Friday, August 29, 2008

Moment of Christ



To know ourselves, to understand ourselves. . .we simply must make contact with our spirit. All self-understanding arises from understanding ourselves as spiritual beings. It is only contact with the universal Holy Spirit that can give us the depth and the breadth to understand our own experience. The way to this is not difficult. It is very simple. But it does require serious commitment and serious involvement in our own existence.

The wonderful revelation that is there for all of us to discover, if only we will set out on the path with discipline, is that our spirit is rooted in God and that each of us has an eternal destiny and an eternal significance. That is the primary discovery for each of us to make, that the nature we possess has infinite potential for development and that development can only come if we undertake this pilgrimage to our own center. It is only there, in the depths of our own being, that we can discover ourselves rooted in God. Meditation is just this way of making contact with our own spirit and in that contact finding the way of integration, of finding everything in our experience coming into harmony, everything in our experience judged and aligned on God.

The way of meditation is very simple. All each of us has to do is to be as still as possible in body and in spirit. . . . Learning to meditate is learning to let go of your thoughts, ideas and imagination and to rest in the depths of your own being. Always remember that. Don’t think, don’t use any words other than your one word, don’t imagine anything. Just sound the word in the depths of your spirit and listen to it. Concentrate upon it with all your attention. Why is this so powerful? Basically, because it gives us the space that our spirit needs to breathe. It gives each of us the space to be ourselves. When you are meditating you don’t need to apologize for yourself and you don’t need to justify yourself. All you need to do is to be yourself. You need to accept from the hands of God the gift of your own being.

Meditate for 30 Minutes. . . Remember: Sit down. Sit still and upright. Close your eyes lightly. Sit relaxed but alert. Silently, interiorly, begin to say a single word. We recommend the prayer-phrase "Maranatha." Recite it as four syllables of equal length. Listen to it as you say it, gently, but continuously. Do not think or imagine anything—spiritual or otherwise. Thoughts and images will likely come, but let them pass. Just keep returning your attention—with humility and simplicity—to saying your word in faith, from the beginning to the end of your meditation.

-- John Main, OSB, MOMENT OF CHRIST

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Finding God Everywhere


"As birds . . . find the air wherever they fly, and fish are surrounded by water wherever they swim, so wherever we go, we must find God everywhere."
-- Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was born on this day in 1774.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Noon Day Sun


I see at least 100 shows a year, but rarely do I walk out of the theatre feeling as uplifted as I did after seeing this provocative, beautifully acted play Monday night. It was the rare experience of seeing a production that is first rate in every way. Noon Day Sun is theatre at its transforming best.

Cassandra Medley’s play, under the insightful direction of Victor Lirio, is involving from start to finish. It tells the story of Zena (Gin Hammond), a young Southern black woman with skin so light she was nicknamed Snow as a child. Filled with grief after the death of her infant twin daughters, she walked out on her alcoholic husband (Ron Cephas Jones) and boarded a train headed north. As she was ready to settle into the segregated car, the white conductor saw her and told her she was in the “nigger” car and offered to escort her to one for whites. She hesitated a moment before taking his outstretched arm.

We learn part of this at the start as she stands on stage considering the turn her life took that day 10 years earlier. The rest of her earlier life is enacted in flashbacks over four days in 1957. In her present day we see her the wife of a white man (Michael McGlone) whose ambition has carried him from the Irish Catholic tenement world into a promising career in Detroit’s auto industry. He adores her and she seems to love him too.

Her contrived world is shattered on a "white hot day in August” when she encounters her first husband, to whom she is still legally married, working as a janitor in the hotel where she and her husband are staying on a business trip. She also learns that despite having been told she would never have any more children, she is pregnant.

Medley has written characters that are fully dimensional so we don’t judge Zena for the choice she made or the other characters for their reactions. “It’s my responsibility to get myself a better life,” was how she rationalized her decision. The characters are believable and their situations all too human.

Hammond is compelling as Zena, as is the entire cast, which is rounded out by Melanie Nicholls-King, Penelope Darcel, David Newer and Nino Spallacci.

