 174. Imagine my surprise when I read the section title in the middle of the page , “ENAMELWARE”, and no doubt its equivalent in Chinese characters just below. If that doesn’t put a tingle in your spine, know this: the first sentence of the second paragraph begins with the phrase, “the art of enameling.” That sentence reads as follows:

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The art of enameling is said to have been introduced into China from Constantinoble by the Arabs, and the Chinese term Fa lan t’ieh, “iron of Fa-lan,” is said to be derived from Folin, a medieval name for Stamboul, though others believe that Fa lan is equivalent to Frank or France.

After the stun wore off, I set both books aside with the intention of writing about this uncanny synchronicity. So here we are. One can take a sign in many ways, especially when the path is indirect, obtuse, and protracted. So I choose to give meaning to this synchronicity and that meaning is a simple message: yes, there is something for me in this book – find it.

Did Shakespeare read Cellini’s autobiography? Did any of Cellini’s philosophy make it into Shakespeare’s works? Did Shakespeare transform any experience of Cellini’s work into his own uniVERSE? (That is intended as more of a provocative question than a pun…but it’s also punny!)

Now I will put the book of Chinese symbolism back in the box and make a new home for ‘The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini’ in my bedroom, in a spot right next to Montaigne’s ‘Essays’.

Hamlet: Plot Revealed Early in the First Quarto (1603)

If you have read and/or know the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you will have no doubt wondered whether or not Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, knew any of the villainy committed by her new husband, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. Questions such as “was she complicit” or “did she even know that Claudius killed her late husband, the elder Hamlet” make for good literary criticism and broaden the dramatic range an actor may explore when playing her part. Decisions have to be made to justify words and actions for all characters.

Regardless of the publisher and edition of the play you’ve read, it is most likely that you will recall a sequence of events that follows the killing of Polonius, and it goes something like this: Hamlet is sent to England under the supervision of his school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ; they are given a sealed written commission to the King of England by the King of Denmark (Claudius) whereby Hamlet is to be executed upon arrival; Hamlet suspecting as much secretly discovers the commission, alters it to instead have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed and reseals the commission with his father’s seal which he had with him; and by happenstance, Hamlet was able to escape the ship by sneaking aboard a pirate ship that had overtaken them on the way. Upon his Return Hamlet shares this only with Horatio and sends a letter to the King by way of a messenger, not Horatio himself, requesting leave to see his “kingly eyes” and to “recount the occasion” of his “sudden and more strange return.” I will stop here at the end of Act IV. Of all the published editions of Hamlet in modern times this is the story as we know it. HOWEVER, if you were to go by the First Quarto, the copy of the play first published in 1603, you would have a very different scenario and there is a problematic arc of the story that doesn’t get resolved.

The First Quarto (1603) differs from all the subsequent Quartos (1604, 1605, 1611, 1622) – as well as the First Folio edition of 1623 – in a few ways. It is roughly half the length and much of the dialogue is, frankly for Shakespeare, quite bad. It has often been called the “Bad” Quarto. It is actually very useful in studying the play, but it would clearly be a “bad” version to perform. When considering the whole of the text, it reads as though it were copied from the memory of a minor actor who had performed the play (perhaps someone who played Marcellus) or, perhaps, a prompter who had attended as many performances. A few scenes resemble the other editions, but much is quite different. For example, the famous soliloquy that begins, “To be, or not to be, that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, is nauseatingly paraphrased as follows: “To be, or not to be, Ay there’s the point, / To Die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all: / No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes,” to which I must ask – what…the…hell…is…that??? It’s neither indicative of Shakespeare’s poetic genius nor the incredible memory of an actor that played the role of Hamlet.

What follows is the brief scene that not only reveals to Gertrude the King’s plot to kill Hamlet whilst in England, but it also reveals that Hamlet rewrote and resealed the order to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed upon their arrival in England. Despite appearing to accept this information as fact, Gertrude’s behavior towards the King and Hamlet does not seem to differ from the other editions.

Enter Horatio and the Queene.

HoratioMadame, your son is safe arrived in Denmark.
This letter I even now received of him,
Whereas he writes how he escaped the danger,
And subtle treason that the king had plotted,
Being crossed by the contention of the winds,
He found the packet sent to the king of England ,
Wherein he saw himself betrayed to death,
As at his next conversation with your grace,
He will relate the circumstance at full.

