Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: The Twelve Houses of My Childhood, E. Reid Gilbert

Everybody should have at least one teacher they remember with love. I hope you do. I've been lucky to know a couple, but none raises warmer feelings of affection and gratitude than E. Reid Gilbert. Reid was my movement teacher during the three years I spent earning my Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting at The Ohio State University back in the 1980's. He was unlike any teacher I had ever had, and didn't resemble any college professor I had ever imagined. Born and raised in the mountains of Carolina, Reid was country right down to his bones. There must have been something in the water up in that holler though, because Reid fell in love with learning there. He left the farm to go to Duke to study Sociology. Then he was off to Texas for a degree in Theology from SMU. Given his country background and his down-home upbringing, what could be a more logical next step for the young fellow than the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Union Theological Seminary for a degree in Religious Drama. He must have grown accustomed to Yankee winters, because he became Dr. E. Reid Gilbert at the University of Wisconsin, where he specialized in Asian Theatre. He travelled a little bit. Studied Mime at Lecoq in Paris; practiced the No theatre in Japan; preached some; taught some; acted and directed; earned two Fullbright awards, the first to study the Kathakali theatre of India. Thirty years later came the second Fullbright to travel to Thailand to teach storytelling. And somewhere along the way, he met a young actor from Pittsburgh, and taught him as much about the spirituality of art, the love of God, and living with integrity as anyone I can think of. I have never built a role in a play without using Reid's lessons. When I finally got the chance to teach acting to college students, I filled about half of my syllabus with the things he had taught me.

A few years ago, Reid and I were reunited on the great village square of our times: Facebook. I learned that he had written a collection of the "Jack Tales" he so loved to share with us. Sophisticated, cosmopolitan graduate students would sit wide-eyed and cross-legged on the floor in our stocking feet like children as our professor hunkered down and told us stories of joggle boards in the woods, of swinging on honey suckles, and of haunted trips to the privy in the Carolina winter moonlight. When I received my copy of Trickster Jack from Amazon, there was a miracle inside. Had the seller known how much I would treasure that title page, she would not have let it go so cheaply.

While Trickster Jack was a work of imagination, The Twelve Houses of My Childhood is Gilbert's true life memoir of growing up in the hills and small towns of North Carolina and Western Virginia during the Great Depression and World War 2. At least I hope it's all true. Like all the best stories, "if it ain't true, it ought to be".

It all began, as I was told, on November 15, 1930, after my mother's thirty hours of intense labor to bring forth her second child, her first son. The event occurred on East 22nd Street in Winston-Salem, NC. Decades later, I read with some chagrin that prolonged birthing labor by the mother often accounted for diminished intelligence of the new human creature. By the time I learned this factoid it was too late for anyone to do anything about it, but it does five me a medical excuse for any intellectual shortcomings.

Eddie Reid's story (he never used the "Eddie") meanders like a creek finding its way down a piney mountainside. Along its banks, we find stories of the gypsies Gilbert credits with instilling his life-long wanderlust,  and big sister Susie, who later insisted on "Della Sue" because she didn't want the same name as the milk cow. Brother "Baby Ott" and sister Mary Evelyn come along a few houses later, and spend the rest of their lives teasing and tormenting one another.

Evelyn ran to Mamma, crying again. "Evelyn, what's wrong now?" 
"He's still makin' faces at me."
"How do you know? Didn't he keep the door closed?" 
"Yeah, but I looked through the keyhole, an' there he was makin' a face."

Later, big brother Reid realizes "it was a game they both enjoyed playing... and would continue for years".

Gilbert tells his family's story with humor and empathy. His loving description of his Mamma scrubbing their clothes in a metal tub with lye soap, water hauled from the spring and heated over an open fire, and a washboard that left her hands red and raw for days after is both inspiring and heartbreaking. 

In one particularly moving passage, he tells of the lesson his Daddy learned  one day after church, while walking with his younger son on the way to check the traps for turtles.

     Daddy was feeling a little guilty to be doing something so enjoyable on a Sunday, He and Ott had to cross a newly plowed field to get to the creek. Because of his uneasyness, Daddy strode across the field rather quickly and in large strides before anyone might see them.      
    Suddenly, he heard Ott behind him, grunting and seemingly gasping for breath. As he looked back, he asked,"What's wrong, Son?" 
   "Daddy, it's hard stepping in your tracks."

Chastened, the young father and Sunday School Superintendent passed the lesson his child had taught him along to the adults in his class at church."
Folks, you better be careful where you're walkin' an' which way you're goin'. There'll be some little tyke followin' close behind, trying so hard to follow your example."