Set and lighting designer Maruti Evans does a fabulous job of creating this world, doing marvels with only a couple chairs and tables. He presents past and present opposite each other through lighting that heightens the atmosphere of shadow and ambiguity central to the play.

Noon Day Sun gives human faces and human hearts to the issues of racism and the search for identity. My only regret is that it’s closing Saturday. I strongly urge you to catch this production at The Beckett Theatre in these last few days. Tickets are only $18 and can be purchased via Ticket Central at www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200.
 

Monday, August 25, 2008

Meditation


Wanted to share with you this Guideposts article by Jessica C. Kraft. I meditate twice a day and meet with a meditation group once a month at St. Bart’s. It really does change your life.

The Kinko's in San Francisco's financial district feels like an emergency room. Every day, 800 customers hurry into the store, in a panic to get their copies made and reports finished. Even staff members can succumb to the stress. But not branch manager Jesper Jorgensen. He keeps his cool, no matter what difficulties arise. Decades of daily meditation practice have taught him how to stay centered and focused in the copy-shop hothouse. "The controlled environment of formal meditation builds clarity and stability, and I'm able to just let the stress bounce off of me," he says. "I choose to stay calm and peaceful."

Practitioners of different meditation traditions experience these same effects: mental clarity, improved concentration, an ability to withstand and repel the stresses of everyday life. And scientists have recently uncovered the physical benefits of regular meditation.

Rajendra Sharma, M.D., medical director of The Diagnostic Clinic in London, has studied the physiological effects of meditation. "People who meditate automatically counteract stress chemicals, and so reduce stress-related illnesses such as ulcers and recurrent flu and colds," he says. "Meditators feel better, heal quicker and have less illness."

In a recent study, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers scanned the brains of 20 people who regularly meditated and compared them to people who never had. The frontal cortex, which processes higher functions like memory and decision-making, was thicker (indicating more capacity) and had aged much less in the meditators.

Researchers at Harvard found that people in deep meditative states exhale more nitric oxide, a process that relaxes arteries and helps blood flow, thereby lowering blood pressure.

Meditating for 40 minutes does more to refresh you than taking caffeine or spending the same amount of time napping or exercising. Studies at the University of Kentucky showed that the meditating helped people perform best on tests of alertness and reaction time.

The benefits are clear. Meditating can bring inner calm and radiant health. But how exactly is it done?

It's not about closing your eyes and napping while sitting up. Nor is it blanking out in a trance. Lama Ole Nydahl, who teaches Tibetan meditation, says it is "not about getting to emptiness, but rather, meditation is the space where everything happens and you are fully aware and happy."

If you've ever worked intently on a cross-stitch piece, swum a half-mile without stopping or prayed with unswerving attention, you have some idea what meditation is like. It's a feeling of complete absorption in what you're doing. As Lesley Garner writes in Everything I've Ever Done That Worked, meditation "is an intense mental discipline." It's a deep state of concentration and focus that is aligned with your breathing.

Breathing is fundamental to meditation. Why? Aryeh Kaplan, author of Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide,  explains that because breathing occurs unconsciously, when we focus on it, we make a connection with our unconscious mind. "By learning how to concentrate on and control your breath you can go on to learn how to control the unconscious mind," Kaplan says.

Most religions include ritual meditation. While the most popular meditation methods are derived from Buddhist and Hindu traditions, there are also Christian, Jewish and Muslim varieties. And some types of meditative practice are not religious at all—they are focused on deep breathing and relaxation.

The Reverend Lesley Adams, a college chaplain in Geneva, New York, uses guided meditation to build bridges between students of different faiths. She has her students gather and sit comfortably with eyes closed while she talks them through the process of quieting the mind. "We begin with attention to breathing and relaxation of the body. This can work for simply learning to calm and center oneself," she says. Chaplain Adams has also used the ancient meditative practice of labyrinth-walking to re-engage students with Christian worship.

Walking meditation is a good choice for those who find sitting meditation too relaxing. Meditators do focused perambulation around a large room or out in the open. Mitchell Ratner, Ph.D., the senior teacher at Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center in Takoma Park, Maryland, says meditation is not necessarily about ceasing activity. "When you are walking, you can breathe in with one step, and out with the next. You should be aware of where you are going, but always be coming back to your breath and your feet." Even on the elliptical machine at the gym, you can be more aware of what is going on around you, and focus on the moment.