Queen: Then I perceive there’s treason in his looks
That seemed to sugar o’re his villainy:
But I will soothe and please him for a time,
For murderous minds are always jealous,
But know not you Horatio where he is?

Horatio: Yes Madame, and he hath appointed me
To meet him on the east side of the city
Tomorrow morning.

QueenO fail not, good Horatio , and withal, commend me
A mothers care to him, bid him a while
Be wary of his presence, lest that he
Fail in that he goes about.

Horatio:Madam, never make doubt of that:
I think by this the news be come to court:
He is arrived, observe the king, and you shall
Quickly find, Hamlet being here,
Things fell not to his mind.

Queen: But what became of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz ?

Horatio: He being set ashore, they went for England ,
And in the packet there writ down that doom
To be performed on them pointed for him:
And by great chance he had his father’s seal,
So all was done without discovery.

Queen: Thanks be to heaven for blessing of the prince,
Horatio once again I take my leave,
With thousand mothers blessings to my son.

Horatio:. Madam adieu.

So, what do you think of this undeveloped arc? In all likelihood it was a confused and poorly remembered scene on the part of whoever supplied the publisher with the manuscript. But could this short scene be a remnant (it never appears in print again) of another version of Hamlet with an alternate ending? It is a point of deviation whereby one could stage a slightly less tragic finale in terms of body count, and perhaps our protagonist could actually live to tell his own tale.

For me, this is fascinating and a prompt for more research.

The Path To The Philosopher’s Stone

Michael Maier, Atlanta Fugiens, Epigramma XXI

While I’ve been on a hiatus from my magnum opus (a speculative historical drama about love, magic, witchcraft and the wars of religion in Renaissance Europe), I am recalling an essay I wrote which is as applicable now in planning next year’s all-female production of Hamlet as Shakespeare is to my drama — you’ll have to wait to read about that! But, I promise that once my Hamlet obsession is dissipated next year, I will resolve to finish writing my play. After all, my Latin teacher has been eagerly nudging me to finish so that she can read/see it before she shuffles off the mortal coil.

Without further ado, here’s that essay.

Beyond Feminism: The Path To The Philosopher’s Stone

"Through Love all that is bitter will sweet. 
Through Love all that is copper will be gold.
Through Love all dregs will turn to purest wine.
Through Love all pain will turn to medicine.
Through Love the dead will all become alive.
Through Love the king will turn into a slave!"

― Rumi

When I read the above poem, the first image in my mind was that of the elusive philosopher’s stone, the alchemists’ most precious source of trans­formative power. The words of Rumi’s poem make patently obvious that love is a catalyst for transformation.

“What is religion if not love. Through love 
one sees the heart, where lies ever hidden
the philosopher's stone."
― Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

Only in seeing women in an egalitarian light ­ and, I would argue, beyond egalitarian distinction, taking men and women not separately but as a man­/woman, masculine/­feminine, yin/­yang-system of complementary perspectives ­ can we, humankind, achieve a spiritual transformation of a higher order. Yet, it seems to me that since the dawn of dogma, the world’s religions have suppressed this very necessary ascension while providing fertile ground for misogyny to flourish within what is still largely a patriarchal society. Why is clear to see: the perpetuation of a dualist view of the universe. Yet, even at a time when Christian dogma taught that a woman’s sole virtue was the viability of her womb to bear a child, Renaissance women had a defender in the unlikeliest of people, a theologian by the name of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. In 1529, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486 – 1535), a German polymath who was also physician as well theologian, wrote De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminae sexus (On the Nobility and ​Preeminence ​of the Feminine Sex)​ in which using Christian doctrine he argues, “No one who is not utterly blind can fail to see that God gathered all the beauty of which the whole world is capable of in woman…” and “Woman is therefore the completion, perfection, happiness, the blessing and glory of man.​”

Before this in 1518 Agrippa successfully defended a woman against an accusation of witchcraft. In 1617 Michael Maier, a physician and alchemist to Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire, published a treatise with a lengthy title that we will abbreviate Atalanta Fugiens. In it he has an emblematic figure and some verse in Latin which is available in many translations and one follows:

Let man and woman grow a circle 
From which grows a square;
Around these put a triangle,
Embed them all in a sphere:
Then you will have the philosopher's stone.
― Michael Maier, Atlanta Fugiens, Epigramma XXI

What I think Rumi, Agrippa and Michael Maier were onto, is the heart of a true philosopher’s stone. Only, it is not a material one ­ It is a spiritual one with no less of a real essence and form.

