Yearning for Wonderland
From the Archives:
This is a repost of an entry from my old Livejournal blog. I’ve reposted it in its entirety, because it captures a moment seven years ago. The details have changed, but the swell of emotion from remembering that moment has not.
One of the passingly beautiful memories I have of my mother’s Amphitheatre was exploring the subterranean prison set from Man of La Mancha. It was bleakly magical, with a terrifyingly long, winding staircase. There was a blood-shuddering creak of an opening door; from that cold shaft of light, the Inquisitor descended. Within the crawl space of this set, there were cells – the persecuted prisoners could lean through the bars and tug at the clothes of their passing persecutors. Dante could not have envisioned it better. During one of the dress rehearsals, I crawled into a cell with one of the actors and played out the scene with him, all hunched over; I howled for mercy on cue, banged on the unyielding cell door, drooped hopelessly into the corner like the wizened, diseased, forgotten prisoner I was. That night was the first night that I saw Don Quixote sing “The Impossible Dream” in costume, on the set.
To dream the impossible dream.
To fight the unbeatable foe.
To bear with unbearable sorrow.
To run where the brave dare not go.
He had a thrilling voice, a trained opera singer, and he thundered out with a tenderness that I could hardly bear. I, balled up in the darkness of the cell, strained to see through the rusted grate where he stood in a pool of light.
To right the unrightable wrong.
To love pure and chaste from afar.
To try when your arms are too weary.
To reach the unreachable star.
Every night, I was spellbound during the song. He was a battered old man, ridiculous to most and consumed with delusion, but had a dignity that was transcendent.
This is my quest, to follow that star.
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far.
I have found my star.
I have been drifting for a long time, as I have tried to deny the undeniable. Theatre courses through my blood and to try and do anything else is a bit of a farce. It is my birthright.
I never realized how unorthodox my upbringing was until I was much older. From the time I could toddle about, I was underfoot backstage. My playpen was the orchestra pit. I learned to sew buttons (badly) in the costume shop. I dodged wood shavings in the workshop, perched under the conference table at auditions. I ate ice cream at Ehrler’s with Ado Annie and played hopscotch with Little Orphan Annie. My first kiss was in the lobby, the son of my mother’s assistant director – purely by accident. We were playing tag and bumped smack into each other. I had the best Halloween costumes in my school.
Once I was eight, I was permitted to audition like everyone else. If I was cast, I could do no more than one show a season. Still, I accompanied my mother to endless rehearsals, gorged on Moon over My Hammy at Denny’s at two in the morning. I was her Best Girl, her P.I.C. (Partner-in-Crime). I took scores of notes for her on legal pads, fetched her Diet Coke, always called her Mrs. Meade. I watched, enrapt, as she scolded, praised, and inspired her actors. I watched whole worlds unfold, worlds that were once only inside her head, now shared with the world outside.
On the vastness of the empty stage, late at night, when no one was around, I bowed countless times in endless curtain calls to an invisible audience.
Last week, I stood on another empty stage and looked out at the audience. I was four states away, a decade and a half later, and yet for a moment I was that girl again. Saint Augustine has a brand-new, 4500 seat outdoor ampitheatre that has no theatre company. The official state play of Florida, Cross & Sword, has been shelved for ten years. In the space of the last month, I have met a woman who studied costume design in school, a lighting/sound designer friend has moved down from Kentucky, and my mother said in passing that I should start a theatre company and she would come down summers to help me. Last night, I was having cocktails with a friend and she confided that she had always dreamed of doing set design…before I’d even told her about the theatre project. Events are overtaking me and I am a little afraid.
But I know this is what I ought to be doing. And I’m a little scared of failing, but I’m more scared to not try it. I am the youngest among the people I have collected around me, people whose talents complement and underline my own. I tell myself, ‘I am the Artistic Director’, and it sounds like a role I am playing. But I have to do it. My beautiful, brilliantly creative mother is scrapbooking and arranging flowers. My friends are all working jobs that are not fulfilling, daydreaming of doing what they really want to do. And I’m there with them, but I’m not willing to wait any longer.
Now is the time and I’ll follow my star.
This post is about true love. Not the love that we see in movies and books, but the true thing. In stories, the couple ride off into the sunset triumphantly. They kiss and the screen fades to black. They live happily ever after.
The stories rarely show illness or death. But those too are part of life and the ending that every true love will face.
This post is a tribute to my great-uncle Bob Paris. He passed away last week at the age of 88. He lived a long, full life. He fought in World War II, flying P-40s in China with the famous Flying Tigers squadron. You can read the full obituary.
This post is not about his heroic service to our country or the countless people he touched in a positive way. This post is about the true love story of Bob and Joyce, his wife of 63 years.
I never saw Bob without Joyce or vice versa. They were a unit in our family. For every event in my entire life, no matter how small, Bob and Joyce would drive all the way down from Xenia, Ohio. They were here for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, Derby parties, barbeques, family picnics, 4th of July, Easter, Memorial Day, graduations and so on. They were such a permanent staple to our family that I scarcely even registered it. Though he was a dashing war hero, this is how I saw and loved my Great Uncle Bob.
Through his last illness, Joyce was always there. It was like watching a candle flame, burning against the darkness. She was so brave at the funeral, though very still, and she only stood to read some poems that she had written to Bob. I have included one here. Regardless of your faith, I believe it is a true testament to the power of love.
When we fell in love, it will be forever.
The ties that bind us will never sever.
God is the one who brought us together.
The storms of life we will always weather.
Life goes by in such a hurry.
We don’t have time to fret and worry.
Let’s cherish every moment together.
Life on this earth will not last forever.
We’ll be together in heaven above,
Because we’re united in steadfast love.
We both can rejoice in God’s perfect plan,
That he created for woman and man.