Remember Transcendental Meditation, popularized by the Beatles in the 1960s? The TM technique involves a twice-daily 20-minute sitting meditation practice during which a single individualized phrase, or mantra, is repeated over and over. The chanting and concentration on breathing creates a deepened state of awareness with many benefits. According to a 2006 analysis in the American Journal of Cardiology, TM improves blood pressure and sleep patterns and increases life span. Researchers documented a 23 percent decrease in death rates among practitioners compared to nonpractitioners of the same age.

Meditation is also an integral part of yoga practice, which is where a lot of people first learn about it. Emily Gallagher of Delmar, New York, started doing Hatha yoga 13 years ago, and particularly liked the final pose, sivasana, in which you lie on the floor for a few minutes of meditation. That led her into meditating for longer periods. Now she meditates every day to energize her spirit. "Some people have a cup of coffee. I do yoga and meditate," she says.

Some practitioners like to gather in a meditation group (called a sangha in the Buddhist tradition), for support and inspiration. Andrew Twaddle joined a sangha in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri, after a trip to Thailand led him to learn more about Buddhist meditation. He believes group meditation helps his spiritual growth. "The association with others in the practice leads to increased generosity and loving-kindness."

Mindfulness meditation is growing in popularity. The practice is about building upon what Ratner calls the "wordless awareness" developed in meditation, and applying it to everyday situations. Most of us live as if we have a stereo system in our heads that's constantly playing back our plans, concerns and worries. Mindfulness helps us experience the world without that soundtrack of anxiety. As Thich Nhat Hahn writes in The Miracle of Mindfulness, even the act of washing dishes can prompt a greater appreciation of life: "I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands."

Those who practice any kind of meditation know the benefits of clarity, concentration and relaxation improve the more regularly you meditate. Making it a daily habit is key. Experts recommend 20 to 30 minutes daily, but just five minutes does good for you. Even if you're in a rush to get to work, try to sit down for a few minutes to focus on your breathing—it might just make the difference between feeling stressed out and feeling stress-free.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Good advice


"Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."
--M.K. Gandhi

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Connect with God


by Gina Bridgeman

Thus says the Lord: 'Set your house in order...'
—Isaiah 38:1

You can see Camelback Mountain from all around Phoenix, Arizona (a bit of it even from my backyard), and it really does look like a camel lying on its stomach. But seeing its most interesting feature is a tougher trick. There’s a chunk of rock near the camel’s forehead that looks like a prayerful figure trudging up the mountain clothed in a dark brown robe.

Because of the surrounding rock formations, you can see the Praying Monk only from certain angles. Driving my son Ross home from school, I catch sight of the monk as I approach from the west, but within a few blocks he disappears as I face the camel head-on. More than once I’ve heard Ross’s frustration as he’s tried to show the monk to out-of-town visitors. "Wait," he’ll say, "you have to be in just the right spot to see him." And as promised, the monk suddenly pops into view.

Just the right spot to see him. Lately I’ve been thinking that’s a clue to what can go wrong in my spiritual life. When my days are hectic, with prayer and devotional time cut short or even cut out, I start to feel disconnected from God. I’m simply not in the right place to see God clearly. God’s always there, as steady as the familiar Praying Monk, but I’m driving down the road too busy with life’s distractions to notice.

It’s probably not a coincidence that this rock formation is a praying monk. When I spy the monk in prayer, he’s a perfect reminder of what I must do when my priorities slip. I need to slow down, pull off the road if necessary, and make time for the things that bring me closer to God, especially peaceful time alone to talk with Him. I need to get myself back in just the right spot to see God unmistakably before me every day.

Lord, help me put all distractions aside, to see and hear and be with only You.


The above devotional is excerpted from Daily Guideposts book of devotionals, now available on OurPrayer.