Yes, The Twelve Houses of My Childhood is a southern coming-of-age story. Young Reid encounters "the fair sex" from time to time, with mixed success. He hunts possum. He is introduced to the principles of social justice, not only as a witness to the segregation of his "colored" playmates, but also as a target of mockery and neglect from his more affluent white neighbors and teachers. But this tenderly rendered tale is also a loving portrait of a family and a time when things like running water, electric light, and a real Frigidaire to save Mamma from having to fetch milk from the spring house were faraway miracles, not givens of domestic life. Holding my electronic tablet in my hands, laughing out loud as my old professor learned to plow a straight row, or shift gears in the makeshift tractor that they called a "Doodlebug," I couldn't help feeling a little spoiled by all the gadgets and gizmos that fill my life. I wonder if a few less illuminated screens, and a few more walks in the trees with loved ones might not be better for my soul.

How to sum up the experience of reading the memories of a man I have loved every day, even though I have not seen him for thirty years? I was shaken almost to tears when I turned the last page. I'm still grieving, a little. I loved this book so much that it hurt to have to finish it. I appreciate the Kindle convenience, but I think I'll be ordering a copy for my bookshelf. I want to be able to share it.

Here's hoping my old teacher has another volume or two in him. Maybe "The Twelve Apartments of My College Years?"


Order The Twelve Houses of My Childhood  from Amazon, here.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Do I Want That? Or Am I Just Thinking About It?

     Been spending a lot of time thinking about... well... thinking about thoughts, actually. I've been considering the stream of consciousness that is the river of my life. As I navigate my little boat along that stream, thoughts float by constantly, like litter in the water. I can ignore some of them. Others I have to navigate around. But many stick to the sides of my vessel for a while, traveling along with me, before the water pulls them away and I am free to sail on again.
     Sometimes these thoughts are pleasant, and I'm sorry to see them go. Happy experiences and joyful memories make many parts of my journey a delight. But other times there are painful thoughts, memories of failure and shame, regrets, old hurts, damaging words about myself or others. These can also cling to the hull of my boat, slowing me down, distracting me from my course, even monopolizing my attention if I let them. Sometimes they can cling so tightly that it is hard to know where my ship ends and the garbage begins.
     The thing I try to remember is that no matter how firmly it sticks, the litter is not my ship: likewise, my thoughts are not me. They are just words. Thinking "I'm a failure" doesn't make it true. It might seem true sometimes. I might even build up a mountain of evidence to support it. But it isn't real. It's only a thought; one that will come and go from time to time like a branch drifting along in a river. It isn't me. And it doesn't define me.
     I've been contemplating this principle for some time now, and have been considering some more practical applications. I've started observing my desires as they float toward me, and asking myself, "Do I want that? Or am I just thinking about it?"
     One simple example: I've gotten into a strange habit. When I climb out of bed, one of my first thoughts is, "I am so tired. I'm going to need a nap later today." What a strange thought to have after a long night's sleep. Today I woke up after a restful night's sleep. My first impulse was to hit the snooze button. I had a water fitness class to teach, and a two mile run on my schedule. "I am so tired," I thought to myself. "I'm going to come home and pass out." That nap stayed on my mind all through my hour in the pool. Afterward, at my locker, I considered skipping the run and just going home. I could always run later. "No, I've packed my shoes and shorts. I'll just get it done." Instead of bailing out, I had a great run, enjoying a beautiful morning. When I got home, I went to my bedroom to unload my wet clothes and hang them up to dry. The pillow beckoned, soft and cool. "Wait a minute," I thought to myself. "Am I tired? My eyes are open. My thoughts are clear. My muscles feel strong and limber after a morning's exercise. Why do I want to go to sleep?" I realized that I really didn't. I was just thinking about sleeping. I finished hanging up my clothes, poured a cup of coffee, and sat down to read and write for a while. Instead of sleeping away a gorgeous morning, I was doing things that made me feel great.
     The second example is a tough one for me. "Am I hungry, or am I just thinking about food?" There's a Facebook meme that says, "You're not hungry, you're bored. Learn the difference." I admit that I do sometimes eat just to have something to do, but often I eat because I have food on my mind. I've noticed that at the end of a long walk, I start thinking about food about ten or fifteen minutes from the house. "What should I cook? What should I buy? What's in the house? Why not just stop at the Rite Aid and pick up some chocolate?" It's a habit: a pattern. It isn't my stomach asking for nourishment, it's a mental picture of a luscious bar of dark chocolate floating down the river past my boat. And much too often, I find myself reaching down into the water and picking it up instead of just letting it float on by. 
     It's a challenge, but I have found that I can make this kind of thinking work in my emotional life. I have a feeling or thought and ask myself, "Is that reality, or is it just a thought that will pass?" I've managed to avoid slipping into depression using this technique several times in the past few weeks. Now I'm wondering if I can do the same thing with other behaviors and desires.
     Am I really hungry?
     Am I really lonely?
     Am I really broke?
     Will my knee hurt like this for the rest of my life?
     Or are those just words; just thoughts floating down the river that will come and go from time to time? Are they just words: ideas to be accepted, acknowledged for what they are, and then left behind as I continue moving toward the goals and values that give my life purpose, meaning, and joy?
     It's been working with depression. Will it work with ice cream?
     I'll let you know.


