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When I was young...
When I was young I used to dream of God. I saw him as the size of the universe – his skin the color of the night sky and freckled with thousands upon thousands of stars. God’s face was the sun – burning a bright gold that shone down upon his flock. There was a book I read often, an illustrated children’s Bible that described God once as descending on a chariot of flames and so I imagined God, this incalculable being as striding horses bigger than he as he journeyed throughout the cosmos.
These days I see God not as a being in the Judeo-Christian sense of the name. Nor do I see him as a conscious being to be worshiped or hold in reverence. I see God as the infinite space between moments – his face is etched in the silence that stretches between sentences spoken between one person and another. I see him as that deep and unnameable connection between the artist and his work – where a bond is forged out of creativity as the artist, be it sculptor, painter, writer, or actor, connects in some intangible way with the observer. I do not see God as a boogeyman demanding obedience and reverence with threats of fire and brimstone. I would not worship a deity so insecure that a disbelief in him is considered sacrilegious. But there was a time when I found myself so beholden to the idea of heaven and hell that I feared for my spiritual self. When I was young…
When I was young I was raised to be Roman Catholic by a mother who is still staunchly so. She was an orphan and both she and her sister grew up in an orphanage under the watchful gaze of nuns. Her worldview was shaped by her faith and there were times when I was child when I would look upon her, sitting next to me in church, and wonder if something was wrong with me.
There were times when, listening to the priest’s litany, my mother seemed transposed – her spirit elsewhere while she prayed in silence. Around me, I could see others with that same far-off stare who seemed to be undergoing the same mystical transformation and I wondered why I never felt that way. So I read, I read that children’s illustrated Bible over and over, desperate to find that sacred awakening that I was told all worshipers should feel. Where were the clues I was missing? Was there some sort of secret that was hidden from me because I was a bad child?
I remember, in third grade in a small Catholic school that I hated, being ushered into the confessional at church to beg for forgiveness. I remember kneeling on the small velvet lined pew and wondering if I should say what I really wanted to: “Father, I don’t feel God.”
Relentlessly this idea of feeling Her presence was drilled into us as children. That by opening yourself up to His wonder you would find yourself spiritually renewed. That you could never be happy without God’s touch upon your skin. That She did not demand your love but you would never be truly in heaven until you gave it over to Him.
When I was young… When I was young I read a book of Greek myths, and found myself drawn into this world of vengeful deities and mythical heroes. And I found myself drawn to the story of Heracles and Theseus, Dionysus and Deucalion, Jason and his Argonauts, and Daedalus and Melampus. I was enthralled by the story of Orpheus who defied all odds and descended into the Underworld, by Pan the Satyr and Chiron the Centaur. And as I grew older, I started noticing similar things.
Here was Deucalion who built an ark when Zeus flooded the earth. Dionysus, who changed water into wine. And Heracles whose labors echoed that of Samson. I read other stories – stories of Horus, born to a virgin on the 25th of December, Mithras, Adonis, and other great heroes and deities of other worlds and began to wonder. And one day I stopped believing.
When I was young…
When I was young, I had to be dragged to church. It seemed pointless to me – I tuned out the lectures and sermons, what little I could hear of them, and only woke up when it was time to sing hymnals. Here was something I could do instead of just sitting around wasting an hour of my life I would rather spend reading books about impossibly clever child detectives with names like Encyclopedia Brown or Cam Jansen or the Hardy Boys. I devoured books two or three at a time.
I remember leaving the library once with a stack of books so high that my mother was sure my bony arms were going to break under the weight. As I read - I learned, and as I learned – I questioned the way of things.
As I grew older, my contempt for religion increased. But for fear of being labeled different, as no kid wants to be, I kept quiet. I would go into the confessional and think: “This is stupid.” And I would say: “Forgive me father.” I would complain openly about having to attend CCD on Monday afternoons. I’d rather play video games, or watch television, or read a book, or pretend to do homework. It was all a giant waste of time. By the time I was sixteen and ready to receive my confirmation, I openly resented the whole concept of organized religion. And as teenagers often do, I made sure everyone knew it. The quiet “this is stupid” thoughts I once kept quiet became, “this is SO fucking stupid,” spoken loudly and often. I remember during one particularly annoying confirmation class, we were given a sheet of paper which asked us to check off things that God loved. On the list were such examples as: “Birds” or “the Disabled” or “the Elderly”. I stared at the paper for a few moments and handed it back blank. The teacher, some old woman, looked at me and said: “You didn't fill this out.” And I said: “because I’m not eight” and went back to drawing scribbles on a piece of scrap paper. It got to the point where my mother had to talk to the priest directly and together they informed me that if I didn't get myself, a now public atheist, confirmed that I would be pulled from the track and cross country teams. Those were the only things I truly loved doing anymore and so I agreed. But all though the ceremony I had visions of just standing up and walking out of the church but was unable to find the courage to do so.
When I was young…
When I was young there was a void. This was a void that took many forms. Sometimes it was loneliness – being a shy kid who only had a few friends, who preferred reading and computers to going out and playing. Sometimes it was anger, anger at my father and mother for divorcing, anger at my teachers for thinking me dumber than I was because I couldn't follow along with the lessons as well as other kids could. Sometimes it was sadness – a deep melancholy that pressed down upon me and left me with a deep fear of the future.