Friday, August 22, 2008

O Clap Your Hands


When this book arrived I immediately put on the accompanying CD by Gloriae Dei Cantores. I knew it would take me awhile to get to the text, but I wanted to hear the music right away. This choral groups has given me so much joy and comfort in the last year since I discovered their magnificent voices. I have several of their CDs and am always happy to receive another.

As always, their singing is uplifting and at times powerful. It’s also a great way to make the information in the book, by Gordon Giles, come to life. The subtitle is “A Musical Tour of Sacred Choral Works,” and that’s just what it is. Giles, vicar of St. Mary Magdalene Church in North London and a trained musician, offers the equivalent of a course in the sacred music of such masters as Rachmaninov, Palestrina, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Vaughan Williams. He presents the history behind beloved liturgical arrangements of “Kyrie,” “Gloria” and “Santus,” plus psalms and chants. He supplements the information with interesting facts about the composers and concludes with a prayer. Divided into 30 chapters, the book is a beautiful tool for a month of daily devotions. After learning about these works and prayerfully reflecting on their meaning, listening to the choir perform them is an inspired way to take the knowledge into the soul. What a brilliant idea!

I used Giles’ earlier devotional, O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent and Christmas, last year and will do so again this December. I was deeply moved by that work, and it didn’t even have an accompanying CD. This latest is a double blessing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mary Sheeran Sings Through the Years


I’m so proud of my friend Mary Sheeran. She’s just released this fabulous new CD of Songbook and Broadway favorites.

From her soulful interpretation of “With Every Breath,” her wistful pairing of “Begin the Beguine” with “Dancing in the Dark,” her ultra romantic “My Heart Stood Still” and playful “Dolphins’ Song” (about the sex lives of these charming creatures) and “The Complete Works” (a singing of the titles of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays), she proves that a classically trained singer can bring out the best in popular music as well.

Not only is the singing professional, so is the lovely packaging she has created. The cover reminds me of one of those atmospheric photos that graced so many Windham Hill recordings in the 1980s. It features a tricycle partially buried in the snow beside a large tree; Mary tells me this was her backyard. Inside she offers photos of herself in younger days and her parents, perfect for an album called “Through the Years,” one that ends with that beautiful song written by Vincent Youmans and Edward Heyman.

Accompanying Mary on piano is Michika Ishikawa, the talented jazz musician who is a real crowd-pleaser at Mary’s live performances.

I’ve been enjoying Mary’s cabaret shows for years. I’m glad she’s recorded this CD so I now can listen to her whenever I want!

To order your own copy, write to marysharbor@yahoo.com. Ten percent of the proceeds will be donated to the Lung Cancer Alliance.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Habits

“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.”
—Charles C. Noble

Monday, August 18, 2008

Develop the Happiness Habit


The happiness habit is developed by simply practicing happy thinking. Make a mental list of happy thoughts and pass them through your mind several times every day. Proverbs 15:15 states: "...he that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast." Let a series of pictures pass across your mind of pleasant experiences you expect for the day. Such thoughts will help cause events to turn out that way.
 
Today's Power Thought is No. 27 in a series of 100 Power Thoughts from The Power of Positive Thinking, the all-time inspirational best-selling book by Norman Vincent Peale.
 
Courtesy of PealeCenterforPositiveThinking.com.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Land Ahead


No goal is too distant for those who can believe

by Florence Chadwick

When I started out to swim the 21-mile channel from Catalina Island to the California Coast that July 4th, conditions didn't seem too different from my other swims, except for two things. I missed my father a lot, and we knew that an attempt was being made to televise my effort to be the first woman to swim this California Channel.

Fifteen hours, 55 minutes later, they pulled me from the water. I was just a mile away from my goal. It was the first time in my life I had been forced to quit.

It wasn't until some hours later, when the numbing cold in my bones began to thaw, that I really felt the shock of failure. When a sympathetic young reporter came to talk with me, I told him honestly, "Yes, I was cold. No, I wasn't tired."

Then, because he looked understanding, I blurted out what was secretly in my heart. "Look, I'm not excusing myself. But if I could have seen land, I might have made it."

Was that wishful thinking? The big "if" we all have afterward? Not entirely. When I first swam the English Channel in 1950, I thought I had gone as far as humanly possible. I was cold then, too. I asked to be taken out of the water.

