This winter I have let myself go entirely. Here in Kodiak, since January 6, I have spent nearly every night on stage jumping, walking on my knuckles, grunting, pounding my chest, leaping off of tables, grooming nits from my ape children---in short, being an ape. I and my two youngest sons, along with a cast of about 40, are in the local production of “Tarzan.” (Opened last weekend. Plays one more weekend.)
I know. Yes, Tarzan. At this point, some people in the conversation snicker, start doing a "George of the Jungle" yodel, or---if they've been around a few more decades than me, they do a passable rendition of the iconic yell mastered by Johnny Weismiller.
I laugh with them. But let me update you a bit. This is not your mother's Tarzan. Here's what Tarzan looks like now (the Broadway version. Ours is not so different . . All the following photos are from our own production. Photos by me, Heather Johnson and Pam Foreman)
There's so much that is funny and ironic about this: that the first winter I'm in town long enough to join a production, it's Tarzan. That this woman-of-words has abandoned language (except when we sing) and gone primal, discarding all my dignity, (and trying to hide the fact that I'm the oldest ape up there by an average of twenty years.)
And I have given up center stage and a microphone, where I am used to standing, to disappear in a choral flurry of ape fur, indistinguishable from all the others. It's been humbling. It's been grueling at times. It's been refreshing.
But I did not leap into this play lightly, simply for my own entertainment. During the months of rehearsal, ISIS was beheading Christians, destroying historic villages and artifacts, visiting a kind of terror and barbarism unknown in most of our lifetimes.
Like so many others, during the day I wept, prayed, felt guilty for my freedoms and comfortable life---and at night, there I was on my hands and knees again, aping from one scene to another, singing "Shoo-wop-de-wop" as we trashed the human camp, concentrating to get my part right.
I wanted desperately to do something more than clasp hands in prayer---and more than crimp my hands in ape gestures, leading my ape children into safety in the jungle. What kind of work and play is this when brothers and sisters in the faith are being captured, tortured, driven from homes, brutally killed?
Yet I have remained in the play. Without guilt. Realizing I am doing something that matters, that my aping around, even now, when lives are being taken, matters.
The message of Tarzan can be summed up in its theme song title, “Two Worlds, One Family.” Even in rehearsal, tears have come to many of us as the young boy Tarzan works so hard to be acknowledged as the ape-leader’s son.Kala, a mother ape who lost her own son to a leopard, adopts the baby Tarzan, and is forced out of the tribe to raise him. The leader of the tribe won’t accept him as one of their own.
The play is about how we respond to those different from us. It’s about taking a strange child into a mother’s heart just because the child doesn’t have a mother---and needs one.The father comes to accept him—though it is too late.Jane and her professor father come from England and are accepted and adopted into the gorilla family.
A gun is involved. A tragic death, love is born, the guilty are caught, and two worlds are joined into a single family. This is a feel-good musical, but don’t dismiss it so quickly.
We need this play today. “Beauty can save the world,” Dostoevsky has famously written. Indeed it can. Beauty through Art can save us by opening our hearts to our neighbors, bridging divides between gender, class, faith. Beauty both enlarges our own world, and it shrinks it as well, revealing our common humanness and frailties. Thoreau asks, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
This happened every night in rehearsals:
The best Art---all forms---instructs and moves our soul, both creating and feeding a hunger for the beautiful, the good and the true. I suspect that terrorists must vigilantly guard their hearts against Art of any kind. How threatening! Music, poetry, dance could enlighten, enlarge, and humanize. Tender, true movies could loosen the grip on a knife. Theatre could reveal that the "other" is much like you. Beauty can un-do us and make us new.
I want ISIS stopped. I will not stop praying for the persecuted. But I am doing more than that. I will keep on working at what we've all been called to do since Adam and Eve: cultivating the garden in front of us, bringing beauty and goodness out of a weedy culture and a tangled creation. Discovering again and again that our neighbors are everywhere, and they look wonderfully different than us so we can learn the immeasurable shape of God's love.
Becoming an ape, dropping to my knees and my knuckles this winter, has reminded me of all this.
Your culture making and neighbor-loving likely won't sound like this:
Or look like this:
But it will be beautiful. And it will bring Life and love to all who see.
Friends, you've heard enough from me. Tell me one way YOU are Cultivating goodness in your house or neighborhood . . .
High high tides this week, bringing storm and kelp, sweeping beaches clean, dumping the detritis in all our nets. The supermoon added extra pull on our already massive tidal range of 26 feet. Meaning we live in two worlds. This one:
And this one six hours later.
The swelling waters brought a fish through my doors the same day. A big fish, a 30 pound king salmon.
Such fullness! Such a feast! Until I filleted it down to its spine. Nothing left but bones and death.
Such has been my week. These times come to us all. High full tides, a bounteous salmon---then a sucking minus tide, a gutted fish, an empty plate. Has your week been like this as well? I confess it is partly my reading. I am reading Shannon Huffman Polson’s just-released memoir North of Hope.
(Shannon was my student in Seattle Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts program.) I knew about this story several years ago, when we worked together, but reading it again, this time in excruciating and haunting detail, I was devastated afresh. Shannon lost her father and stepmother to a rogue bear in the Alaskan Arctic wilderness. I grieved again and again with her for the magnitude and the manner of her loss----and I had my own grieving to do as well . . . the loss of my own father, who gave me nothing and took nothing when he died. (
I am thinking of him all this week as I proof my next book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers.)
We all contain such hollow spaces and empty moments. Times of such aloneness, when we should have been loved but weren’t, when someone who should have taught us, didn’t. When someone who should have given us words to guide us, didn’t. When someone who should still be with us, isn’t. And when someone we really need to help,
j u s t c a n n o t h e l p u s. He cannot. She cannot.
And the earth spins and tilts and the moon pulls and the ocean rises toward it, and the tides flood the beach, stretching our nets first one way, then another. We strain all the harder at lines so taut we can hardly lift them. And maybe we cry, salt water into salt water. Maybe we feel sorry for ourselves. And its all right that we do. God, who knows just what has come to us, what he has given us, is sorry too.
When sadness comes, let it be. At least for awhile. Moses did. He dared to write—and God dared to inspire him to write these dark words:
All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
We fly away------but not yet. Here in the now there is still the other. The water will not stop moving. If we look, we can find good and goodness around us to count and name: blessing and offering and surprise and beauty and love. This is my week too:
But I don’t send you these photos of my blessings as some sort of consolation to either of us. Photos from my island won’t fix anything. I know it’s not enough. Nor is it enough for me to live here in the midst of this beauty and wildness. Toward the end of her book, Polson quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship”
. Polson does indeed give us worship in her remarkable book. I have learned the same.
Toward the end of Moses’ psalm, he asks this of God:
May your deeds be shown to your servants,
your splendor to their children."
If you see it here in these tiny photos taken by a simple, watching woman just learning to see---then I count this one more blessing in a troubled week.