But there was a void – a hollowness of sorts that, no matter what I tried, I could never seem to fill. When I was young…
When I was young I started performing theatre at the age of 9, and I considered it little more than a hobby. Something to do in the summer, to hang out with friends and put on a play every year during Summer Stock. I kept it up through high school and into college. As I struggled for a purpose, flailing wildly at different majors - jumping from Psychology, to Anthropology, to Philosophy, to English - theatre was the one constant. Eventually I settled down, decided on majoring in both English and Drama and went from there.
I transferred from a branch to Kent State’s main campus during my junior year, and didn’t audition for anything. Then one day, on a lark, I saw an audition notice and decided to give it a shot. Within a few weeks I learned I was cast in the Laramie Project.
There are many moments during the creation of the show that I could talk about, and many more during the run – but there is one moment that I consider a fixed point in time from which the rest of my life was reborn. I can't speak for the experiences of the others in this show, only mine.
Opening night of the Laramie Project was thick with emotion – this was the culmination of all of our efforts, and the audience was hanging on to our every word. And when Caleb, as the doctor, breathed into life the words that announced the death of Matthew Shepard a quietness settled down upon the theater. It was a quiet hush, as deep as midnight that would persist until the show reached its inevitable conclusion. The silence only grew deeper as the others in the cast spoke, Alana and Jessie and Christine and Colleen and JD and Jennifer and Andrew. with every word they spoke into the darkness, the silence grew.
When I stood up and walked to center stage to deliver Dennis Shepard’s speech, offering forgiveness to his son’s killers, and speaking of Matthew’s last moments, I felt what I had been unknowingly searching for. In the midst of the monologue a stillness descended upon the theater. The silence that had fallen was so deep that it almost seemed to possess its own noise, a roaring sound of defiance against the void. And deep in that holy emptiness that we had created a moment flashed between the audience and myself, and for a moment we all seemed as one. It was indescribable, it was holy and hallow, it was a reaching out of souls to link together to experience something beyond the physical realm. It was a shared consciousness of sorrow, and in that sorrow we found a happiness in knowing that we were not alone. It was the most beautiful moment I had ever experienced in my life and it lasted for only a second. I gasped involuntarily when that second passed and knew I had, at last, found God. There is a quote I’ve always loved, from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, that reads: “A moment is the most you could ever expect from perfection.” And true to those words, a moment was all that it was – and a moment was all that I ever needed.
When I was young…
When I was young I watched the old woman next to me on Good Friday, tears in her eyes, as she prayed so reverently and fully that I thought there was something wrong with me. Was I not worthy of His love? And as the old woman knelt, her old bones creaking under the weight of her years, and lifted up her voice in song I felt insignificant. Here was something greater than I, something I could never comprehend, and something I just couldn't feel. But now, twenty years later, I found it. My God wasn't Jesus, or Allah, or Rama, She wasn’t awoken in the meditation of Buddhism nor in the ritualized chants of prayer. My God wasn’t found in the church, or in the confessional. My God lived in the theatre, in the infinite moments between sentences. I found her deep in the silence, where nothing existed besides you and those around you – a place that I've only found to exist onstage. It was a place where I, alone, stood in the light and spoke into the darkness around me in defiance of the void. It is a moment I've always sought to recreate and only have succeeded once since then – in a smaller play, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Our Lady of 121st Street, in a much smaller theater, six years later. But in the years between The Laramie Project and Our Lady… I have felt the presence of the ephemeral just out of my reach several times, as an actor, a director and an audience member. It is there, dancing just out of reach, but rather than taunting me with my inability to touch it whenever I want to, or whenever I need to – it comforts me. It shouldn't be easy, I don’t think. The effort you put in makes that moment that much more worthwhile. It is that pursuit of perfection – the eternal optimism that one day I will again touch my God that drives me ever forward – not desperate to feel His touch, but determined to do so. Nothing worthwhile ever came easy, the cliché goes, and neither should this be. When I think of theatre, I cringe openly at those who discuss the amount of applause and platitudes and acknowledgements they have received. In Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, he talks about the silence as a worthy, if not more desirable, result: “There is the climax of celebration in which our participation explodes in stamping and cheering, shouts of hurrah and the roar of hands, or else, at the other end of the stick, the climax of silence—another form of recognition and appreciation for an experience shared. We have largely forgotten silence. It even embarrasses us; we clap our hands mechanically because we do not know what else to do, and we are unaware that silence is also permitted, that silence also is good.” There is something that exists in that silence - in the stillness between moments - that is lost when you fill the void with applause. The applause will die away eventually, but the silence remains. Eight years after The Laramie Project, I cannot recall with clarity what it felt like to be ushered back onstage with the rest of the cast to take an encore curtain call on opening night. But I do remember that one moment, barely a second, in the middle of a dense quiet where I briefly reached through the infinite blackness of space to become one of the thousands upon thousands of stars that freckles the skin of my God.