Upon a staunch cornerstone of feminism we can build a foundation. But, this foundation is not our goal. It is means to spiritual growth. We must go beyond feminism, beyond chauvinism (male and female), beyond dualism, and only then will we see our relationships as something more than the sum of the parts. To know is to love. Thus, through love we may no longer exclude, but include. There will be no us versus them. Gender equality ceases to be an issue once we know and love each other as we know and love ourselves. We shall not see the material shells of the sexes nor shall we weigh differences with similarities because regardless of whoever we look upon, we will see ourselves, one spirit manifesting as material multiplicity.

The Hamlet Doctrine

In over 400 years of literary criticism, Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, must hold a position among the most analyzed. And beyond the gamut of academic fields from which many scholars have shared their perspectives, it would surprise me to discover if an article or book had not been written by a fishmonger about the relevance of the play to their profession. You may rest easy and release your breath. At this time I have no plans to add my own thoughts on Hamlet. Compiling an unabridged edition of the play for performance next year and directing the production has me busy enough.

Now in the course of preproduction, I try to read a different book on the subject each week and this week’s encounter was Stay Illusion: The Hamlet Doctrine by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, respectively a philosopher and psychoanalyst, husband and wife team who published the book in 2013. It was an intellectual romp, both stimulating and stupefying because of the analytical depth explored in both of the authors fields. At least it was so for me. My familiarity with Freud is limited: while myths are useful as analogies in analysis, I pretty much reject the Oedipus Complex as a strong model of human behavior. Besides, I’m much more Jungian. Yet, there seems to be some threads of value in the arras which Freud has weaved regarding Hamlet, at least insofar as the authors have presented. So, clearly I must re-read and absorb more Freud, particularly regarding Hamlet. Similarly, my studies of the classics are more than rusty – they are ancient in themselves. I can recall large portions of Hamlet’s soliloquies which I memorized in 1981, but none of the concepts of Euripides or Socrates which I read in college in 1984. So, I had to access the encyclopedia as I tried to figure out why I identified so much more with the Dionysian man than the Apollonian man. Again, the authors intrigued me; I was captivated but confused. The book is an invitation for me to go further into the philosophical and psychological aspects of Hamlet, far beyond what is essentially needed to direct my vision of the play. And by this, I mean this book has the potential to help me with further personal growth.

Stay Illusion: The Hamlet Doctrine was one of the dozen or so books I’ve borrowed this month from the public library via the interlibrary loan program. Unfortunately this copy must be returned, but not before I write down all the references, quotes and revelations indicated by the sticky note page markers you can see in the above photo. I want to reread it again later this year, but I will definitely have to obtain a copy for my home library.

I have so much to say about the portions of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy which these authors have included in the book; it deserves an essay in itself. However, I must first study Nietzsche’s work in its complete form. With only two semesters of German and so many years ago, I think I will read it in English. (But not until after the OISS all-female production of Hamlet next year. No more distractions, please!)

Nietzsche wrote:

“In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no–true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.”

And in me! Finally, someone can define a fragment of my existential angst in terms that resonate. Who would have thought that it would be Nietzsche? Alan Watts, of course. But, Nietzsche? Noted. Onward.

“Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live: these are the sublime as the artistic taming of the horrible, and the comic as the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity.