Someday among the bright stars we will dance.
Then we’ll continue our loving romance.
God created love to last forever.
So we’ll always be happy forever.
Goodbye, Uncle Bob. Save those dancing feet for Joyce.
I sat in the molded red plastic chair in the hallway, staring at my bare feet. I tried wiggling one big toe and then the other. They wiggled appropriately, but I still sort of wished for a magazine or something, if I were able to read.
“NEXT!” called out the voice, booming down the empty corridor. I looked to my left and my right and saw no one, so I hopped down and toddled into the office. It was full of bookshelves filled with musty books. The dust motes caught the sunlight and sparkled, a legion of fireflies.
“Name?” came the voice again. I tried to peer over the edge of the desk to see the voice. All I could see was a podge of thinning brown hair, combed over neatly to cover a burgeoning bald spot.
“Um, don’t have one yet,” said I, tremulously.
“I know that,” was the impatient reply, “What do you wish to be called?”
“How about Brunhilde?”
“Surely you’re joking,” the bald spot bobbed and weaved as he turned another page of the massive book in front of him,”Best to choose a nice inoffensive name, like Sarah or Ellen. That will give you a lot more choices.”
“I think they should pick my name,” I offered, doing my best to keep the sulky out of my voice. “I mean, I hope I can find a pair with good taste.”
“What else?” His voice was disinterested, rather the aural equivalent of picking one’s nose and flicking it at the wall.
“Well, I’d like it if they were smart people. The kind that you could talk to about Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln and…um, paradigms.”
“Don’t pretend you know what any of those things are yet. What else?”
I crawled up into the arm chair across from the desk, but it was still a low squishy well of leather. I did manage to see the voice’s eyebrows, though; they were like ungroomed caterpillars and rather expressive.
“They should be funny. Not take each other too seriously. Maybe they could sing while they vacuum. I’d like it if they could laugh at themselves and at me too. Maybe the dad could teach me how to make funny faces in the mirror and how to dance like he’s starring in a Cecil B. DeMille musical. Maybe the mom could show me how to mummify a Barbie Doll and how to direct a room full of unruly people into doing what you need them to do.” I piped up, in a voice quite unlike my own, “It’s called ACT-ING!”
The caterpillars crawled across the furrows of his brow to a quizzical position, “This seems like a fairly specific request,” he said, rather suspiciously, “You haven’t been peeping in The Book, have you?”
“No sir,” I said, meek, hands folded in my lap in the primmest fashion.
He sighed and flipped a few more pages, the fuzzy wiggles of his brow descending towards the type. “There is one possibility here,” he said dubiously, “There’s a couple here that fulfills your requirements.”
“Really?” I perked up instantly, “Will they take me on trips to museums and nature trails and force-screen awful science fiction movies and black and white classics? Will they love me and help me, even when it’s questionable that I deserve either? Will they put me to sleep with Booshky Cream and sing You are My Sunshine and Side by Side and The Monkey Song? Will they make me cry when they sing On Top of Spaghetti with a fatal ending? Will they encourage me to write and sing and dance and do all manner of things which are not profitable in the world?”
The book slammed shut indignantly, “You, miss, have been reading The Book! How would you possibly know all that?”
I gave the only answer I could: “Because it’s my destiny.”
Finally, the voice and the bald spot and the eyebrows worked in conjunction and almost looked and sounded as though they were smiling, “Well. Well. Door 11C.”
“Thank you!” I chirped and wandered down the empty hall till I came to 11C. I opened the door and walked into the great white light and towards the parents I was meant to be with.
This post is dedicated to my parents, on their anniversary. I’m not certain how I ended up with wonderful them, but this seems as feasible an explanation as any.
Fate, I owe you one.
|by Artist 3001|
Article first published as Book Review: To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal by Anna Meade on Blogcritics.
When I was little, my father taught me to sit cross-legged on the pool bottom. We sat in my underwater kingdom, holding breath as long as we could and then go bursting up through the surface. The light refracted in those mesmeric patterns that are only found beneath, when the light pours through bluely chlorinated water. Below, we would have nonsense conversations and sing little snatches of song to each other that sounded like the distant keening of whales.
So the title drew me in and the book held me underneath, until I popped up gasping for air. In To Be Sung Underwater, Tom McNeal has written a gently yearning novel, one you will quickly read to find out the fate of these characters. The plotting is deft and the characterization of these flawed people is so believable that they will stay with you long after the last page.
Judith Toomey has a model life, the one she has arranged perfectly for herself: a rewarding job in the film industry, a wryly handsome husband, a teenage daughter who occasionally allows her a kiss goodnight. Then one day she discovers a crack in the veneer and slips sideways out of her life; the past she has so neatly boxed away starts to whisper to her.
Judith gives a name for herself that she hasn’t used in years in order to rent a storage unit, simply to reconstruct her bedroom from her teenage years – a bedroom where she loved a boy. The longer she stays in this facsimile room, the more she remembers about the past she tried to forget and the boy she left behind. Her real life, with her job and husband and daughter, slips away like shadows on a wall. Judith follows the memories back and back, like tugging on a pull on a sweater, unraveling until she is left with the truth.
To Be Sung Underwater paints warm vistas of two lazy Nebraskan summers for Judith, one endlessly vibrant with newly-discovered love and one that offers recovered love. That’s when the book really sings. It explores the secrets we keep from our parents and loved ones, the ones kept in boxes tucked away, snippets of first loves and forgotten dreams. This book’s siren song, the temptation to return to your one true chance at happiness, is the one sung underwater. From a great distance, it calls Judith back to the plains of Nebraska and the memories of a boy she once loved.
Visit Tom McNeal’s website.
*Book preview video best if music player turned off at lower-right corner of blog*