Archive for Paris

Time Regained: Reading Józef Czapski in Billings, MT (about Marcel Proust, the Gulag, and reading as salvation)

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, history, Human Rights, Literature, Poland, social justice, translation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2019 by Louise Steinman

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[from THE NOTEBOOKS OF JOZEF CZAPSKI, Polish limited edition]

I WOKE UP around 5:00 a.m., disoriented in an unfamiliar bed. I did not know east from west, up from down, where I’d find a floor to take the weight of my body. The hazy proportions of the room gave no clue; curtains blocked the winter light. In the moment my eyes opened, I lost my connection to those essentials that are, as Proust assures his readers, held fast by our psyches during sleep: “[T]he sequence of the hours, the order of the years, and the worlds.”

 

My disorientation went beyond the geo-gravitational. One era of my life had ended, and the next had not yet begun. If I lived in a traditional society, I’d have been standing on the threshold of the hut listening as a priest beat drums and stirred strong potions, a state the anthropologists call liminality.

Just six weeks before, I’d been fired from my job of 25 years. It was a job I’d loved, that had drawn on my love of literature and my delight at convening people from across Los Angeles to engage with the issues of the day, to ask questions of innovative thinkers, to practice agreeing and disagreeing in a public forum. The events at Central Library, the hearth of the city, were free; homeless patrons sat next to lawyers and teachers and students to listen to Christopher Hitchens talk about religion or Ta-Nehesi Coates discuss reparations. They came to hear local poets read Walt Whitman translated into Farsi and Spanish; to celebrate novelists like Colson Whitehead and his re-imagining of the Underground Railroad, to learn from naturalists like Terry Tempest Williams, primatologists like Frans de Waal. Hundreds of literary luminaries — Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, W. G. Sebald, Margaret Atwood, Adam Zagajewski, Ursula LeGuin — all presented their work on our stage over the years. At our last event, Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter read from her grandfather’s just-published prison letters. One evening, during his sound check, Cornel West pulled me aside to say, “You know, don’t you, that this space is sanctified?” I did.

Now I was untethered from the satisfactions of my job and as well, from the scaffold of responsibilities that had, for so many years, structured the rhythms of my life. I was past the tearful stage, but I was still heart-torn, grieving. Luckily, I had been granted a writing residency that fall at an arts colony on a ranch outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, and Susan — my soul sister-in-art — had been awarded a residency there as well. Perhaps some time away would open a way to re-focus, to pick up the thread of my own writing life.

As a way to jumpstart our adventure, Susan and I schemed a rendezvous, picking a town on the map that neither of us knew at all — Billings, Montana — simply because it had an airport and decent airfares from Los Angeles, for me, and from Portland, Oregon, for Susan.

Susan rented us a car and a two-bedroom Airbnb bungalow in Billings. We planned to cook simple meals together, drink good wine, catch up on stories about our lives, plan collaborative projects, and, at the end of the weekend, drive the 70 miles to the Crow Reservation to spend some daylight hours at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, then travel the final stretch to the Wyoming ranch and our official residency.

At the last moment, life tectonics shifted. A mutual friend — jazz musician David Ornette Cherry — suffered a medical emergency. He couldn’t breathe, barely managed to call 911 from his Portland studio before he suffered a cardiac arrest. David was “gone,” the paramedics said, for four whole minutes, and was now in an induced coma, on a ventilator in a Portland hospital, in the limbo of the ICU, where machines bleated heart rates and IV bags dripped nourishment into human veins, between life and death, this world, that world, with Susan by his bedside. He had no family nearby. He was going to need a lot of support to pull through.

I wholeheartedly supported Susan’s decision to stay behind, to forgo the residency if David didn’t recover soon. I realized as well that it was too last-minute and too costly to redirect my itinerary.

Which is why I woke up alone, in a strange bed in a strange house in Billings, Montana, where I dreaded spending the weekend alone.

MORE. READ ENTIRE PIECE, as published in Los Angeles Review of Books, May 21, 2019

Lear in Paris

Posted in Art and Culture, Family History, Life and What about It, Theater, Travel with tags , , , , , , on December 24, 2012 by Louise Steinman

“Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.”
(King Lear to his daughter)

I performed naked for my father once (you see, that got your attention! ) I’ve written about it on this very blog. I’ve used his voice in a soundtrack and I’ve mined his wartime letters in my book The Souvenir. But it never occurred to me to perform with my father… what would Norman Steinman have thought of the invitation? (I used to tape my family seders for use in my plays, and the one year I didn’t set up the tape recorder, my father asked, “Aren’t we interesting to you any more, Louise?”) Would this very private man have agreed to perform with me, simply out of love and a sense of solidarity? That’s what three stolid German fathers agreed to do with their daughters who form the radical theater collective She She Pop, for “Testament,” an astonishing take on King Lear which I saw at Theatre des Abesses earlier this month in Paris (in German with French supertitles.)

There’s a saying in French: tenir tete a quelqu’un… standing up to someone. How do we stand up to someone who has power over us? What if Norman and I had aired our disagreements, our differing perspectives of life– on stage? What if I’d argued to the audience as witness– that my older brother, the math genius and doctor-to-be, received preferential treatment during my childhood? What if my father had bemoaned on stage my choice of going into the theater and said, as he often did, “You’d have made a very good lawyer.” This is raw, uncomfortable powerful theater.

It was deeply moving to see these flaccid older men stripping to their underwear in the “tempest” scene (while being doused with water from a plastic bottle by one of the daughters), revealed in all their frailty and wounded pride. An annotated paperback of Lear—a template for this deep conversation about parent/child issues, is displayed on the wall with an overhead projector. Key words set off the scenes—what is the equivalent of your father arriving at your house with his courtiers? Lisa Lucassen diagrammed how much space would be left in her tiny flat if her father moved in with his entire library, concluding, of course, absolutely none. One daughter/actor recites all the benefits her father will receive under the German health care system, while on a video screen (the camera is live on her father on-stage), he intones repeatedly in a quavery voice, “but I will always love you. But I will always love you.”

She She Pop/Testament

She She Pop/Testament

Perhaps my father, like one of the German fathers in the play, would have graphed a complicated mathematical equation (he was once a math teacher) to chart the dynamics of our love and obligation for and to one another. My pharmacist father may not have understood why his daughter spent hours in a dance studio, crawling on the floor or playing with Howdy Doody puppets. But he never withheld his support, emotional or material. And he was there in the audience for my performance at Project Artaud, accepting a piece of matzoh from his naked daughter on the stage. Ah what one does for love.

Louise and Norman

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