Yes! Art is my salvation, the muses – all of them – my saviors. (Don’t get me started on saviors: I am my only savior. While rejecting solipsism, I believe all of reality — all that is within the realm of my psychical existence — is but my fantasy. That means I’m the only alchemist who can transform my disgust into an Epicurean delight. The infinite and eternal unity — be it the Brahma of the Hindus, the monism of the neoplatonists, the God of Bruno and Spinoza with all the trappings and the suits they don — is filtered through the only singular psychical experience that may said to exist objectively, revealing the finite and temporal multitudes of psychical experiences which our egos call our subjective realities . And in this is Dionysus and Apollo, two different sides of the same coin which is, ultimately, an illusion that we beg to “stay” for fear of our identity being equated to nothing. As usual, I wax a digression.) Suffice it to say, while I have been only in recent years able to see the sublime through the banal, it is only through art that I can overcome this existential crisis. The dots are connecting. The veil is dropping for me, but to relate it I must erect a curtain and bring my reality to the stage; don the sock & buskin, cleave the general ear with horrid speech, make mad the guilty, appall the free, confound the ignorant and amaze indeed the very faculties of eyes and ears.

Stay Illusion: The Hamlet Doctrine is an analytical tool I plan to use now and again, to explore Hamlet and better find my voice. After Hamlet, I will continue with OISS and Shakespeare to my bitter end. But, I will return immediately to my magnum opus, the epic Renaissance historical drama with Bruno as a protagonist. And the relationship between Shakespeare and my play are so striking, I can hardly contain my passion.

A Streetcar Named Napoleon

After the opening night of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Orcas Center last night, it suddenly occurred to me why my character, Pablo Gonzales, hangs out with the likes of Stanley Kowalski.  

It has been established (in my imagination) that Pablo’s father, the village drunk, was struck and killed by a streetcar named Napoleon when Pablo was only 15. This affected him in several ways. Pablo never consumed alcohol as an adult, an escape sought after by most of the people that surrounded him in New Orleans. He also immediately felt a repugnant fear of the Napoleon line, the very streetcar that killed his father and would never ride it. However, from the age of 15, he had been missing a father-figure in his life. Although roughly the same age, Stanley became this authority-figure for Pablo;  the emotional and physical abuse with which Stanley treated his wife, Stella, strongly resembled the Gonzales machismo to his subconscious. Thus, Pablo had never been stirred to consciously rationalize Stanley’s brutish and beastial behavior.

This changes, however, when Pablo has to deal with the emotions that surface when he discovers that Stanley raped Stella’s sister, Blanche Dubois, and has arranged to have her committed to an asylum. Although Pablo knew very little about Blanche, he saw not a woman dangerous to herself or anyone else, but a vulnerable woman whose rumored (yet true) antics were merely a cry for help. The physical and emotional abuse she suffered from Stanley placed her on a precipice from which she had no recourse but to fall when he raped her. In so doing Stanley crossed a line with Pablo. We see this contemplation in Pablo in the way he glares at Stanley at that end of the play. It is a sign that the status quo of this poker group is about to change.

With this is born an idea that I shall cultivate during the run of the Orcas Center production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Why not write a 10-minute play for the 2019 Playfest at the Grange on Orcas Island? Why not, indeed!  And so I offer A Streetcar Named Napoleon. You know the backstory, so let’s introduce you to the plot.

After the final scene of Streetcar, Pablo has to address some emotions that have come to the surface. Stanley has gone too far and has become repugnant and so the play begins with Pablo’s emotional quandary and deciding to quit the poker group. But, that is not enough for him because the frequent sight of Stanley at the plant disgusts him. After talking with his wife, Maria, he decides to follow his dream of opening a Cuban restaurant by taking over an establishment previously owned by his cousin. His hero’s journey involves both letting go of the repugnant Stanley and his fear of riding the Napoleon; for without a driver’s license and his own transportation, he is forced to take the Napoleon in order to get to his restaurant.

The Toxicity of Anger and a Revelation in the Loo

For several years I have had the source of anger on my mind. Too many times I have found myself enraged over things that did not merit my attention at all, let alone an ire that leaves me furious. So, I asked myself, what really is the source of anger? How can I sum up the problem concisely and find the triggers for it? Until recently, I was perplexed. 

Then, about a month ago I finally read a book that has been on my book shelf for over 15 years, Parahamsa Yogananda’s An Autobiography of a Yogi, which as it turns out is the most profound book I have ever read to this day. Only, I didn’t read my copy which is now in storage. I read the copy of it that was the first book to present itself to me when offered reading material before I spent a night in jail. (Now, that’s another story!) In this well-written captivating life story, Yoganada, fearing he had angered his guru, Sri Yukteswar Giri, wrote:

“Master, I must have disappointed you by my abrupt departure from my duties here; I thought you might be angry with me.”