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

July at Last: So Far, So Good...

Woke to a beautiful second day of my favorite month. July. Made it. The sunshine. The evening storms. Shakespeare in the park. Mum and my birthdays. The sun moving from the constellation of Cancer into the royal domain of Leo. The best produce of the year. Hot days, and cool showers before bed. July: the heart of summertime.

Halfway through the year. Halfway through #reboot2014. So far, so good in body, mind, and spirit.

The weight loss continues at a good pace. June was a plateau month for me. The scale hovered around 270 all month, but at 268 yesterday and today, I feel like I've finally broken through that barrier. Another 25 pounds to go to reach my goal, and I'm counting on the July sun to help me burn some extra calories. The aching knee has slowed me down for sure, but I'm encouraged that the pounds haven't piled back on. Walking and low impact aerobic exercise are doing the trick. I'm seeing the orthopedic guru in two weeks. At my friend Christy's suggestion, I intend to add some strength training with the kettlebell to my routine this month. A little more muscle mass can only help burn fat, and swinging the bell puts almost no strain on the knee. 

I still need better discipline about my nutrition, so I'm stealing an idea from another friend: one major change per week. Every day this week, at the top of my Outlook calender, in big red letters it says: "NO DAIRY QUEEN THIS WEEK!" I've managed to stay away from the siren song of the drive through window so far. Next week? Get rid of the diet soda that has snuck back into my fridge. Clean fuel and quality replacement parts: learning to treat my body as well as I treat my car.

Mentally, I am so very encouraged. June was a synthesis month for me. It felt like years of therapy started coming together in a sensible body of understanding. After a rough spring, I resolved to get through the month of June without missing any work or scheduled appointments because of depression. And I made it! With the help of my friends, my shrink, and a splendid book by Russ Harris called The Happiness Trap, I'm learning techniques for managing the unpleasant thoughts that have tripped me and dragged me down so often in the past. I've read a lot in the "self-improvement" genre over the years, but this one seems to have come along at just the right time for me. I intend to post a review sometime, but for now I am reading through slowly, letting the ideas and exercises sink in.

I'm also writing more, and keeping a lot more of it to myself. I've been trying to post less on Facebook and trying to limit my public sharing to inspiration, laughter, and unapologetic promotion of the YMCA. I'm way too much of a ham to live life without an audience altogether, but it feels good to have a part of my life that stays in the house. It turns out all my laundry really doesn't have to  dry on a line in the front yard.

I've been praying again, a private, personal practice that I really have missed. My Creator and I have had a rocky love affair over the past few years, but I'm coming to believe that what felt like abandonment was really a chance to find the strength of the wings God gave me. Every time I go to the Y and look into the eyes of a studio or pool full of people fighting for their lives; every time I stand in the light of courageous cancer warriors who refuse to let tumors, tests, chemo, or radiation keep them from staying as strong and active as they can be; every second I spend in that holy place reminds me that God is alive and at work all around me. They may think I'm training them, but the truth is, the members I work with are helping to make my faith stronger every day. For most of my life, I have wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. God is showing me that I am already much bigger than I though I was. For a while, I wondered if my spirit had died, or if I even ever really had one at all. I am learning that I do have a soul,  one that I share with all of Creation... and with the One who created it all.

The bottom line is that I'm starting the second half of 2014 feeling as healthy as I have in a long time. I know there will be good days and bad days ahead, and I don't know how those days will go, but right now, the Bluegrass is gorgeous, sunny, and cool morning air is starting to heat up. Time to get ready to head downtown to teach a class called "Fit for Life." 

I don't know when that title has ever felt more appropriate for me.