Freedom

“Beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase. This is as true of humans in the finite space of a planetary ecosystem as it is of gas molecules in a sealed flask. The human question is not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of existence is possible for those who do survive.”  ~Frank Herbert, in Dune

This thought makes me uncomfortable.

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I Have Learned

“I have found that to be here and not anywhere else is the key to total concentration. By living in the present, I am in full contact with myself and my environment; my energy is not dissipated and is always available. In the present there are no regrets, as there must be when thinking of the past, and worrying about the future only dilutes our awareness of the present. I have learned to focus all of my concentration on each individual moment, whether it’s a voice on the other end of a phone line, a face looking at me from across a desk, that single eye of a camera, or that rose garden. There is only now, only this moment. There is nothing else. Nothing.”  ~Chuck Norris, from The Secret Power Within © 1996

I had mentioned to Mona that I liked Chuck Connors– The Rifleman, Branded— and she got her Chucks confused and got me a couple of books by Chuck Norris, the martial artist.

It was a happy accident.  Because of it, I’ve read his autobiography, Against All Odds, and the book I excerpted above, and enjoyed them both.

Even though we are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, I think Chuck and I would get along fine if we ever meet.

…the delight on my father’s face.

In this excerpt from his autobiography, I Remember ©1991, Dan Rather shares a warm memory from his childhood:

Late one night when I was five or six years old and had long been put to bed, I woke up and heard music being played in the kitchen. This was unusual for such an advanced hour, so I got up, cracked my door open quietly, and peeked to see what was going on.

They didn’t see me, but I glimpsed what looked to me like a magical sight. I didn’t want to disrupt it. My parents were dancing.

They danced for a long time, maybe an hour, off an on, sometimes stopping to fine-tune the radio through the static, trying to bring in one of the outlaw stations across the Mexican border, the ones that carried slow and fast tunes. These outlets were also home to “Doc” John R. Brinkley, once candidate for governor of Kansas, who promised rejuvenation with a “goat gland” treatment that cost $750, which made us laugh our heads off. He was our Johnny Carson.

Doc Brinkley was not on the air that night, so Mother and Father danced through the static, ballads, and all other kinds of music, and they were plainly happier than I’d ever seen them. Mother hummed along much of the time and both were smiling a lot. It was especially sweet and remarkable to see the delight on my father’s face. The pressures of the workday had been lifted from his features; I remember that distinctly.

Just Like Buddy and Waylon

In her autobiography On Reflection, actress Helen Hayes recounts an incident from her childhood between theater producer Charles Frohman and actor John Drew Jr.:

I saw Mr. Drew angry with Mr. Frohman only once, from a great distance and with good reason. The producer cabled that he was returning from a European business trip.

“Stay there,” John Drew wired back. “Don’t come back now. It’s dangerous.”

“I’m on my way on the next boat,” Charles Frohman answered.

The star was ablaze with anger. “If the Huns sink you, I’ll never forgive you,” he cabled Mr. Frohman.

The Germans torpedoed the Lusitania, and our good friend was drowned. There are no words to describe John Drew’s shock. His flippant wire would haunt him forever.

Charles Frohmans last words, before being swept away by a giant wave, were a paraphrase from his play Peter Pan: “Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure that life gives us.”

Wistful Sighs

Another excerpt from Helen Hayes’ autobiography On Reflection, © 1968:

In those days, grandmothers were always available for extra duties… Unthinkable as it would be to the eternal soubrettes of today, there was once a breed of women who by their mid-50s admitted that youth was a sweet memory. After a long, wistful sigh, they willingly moved on to the next step in their development. And they dressed the part. They didn’t defy the seasons of woman, and greying hair softened their worn faces. They didn’t lose their full-blown beauty in an effort to freeze its first bloom. Dark or quiet colors in dress were further reminders of a new-found stability. They didn’t compete with their daughters but, instead, presented a contrast that illustrated the logical sequence of life. There was a flow and a natural progression.

“Willingly?”  Nonsense.

She was a friend of Ronald Reagan and active in Republican politics, and makes the same mistake many conservatives do:  “This is the way I’m used to, so this is the way it’s supposed to be.”