“No, of course not! Wrath springs only from thwarted desires. I do not expect anything from others, so their actions cannot be in opposition to wishes of mine. I would not use you for my own ends; I am happy only in your own true happiness.”

I thought aloud, “Wrath springs only from thwarted desires – wow!”

Yet, I still perceived incompleteness in the seemingly simple statement. Yes, I have gotten angry when a driver ahead of my car drives too slowly and makes me late for an appointment, or perhaps when someone destroys an item I value and only with my additional and undesired labor could I replace it if even possible. Theft of time or energy thrusts me into thwarted desire territory. I realize that I must work on that.

However, I often find myself seething in anger when I witness events from an objective perspective: e.g. a motorist tossing litter or flicking a lit cigarette out of a car window, a stranger being rude to an office clerk, or someone flagrantly displaying bigotry or other mind-blowing ignorance. In these instances, it wasn’t readily apparent to me where my desires come in to play. Why should I care if two people argue? And I can’t be everyone’s mother correcting their behaviors. But, if I am angry and do not direct it outward somewhere, it poisons me. This is a problem.

So, last night in the wee hours of the morning I arose to visit the loo as a man of my age does often throughout the night. Between getting out of bed and closing the bathroom door, for some reason I found myself philosophizing about anger. Before I left the bathroom it just came to me, this righteous flaw of mine. I desire that everyone around me should behave according to my moral code of conduct. That desire equals a potential weakness, a vulnerability just waiting for disappointment.

I think we all hope that others share our perspectives at least as social behavior goes. Invariably though on a daily basis I find myself in situations where this ideal is challenged. And desire is a whole new level of psychological investment. It’s a poor and toxic one when a subtle hope meets the fervor of ego’s demands. Ego, that bastard! Interconnected as we a social species, our egos strive for independence as well as dominance. This is our lot as humans. Yet, we must each come to terms with the relativity in moralism; additionally one must strive to curb ego’s passion and shunt the acute stress response as if the integrity of one’s own moral code is threatened (this is how I have errantly perceived these situations.)

Finally, though, I can accept the aphorism of Sri Yukteswar Giri. In realizing this truth, I am cognitively able to address my reactionary seething to those matters in the future when I needlessly feel that I – or my moral code – is in jeopardy. But, I tell you this – it is going to require practice taking the ego out of the moment!

There are only three desires worthy of anger (if there are any at all): food, shelter, and safety. I shall be angry if I don’t survive. But, I need not be angry if I do not thrive: that is the challenge of being alive – to thrive artfully and gracefully. I sincerely wish that I do not thwart another person’s desires; but as it is bound to happen, so be it. [If this sincere wish of mine be thwarted, I will not be angered as it not a desire!] Meanwhile I promise to work on curbing my desires for the good of all people around me. I will continue to remind myself of a most applicable quote by Giordano Bruno, “what you receive from others is a testimony to their virtue; but all that you do for others is the sign and clear indication of your own.

To Rise Above The Stigma

First, I must explain that while I hope everyone in the world will read this letter, my target audience is small: you may be someone I’ve never met or someone I know who is battling internal demons and, for fear of embarrassment, disapproval, or repercussions you sublimate your feelings instead of expressing them. At some point in life, we all experience something in our lives that leaves us feeling anything but pride. We all make mistakes, errors in our thinking or execution of tasks, and sometime misguided judgments about other people and even ourselves. In the latter case, we can find ourselves with low self-esteem perhaps leading to anxiety and/or depression. What we most need at that time is to feel like we are not alone. Unfortunately, sublimating and not sharing can lead to serious mental health issues.

Now, I’m neither expecting nor will I engage in a debate here and I’m not sure I even have the courage to discuss this matter further, but I am open to the possibility. I also do not wish to elicit sympathy for myself as I share those events in my life which have prompted me to write this letter. I merely wish to reach out to those people in particular who definitely need to hear (or in this case read) that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are people in my community and the world at large who can and do understand what you are going through. There is a critical point at which you have to embrace yourself and love yourself totally by letting go of fear. This is such an instance for me and I am going to be vulnerable in public.