Just then my father sighted land. He pointed. I saw it too. Land in sight! The thrill of that brought the warmth I needed and victory was sure. It didn't take much faith to swim on toward a destination I could see so clearly.

But the California Coast had been shrouded in fog last 4th of July morning. Even the boats in our own party were almost impossible to see. When my mother and my trainer told me we were in sight of shore, that only fog obscured our landing place, I thought they were only coaxing, only encouraging me. I didn't believe them. I couldn't see it. And I was so cold.

True, I did wish for my father, who had passed away in November 1951, but the best part of him, his sure strong faith, had been with me in that 48 degree sea. The same prayer for strength and courage we always made together when I entered the water, I had made alone. Tired as I was at the end, I thanked God for my blessings as Dad had taught me to do when each swim was completed.

So, even though I knew I would try again, this first failure was a blow. Then I remembered my father and his saying that "good can come out of any experience if we enter into it with prayer and keep an open heart."

Well, I had entered this with prayer, and I was waiting, now, with an open heart to see what good could come of it. I didn't wait long.

Because of television, millions had seen the swim, some staying up on through the night. The flood of messages and some 3000 letters indicated they had seen much more in my long effort than I had.

There was a letter from a man and his wife, on the verge of breaking off their marriage, who sat in their living-room and watched me to the end. Something in the picture of a cold, lonely girl, swimming on and on through the night, touched them. "If you have the strength, the purpose and endurance to try that again," they said, "well, so have we."

A young man, who described himself as a tough, hard-boiled skeptic, wrote: "I never prayed in my life before, but when you were so close to shore, I found myself on my knees, asking God to give you strength."

This kind of response made me feel almost unworthy. None of my successes had ever won me so many friends. But the failure to swim a channel of water enabled me to learn something that will last a lifetime.

For reflection helped me see clearly that I had been licked by the fog. Like doubt, confusion or discouragement, the fog alone had no power to stop me. But because I let it blind my heart and reason, as well as my eyes, then it really defeated me.

I remembered that Jesus had said to one of His disciples: "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed."

At that moment I knew the real meaning of faith described in the Bible as, "the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen." When fog obscures our own vision, even when we've gone all out, and still seem to be failing and are too tired or cold to go on, then we must be willing to accept the word of someone who sees a little clearer, knows a little better than we do.

Realizing this made me accept my many new friends with a sure feeling that, fog or no fog, I wouldn't let them down again.

The day we picked for the second Catalina Island to California Coast swim was September 20th, over two months later. The weather was better, but we encountered many of the same obstacles as before. Three times sharks were sighted; members of my crew were forced to shoot several when they got too close. In the middle we came into such a bad patch of fog I could hardly see the boats, but I swam on.

My brother, for the first time, sat in the rowboat where my father had always been. When it was time for my nourishment, he elaborately put on a chef's hat, clanged a dinner bell and then fed me my four lumps of sugar. His humorous remarks, on the blackboard by which we communicated, kept my spirits high.

When I reached the California shore, breaking the men's record by nearly two hours, I was never so humbly grateful for victory.

But the joy of this triumph can not compare with the thrill I received from a letter sent me by a chronically ill man. Though depressed by his sickness, he had watched my first failure, and what he could see of the second success. He wrote how my effort had given him courage and strength to fight on. Even if he didn't see his goal of a complete cure, he had learned to have faith that for him, somewhere, there was. . . land ahead.


This article appeared in Guideposts magazine. Visit the recently updated guideposts.com.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Page Out of Life


One of my favorite characters in Kathleen Reid’s delightful new novel, A Page Out of Life, is Libby Marshall, a retired elementary school teacher and member of a group of women who gather each week to create scrapbooks, bonding over old memories and current dramas.

As it turns out, Libby is one of the results of a spiritual journey Ms. Reid began around the same time she started researching and writing the book.

“The message my book sends is a direct result of my faith,” said Ms. Reid, 43, during a telephone interview from her home in Richmond, VA. “The importance of unconditional love. That’s the strongest message I send in my writing.”