I can understand how, as an actress, she would feel most comfortable with a role to play, but that’s not a “logical sequence of life,” not a “flow and natural progression.” That’s just local custom.

I’m glad we live in less stifling times.  I’m glad women don’t feel compelled to put on dowdy clothing and spend the second half of their lives catering to their children’s whims.

It makes me happy to see women in bright colors, singing and dancing and living their lives to the fullest.

Was Beyond Me

Excerpted from Helen Hayes’ autobiography On Reflection, © 1968:

Of course, I didn’t know what it all meant anyway, and the only shockers to me were Graddy’s (her grandmother’s) scarey tales of ghosts and supernatural goings-on. I always shivered and thrilled to the one about the beautiful bride who expired of a mysterious seizure in the arms of her groom just as the priest was declaring them man and wife. Shrouded in her own wedding gown, fairly floating in her many veils, the virgin was transported to her grave. Followed by a long procession of weeping mourners, she lay in a hearse pulled by fine black horses, each with three white plumes. As the carriage passed through the cemetery gate, it rolled over a sharp rock and the jolt was so great that up shot the lid of the coffin. The bride’s eyes and hands starter to flutter; and then sitting up in bewilderment, her pale lips formed those deathless words, “Where am I?” The horrified cortège dispersed in a panic– all except the bridegroom, of course, who now lifted her tenderly in his arms, brought the color back to her cheeks with a kiss, and carried her off to their marriage bed.

This story and my grandmother’s insistence that it wasn’t really unusual– “People, Helen, are being buried alive all the time!”– made such an impression on me that when she herself lay in her coffin a few years later and at the age of ten I looked upon a dead person for the first time, I of course wailed, “Sit up, Graddy! Please sit up now!

Graddy’s friends sat clutching their wrists, their necks pulled in like great turtles, their mouths twisted in scandalized disbelief.

“Well, I never.”

“What a little actress!”

“Essie, you shouldn’t allow her to show off like that.”

They were the first of a legion of critics who have tried to remove me from the stage.

I really was sure that, like the pop-up bride, she would rise and spin a yarn about this, her latest adventure. The finality of death was beyond me. I just couldn’t believe that my Graddy was gone.

When I was four, my grandfather died.  I wasn’t overly concerned, because I had completely misunderstood the stories they taught us in Sunday School and I had no doubt that he’d be coming back to life any time now.  All you had to do was believe, and it would all be okay.

A few months later my grandmother died,  and the truth crushed down on me like a boulder:  this was forever.  Nobody comes back.

I was devastated.

And I think that exact moment was when I quit believing in the things the grown-ups told me were true.

This Luminous Beggar

Excerpted from Misia by Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold © 1980, Misia Natanson writes of her friendship with the poet Paul Verlaine:

It was there that I struck up a friendship with Paul Verlaine. Usually between benders, and always sad, he would come in the early evening, sit down with me, drink, read me beautiful poems, and weep.

One felt the unconquerable, the tragic youthfulness of his heart. Somewhere behind that immense forehead lived a soul which knew the uttermost bounds of purity. This drunken bum zigzagging across the Latin Quarter, this luminous beggar dragging his feet in the mud was conscious only of the sky. The horror of being ugly, of being ugly every day, without respite, every minute, even when his heart was dazzled by love for another being, had gradually taught him a profound humility. The blows of life? He had brushed them all aside. They did not prevent him from coming back to sit at a sticky marble café table, order an absinthe and a dreadful little pen, scratchy and squeaky, one of those pens born to be dipped into the inkwells of the poor… His were simple words, transformed into treasures…

It was my tender memory of this little café which made me go to see him in the hospital when I heard he was seriously ill. I shall never forget that poor ravaged face, the long shaky hand he could barely lift to take mine and the light in his feverish eyes that tried desperately to express what his lips no longer had the strength to say… Two days later Verlaine died. His funeral procession, and Debussy’s, were the only ones I ever followed on foot.

Paul Verlaine died in Paris in at the age of 51 in 1906.  A nice collection of his poems, translated into English, is available online at Poetry In Translation.