In any given day I have worn many masks to obscure reality. But, why hide the truth? As Alan Watts once said, if you are a real person you are a genuine fake. The word person is derived from the Latin word, persona, meaning “an actor’s mask”. I’ve just about reached the end of my rope trying to be a genuine fake (except when I have acted on stage in dramatic plays). My mind is weary and my heart aches. It is time to be wholeheartedly and unapologetically me. And that means I must be willing to be vulnerable and make sure that every choice I make is done out of love and not fear – out of love for myself and not out of fear of what anyone will think.

Fear is natural. However, it is only an indicator and should not serve as fuel for action. A balance of rational thinking and intuition is what fear calls for. Fear is part of a battle cry, not part of the battle.

In almost every relationship, I feel like a skinless watermelon trying to retain the shape and integrity of my delicate structure. With this article I’m opening Pandora’s Box and fearlessly embracing whatever emerges. I want to feel the freedom that comes with openness and hope to dismiss any complications and repercussions that result. This is a challenge for me as I am facing what I perceive to be the most threatening social anxieties as I attempt to find my place in the community, this country and within the sphere of humanity when the zeitgeist of living on Earth now causes me the most outstanding angst and unhappiness I’ve ever experienced. I do have purpose, passion and direction. Yet, at the same time I just don’t fit with the society of which I’ve been raised. The most prevalent feeling is that I don’t belong in this world at this time. It feels surreal. This is not my life. Ah! But, it is my life. We are not defined by what happens to us. We are defined by our reactions to the events that befall us. No one controls another person’s perceptions and feelings. And as Benjamin Disraeli so apply put it, “Never apologize for showing feeling, my friend. Remember that when you do so, you apologize for the truth.”

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who I met about seven years ago committed suicide. Close in age, we had a lot in common from our university major to the passions of activities in our later life such as music and studying the Latin language. Unfortunately, in recent years my social skills have been stifled by anxiety and shyness resulting in passive-aggressive attempts at friendship. Thus, my friend and I never engaged in the kind of heart-to-heart dialogues that serve to nurture a trusting and growing relationship. I’m still in shock and I don’t understand the reason for his death. I do know, however, that many of us go through such pain at times such that our rationality may be blurred by the emotional furor of a single moment. Anyone can lose it at any time. Did my friend see this coming? I also wonder whether or not people who take their own lives feel that they are unique in their seemingly unbearable pain. What if there was more support from family, friends, the community, and health service providers – the kind of support that demolishes any stigma associated with mental illness? Sometimes it seems that people brag about their bouts with the flu, whilst keeping their manic-depression in the closet or not talking about a family member’s schizophrenia, for random examples. These unresolved issues festering privately can be debilitating and destructive.

I’ve been very cognizant of my mental states of late and this is the worst month of the worst year of my life. As much as I want to be left alone and aloof from society, it is neither practical nor possible. What I am realizing is that this also may not be in my best interest.

When I moved to Orcas Island with my wife and son in 2010, we lived in a tent for three months. At first, neither my wife nor I were employed. Moving here was a deliberate choice to start living intentionally. During our third week here I had a bowel obstruction which is not unusual for me since being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 1999. And as I lay there enduring intense abdominal pain one day on the park grass in Friday Harbor while my wife and son explored the town for the first time, I was utterly happy. Frankly, I was content to die then and there if that was meant to be. There’s no better place on Earth to suffer than in the San Juan Islands. We’ve come a long way since then.

Having been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder some time ago, I have been taking medication daily for 15 years with great stability. But, a fear of heart disease in 2016 from seriously high triglycerides and cholesterol brought about some panic attacks and subsequently some feelings of depression. But, my heart health turned around for the better and the depression I had experienced seemed to subside as the year 2017 progressed.

Having survived a horrid case of the flu that lasted between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I rang in the New Year with a second bout of it, the worst of it manifesting on the eighth day. Amidst recovering we learned that the house we had been living in for six years – the longest I had ever lived in one house – would be put on the market soon. We would be given the first right of refusal to purchase the home, but we knew there was no way we could afford it. Our rent was very reasonable and lower than average, so, this was going to seriously challenge our already strained financial situation.