She hadn’t been aware that her spiritual exploration was influencing her writing until she finished the book and saw the parallels between what she was learning and the character she had created.

“it was affecting my work, but I didn’t realize how much,” she said. “As I grew and changed, it was definitely influencing my writing.”

In the past, the intersection between life and writing had been more obvious to her. Her children’s book, Magical Mondays at the Art Museum, has art at its center, and art features in her first novel, Paris Match, as well, reflecting Ms. Reid’s love of fine art and art history and her five years as a guide at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

Her interest in art also plays a small part in A Page Out of Life. Tara, another of my favorite characters, is working on her doctorate in art history and the work of Miro, and the scrapbooking itself becomes an art form. But the women in this book must deal with some soul-trying experiences, just as their creator had been doing her own soul-searching. Libby’s crisis comes when her son is arrested for financial improprieties at the large investment firm where he is an executive. She stands by him every step of the way. Tara is considering an affair with her married thesis advisor and Ashley must cope with her husband’s infidelity.

“One’s strength helps another’s weakness. Isn’t that what life’s all about, helping each other out,” Ms. Reid asked.

It’s a story of female bonding, but it is far removed from popular current examples like “Sex and the City.”

“I hate pop culture,” Ms. Reid said emphatically. “Don’t even get me started. My goal is to write beautiful stories that don’t rely on sex and violence to get you to want to turn the page. I’m weary of all that stuff. I write stories that are character-driven, not driven my sex scenes, and that are fun and uplifting.”

A Page Out of Life is fun and uplifting, and it did make me want to turn the page. I wasn’t interested right away because the first chapter is about Ashley, an overwhelmed mother of four, and I couldn’t relate. As soon as Tara and Libby were introduced, however, I was hooked, and I began to warm toward Ashley as she started waking to the truth in her marriage and taking an interest in herself.

While the book is finished, released by Berkley Books at the end of April, the soul journey continues, Ms. Reid says. It’s not that believing was new to her, she had grown up Catholic, a member of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament parish in Chevy Chase, MD, and continues to consider herself a Catholic even though she now worships at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.

What changed several years ago is that she began to explore her faith more deeply through classes on Christianity. And while faith doesn’t factor into the lives of the characters in Page, it might in her next book, she says. Several years ago she and her family toured Turkey and the experience touched her deeply, walking the paths that St. Paul had and seeing centuries old fresco of the life of Jesus.

“Walking on all that history was incredible to me. That’s got to go in there.”

The women and their scrapbooking will again likely be back. Ms. Reid has heard so many stories from people who create scrapbooks that she is keeping a folder of them to draw upon. She will most certainly hear more as her novel gets out there because scrapbookers are numerous -- the Craft & Hobby Association estimates it to be a $3.3 billion industry.

Before researching for her book, Ms. Reid had no idea it was that popular. She began to get an inkling when she took her daughters to craft stores and saw all the supplies. Then she heard about classes and clubs and had her first aha moment.

“I realized it had become an art form and I thought, ‘That’s right up my alley.’”

Building a novel around scrapbookers seemed like a good idea, especially when she realized it was wide open territory.

“I realized it hadn’t been done, and it was aha again. I thought I could start with my story-building skills and see what I could do with a group of southern women.”

Along the way , she caught their passion.

“It’s incredibly addictive,” she said. “I’m making a scrapbook of my characters. It’s like playtime for adults. Scrapbooking is a tradition, similar to storytelling, but with a visual focus.”


Related web site
www.kathleenreid.com.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Far from the city streets


I was thinking recently about a funny experience I had several summers ago when some friends and I drove to rural Connecticut for a quiet summer weekend. We arrived after dark and when we opened the car door the sound of crickets was deafening, and unfamiliar to our city ears, especially those of their 5-year-old, Katherine.

“What’s that,” she asked.

We told her and her eyes grew big.

“Are they real crickets,” she asked.

And so began a city child’s weekend in the country.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Invitation to Love


"Silence is God's first language; everything else is a poor translation. In order to hear that language, we must learn to be still and to rest in God."

