Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Somewhere In America



When I was a kid in elementary school, we had music class every day where we would sing songs from a book called Making Music Your Own, which I constantly misread as Making Your Own Music. There were a lot of classic American folk songs in the book, like Erie Canal, Big Rock Candy Mountain, John Henry, and Go Tell It On The Mountain. It was the early seventies and we were still caught up in the big folk music revival that had begun in the sixties. Plus none of the songs were copyrighted and so the textbook publishers didn't have to pay any royalties.

My favorite song in the book, in fact everyone's favorite song in the book -- in fact just about everyone's favorite folk song of all time, was of course, This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie. In that song, Woody shared with us all his anarchic/neo-socialist ideal vision of America as a land that truly belongs to everyone. I always thought it was funny that they would put such a subversive song in a public school text book. Of course they did manage to leave out a couple of verses:

As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tresspassin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me

In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

I guess they weren't ready to start filling our impressionable little minds with thoughts of civil disobedience or disillusionment. Who knows where that would lead?

I recently saw a documentary called Butterfly about a young woman named Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent two years living in a 180 foot tall redwood tree named Luna. Julia, and her team of supporters from a group called Earth First, were trying to prevent a big lumber company from cutting down the 600 year old tree. Julia lived in a 4 by 6 foot platform and withstood high winds, hailstorms, hostile loggers and bad press during her vigil. Some thought she was crazy, others thought she was a saint. In the end, the tree was saved.

Apparently, Julia and her friends at Earth First got hold of an unabridged version of Woody's famous anthem. Either that or they were just a bunch of troublemakers from the get-go.

I was truly inspired by this wacky chick who decided to forgo all logic and propriety, not to mention personal comfort and safety, because she had found something that she deeply believed in. I felt a little like the cynical shrink in the play Equus who envies his patient, a crazy kid who worships horses as gods, because at least the kid something to believe in, while the shrink has nothing. Maybe Julia is just a tree-huggin nutjob. But boy does she have passion and commitment.

I guess I used to be that passionate and committed. I've lived my whole life with the idea of becoming a great writer. Everything I did was part of my journey as an artist. There have been moments when I felt like I was completely on track. But there have been other moments when I felt like I am just going around in circles. Sometimes it seems like the circles are getting smaller and smaller.

How do you know if you are headed toward your goal, or if it is just an illusion? What if you are just some crazy kid riding naked on horses in the moonlight? Or a kooky old man tilting at windmills?

I saw another documentary recently (I seem to be watching more documentaries these days) this one was about Eugene O'Neill. Like me, O'Neill started out in Connecticut, spent some time wandering around, underwent a transformative realization while living in New York City, and eventually came to California.

Unlike me, O'Neill enjoyed a fairly successful career as a writer and was awarded a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize. But despite his success, for most of his career O'Neill felt that he had failed to live up to his potential. He felt that he had greatness in him and wasn't sure if he would ever achieve it. By the time he came to California, his health was failing and he knew that his days as a writer were numbered. And yet he still had not produced the kind of work he had always hoped to create.

O'Neill and his wife moved into a house in northern California, called Tao House in a secluded setting surrounded by woods and views of the mountains. For a man who grew up on the Connecticut shoreline and spent most of his life near water, this new residence was as landlocked as he had ever been. He withdrew into a library on the second floor and began work on a massive cycle comprising 11 plays chronicling the history of an Irish American family over 100 years. But after completing only two of them, he must have realized that he would never be able to finish the entire cycle.

O'Neill abandoned the cycle and started anew. Over the next five years, he wrote five new plays, three of which, The Iceman Cometh, A Long Days Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten, are considered among the best American plays ever written. Long Days Journey Into Night stands among the best works of literature of all time.

He knew he had it in him and he finally let it out. And it nearly killed him. For the final ten years of his life, he was physically unable to write at all. But he achieved greatness.

Sometimes I wish I had a room like O'Neill's library, secluded, surrounded by trees, with a view of the mountains, where I could achieve the greatness I feel is within me. Or even a platform way up in a redwood tree, clinging for dear life to the branches while the wind rips my tarps to shreds -- but at least I know I am doing something worthwhile.

Instead I have this tiny sweatbox in the middle of a city filled with people just like me, who think they are destined for something special, but maybe they aren't.

I guess it doesn't really matter where I am. As long as I am somewhere. As long as I am doing something. As long as I have my illusions, or delusions, or dreams, or whatever they are.

Woody Guthrie never gave up. He wrote a song nearly every day until he couldn't write no more. Julia Butterfly Hill never gave up. Even when the sky pelted her with hailstones for ten days in a row. Eugene O'Neill never gave up. Even when his hands were shaking so bad that he could barely hold the pen.

So maybe this room is my redwood tree, my library, my America. And I'm gonna stay right here. I'm not giving up.

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