While we were living in limbo not knowing how much longer we would be living in the house, I received news that my mother passed away on February 19th. She had been in hospice for some time and it wasn’t a surprise, but my mom had such tenacity that I didn’t really expect her end to be near. Notice of our lease termination followed in less than two weeks. Originally we had 60 days to vacate; however, we were able to get an additional two-week reprieve at a cost of half-rent to completely move out and clean before May 15th.

A few weeks after this notice and giving the confluence of several unlikely factors which for brevity I will not elaborate, I was stopped on the evening of March 9th by a deputy for speeding only to result in my arrest for DUI. I cannot express the surreal state of being handcuffed in front my son and taken away from him. I felt that I had let him down completely by not exercising judgement at any time that evening. I let my son down. I let my wife down. I wondered what my sister would think when I tell her? Her son, my only nephew, was killed at age 23 in an alcohol and speed-related, single-car crash in 2011. I just wanted to die. I could not believe that I was such a dead-beat father. What have I done? I thought, “This is not happening to me.” And shortly after midnight, I found myself signing documents at the Sheriff’s office in the wee hours of March 10th which happens to be my birthday. A happy birthday it was not! As a result of my action, I will be serving one day in jail this month with 363 days suspended provided successful completion of my obligations during the five-year probation period. I must get a court-ordered alcohol and drug assessment by a counseling agency and submit to any recommended treatment. Anyone who knows me knows that I do not have a substance abuse problem. And, while I cannot legally consume alcohol or any non-prescription drugs for five years while on probation, I cannot even fathom drinking alcohol ever again for how much this has soured my taste for the once enchanting bitterness of Bombay Sapphire gin. Of course, I have also incurred fines, a suspended license, and I must wait some time, perhaps another year, to drive when I can afford an ignition interlock device and the required liability insurance imposed by the Department of Motor Vehicles for at least one year. There can be no bars, pubs, or taverns for me during probation either. I never frequented those places anyway. But, this is my future- the minimum mandatory sentence for a first offence in Washington State. No sentence, however, could be a tortuous as I have been to myself for the last two months in the purgatory between arraignment and plea.

Now we are in the throes of the final week’s tasks, moving out of our house and renovating the leak-damaged 16-foot travel trailer we will be living in for several months until affordable housing is available. (For those non-local readers, our island is amidst a growing housing crisis.) I find myself still reeling over my friend’s death, wishing I could turn back the clock for this entire year. I hold back tears constantly, not because I am afraid to show emotion, but because it makes my eyes swell and I can’t get anything done in the moment. Ultimately, that is all we every really have, isn’t it – the moment?

I’m not alone. A lot of people are suffering from the various slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – battles with cancer, the deaths of loved ones, financial woes, etc. How can we help each other? I would not be surprised if there were support groups for anxiety and depression on Orcas Island. However, this much is not readily apparent and that, my friends, is the problem. Whether the matter is a mental illness, a criminal record or some other shame, how do we rise above the stigmas, not as individuals, but as a community? How can we help each other in dropping the persona that portrays everything as being peachy and provide safety for those who need to be vulnerable to survive?

The world – our country – is not peachy. It’s in a sad state. Everything is not OK.

How am I at the moment? I am alive and that is enough for now.

Earth is a beautiful planet and I still find amazement in human potential. But ignorance and lack of compassion for our fellow humans flourishes. If it isn’t blatant to you, look to humorous and satirical treatments of life today in the arts. You really don’t have to scour between the lines. Sadly, fear seems to be a prevalent driving force.

Now more than ever I want to run away to wander with animals and wonder with awe at nature. But, instead I am dropping my masks. Consider this letter a lifeline to my remaining a part of society. I challenge anyone of you who wants to join me, whether you are suffering or not, to drop your masks. Please don’t just tell me that I am not alone. Show me! Be vulnerable and unapologetically you while acting out of love instead of fear. I dare you to put the humanity back in the human species: we must be inclusive, not exclusive and that requires an open heart (again, this requires vulnerability.) Stop striving to be a genuine fake. Help me overcome my social anxiety and perhaps one day I will gladly step back on stage at the Orcas Center and proudly wear a persona as it should be worn. Let’s rise above the stigma. And if you see me around, please do not hesitate to hug me! I sure as hell need it. And I bet, so do some of you!