-- Father Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Grace

“Grace changes us, and change is painful.”
-- Flannery O’Connor

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Buffalo Gal



Susan Sullivan is fabulous. I haven’t seen her on stage since she did A. R. Gurney’s play The Fourth Wall six years ago. Before that, I don’t know if I’d seen her anywhere since her days on my much-loved soap, “Another World,” in the early 70s. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t been working -- her bio is full of credits -- it’s just that I’m not a TV-watcher and that’s primarily where she works.

She’s certainly where she should be now, though, and once again it’s in a Gurney play. She’s a natural on stage, playing a television star with a fading career who returns to her hometown of Buffalo to play Madam Ranevskaya in a local theater production of The Cherry Orchard.

Art imitating life? Hardly. Amanda, the overly dramatic actress, can barely remember a line of dialogue at at time. Sullivan is letter perfect in every way -- dialogue, movement, timing. The play, presented by Primary Stages and directed by Mark Lamos, is most alive when she’s on stage.

Gurney plays are never plot-driven, and Buffalo Gal is no exception. He’s a playwright who likes to develop his humor from his characters, usually WASPs dealing with some situation, like the selling of the family home.

Unfortunately, the humor here isn’t as sharp as it usually is, especially when compared to Gurney’s Indian Blood, which Primary Stages presented two summers ago. The WASP angle isn’t as much a focus in this play, although Amanda readily identifies herself as one. Instead the play relies on a great many clich├ęs, such as the mobility of theatre and the vapidness of television, the low wages and obscurity of one and the fame and fortune of the other. “In the theatre you can rise to the top of your career and you barely get a nod from your doorman,” Amanda says.

The tension of the plot, and really the word tension might be a bit too strong, hinges on whether Amanda will stay with the show after she gets a juicy TV offer just before rehearsals are to begin. You won’t have any trouble predicting the end.

This is not to say that I didn’t have fun. The show is 90-minutes, with no intermission, which I always like, and it’s an enjoyable way to spend a hot summer evening. (When the play premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2001 it was two acts. I’m glad it’s been tightened.) Carmen M. Herlihy is a treat as Debbie, an earnest college intern at the regional theatre to which Amanda has returned. She’s working on her thesis on the importance of amateur theatre in America and frequently interrupts conversations with her glorified thoughts on the nobility of the profession or to proudly cite a famous person who was from Buffalo -- Katherine Cornell, one of the Flying Wallendas. She makes Debbie believable and not just a starry-eyed stereotype.

The show also features featuring Mark Blum, Jennifer Regan, James Waterston and Dathan B. Williams.

Performances of Buffalo Gal, which opened last night, have been extended by two weeks and will now run through Sept. 13 at 59E59 Theaters. Tickets are available by calling (212) 279-4200. Special "Artist/Audience Talkbacks" will follow performances on Aug. 7, 14 and 21.

For more information visit primarystages.com or call (212) 840-9705.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Flight From Fear: The letter that helped Jimmy Stewart face his fear


JIMMY STEWART wrote this essay for Guideposts magazine many, many years ago. It’s worth reading again, especially for all those of us who loved him so much.


The hour was late as I sat alone in a blacked-out Nissen hut, afraid of what the dawn would bring. It was a dark night in England during World War II, and I was flying B-24s (Liberators, the big four-engined bombers were called) as a squadron commander with the U.S. Eighth Air Force.

Our group had suffered heavy casualties during the day. As the big ships settled in for landing, wings and fuselages bore ragged holes from fighter attack and antiaircraft fire. Bright red flares soared from planes carrying wounded, and ambulances raced to meet them.

Men on the ground anxiously counted our own squadron's incoming planes... 9... 10... 11... and then, only an empty gray sky. Where was the 12th? Worried eyes swept the misty horizon, straining for some tiny dot, as hearts hoped against hope. But crew members in the returning planes knew that the missing ship would never land here again; German fighters had shot it down in flames.

Now there would be the painfully written letters to mothers, fathers and wives, along with prayers that some of the crew might have parachuted safely.

I stepped over to the little iron stove, scooped coal into it, and stared into the dull red embers. Tomorrow at dawn I would lead the squadron out again. Our target lay deep in enemy territory. Friendly fighters could accompany us only partway because of the distance involved. For much of the long flight we would be on our own—slow-moving targets for the German fighters, the barrel-chested FW-190s, the sleek ME-109s.

Imagination can be a soldier's worst enemy. My forehead perspired as I visualized what would happen: my Liberator shuddering and lurching as we plowed through curtains of flak, the sky filled with the ugly brown-black shell-bursts, German fighters boring in from every direction...

I slumped down at my desk.

Fear is an insidious and deadly thing. It can warp judgment, freeze reflexes, breed mistakes. Worse, it's contagious. I knew my own fear, if not checked, could infect my crew members. And I could feel it growing within me.

Out in the night, in some distant hangar, an aircraft engine growled into a crescending roar, then subsided into quiet as a night maintenance crew tested it for the upcoming mission.

I turned off the desk lamp, and my chair scraped the cement floor as I pushed it back. Walking to the window, I pulled back the blackout curtains and stared into the misty English night. My thoughts raced ahead to morning, all the things I had to do, all the plans I must remember for any emergency. How could I have a clear mind if it were saturated with fear?

What was the worst thing that could possibly happen? I asked myself. A flak-hit in the bomb bay? A fire in one of the wing tanks? A feathered propeller on a damaged engine that would bring the enemy fighters swooping in (they always singled out a crippled bomber)? One by one I hauled my worst fears out of the closet, as it were, and tried to face up to them. Was that the best way to conquer them? I wasn't sure.

Closing the curtains, I returned to my desk, snapped on the light, and pulled out a notebook. I began writing out a list of emergencies and how I would handle them. Everything I could think of. If our ship is mortally hit, I will try to get the crew out before I bail out—provided it doesn't blow up first. If I'm shot down and captured, I will reveal nothing but my name, rank and serial number. On and on, all the grim possibilities.

Finally I finished writing and walked over to my metal cot. The springs creaked protestingly as I sat down. I stared unseeingly across the room. The deep-rooted fear was still there. It wouldn't go away.

I thought of my grandfather, who had fought in the Civil War, and my father, who had served in both the Spanish-American War and in the First World War. "Were you afraid?" I'd asked as a youngster back in Indiana, Pennsylvania, when we talked about Dad's experiences in France.

I could remember the faraway look in his eyes as he nodded. "Every man is, son," he said softly. "Every man is." But then he would always add something else. "Just remember that you can't handle fear all by yourself, son. Give it to God; He'll carry it for you."

My eyes misted as I remembered the letter Dad had given me when I left for England. He had written it at his old oak desk in his hardware store. I carried the worn and creased piece of paper always, and each time I read it, I seemed to learn something new:


"My dear Jim, soon after you read this letter you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger. I have had this in mind for a long time, and I am very concerned. But, Jim, I'm enclosing a copy of the 91st Psalm. The one thing that drives out fear and worry is the promise in it.

"I'm staking my faith in these words. I feel sure that God will lead you through this mad experience. I can say no more; I only continue to pray. God bless you and keep you. I love you more than I can tell you. Dad."

I always choked up when I read that letter. Never before had Dad said that he loved me. I knew he did, but he had never said it, until the letter.

Again, I read the psalm:

"...I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress... His truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shall not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day... For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone..."

They shall bear thee up in their hands. What a promise for an airman!

There on the creaking cot with the night pressing in, I read those comforting words as a prayer. Then I relinquished to the Lord my fears for the coming day. I placed in His hands the squadron I would be leading. And, as the psalmist promised, I felt myself borne up...

Somewhere on a distant farm a cock crowed; dawn would be early. I got up and once more drew back the blackout curtains. The mist had cleared, and above the dark trees the sky was sparkling with stars.

I had no illusions about the mission that was coming up. I knew very well what might happen. And I knew that fear would ride with me. But I would live with it—and almost welcome it. Because, in its proper place, it would be an asset, sharpening perceptions, amplifying skills and heightening the capacity for quick decisions.

I had done all I could. I had faced each fear and handed it over to God. And now, no matter what might happen, I knew that He would be with me. In this world or the next.