Thursday, February 3, 2011

Over the Precipice

It’s a tenet of Zen Buddhism that one must concentrate on living in this moment, to focus one’s concentration on the present. The past is over, it doesn’t exist. The future hasn’t happened yet, it doesn’t exist. But we spend so much time in the future – planning, worrying, looking forward (with anticipation or joy or dread), or we’re mired in the past, regretting this, reliving that, indulging in a lot of “what if’s”. And missing the here and now, which is where we live.

I had wanted to share a letter I received a long time ago, a letter from my father in response to my coming out. It's a very positive letter, mind you, a beautiful, supportive letter from one of the finest men I think I'll ever know. I thought I had saved it in one of the journals I started back in 1972 and I've been going through some of the notebooks and bound journals, filled with my ramblings, trying to find it. I would have sworn it was in one of those. I didn't find it. But I did start reading, reliving those days decades ago when I lived in New York. 

It was June, almost five years after the death of Judy Garland and the Stonewall riots when I moved to Manhattan from southern New Jersey. Gay was okay and men were wearing skin-tight cutoff denim shorts, T-shirts and work boots, and sporting bushy mustaches, cruising the scene from behind mirrored aviator sunglasses.

I, on the other hand, wound up exploring my disco side with wide, cuffed pants, NikNik shirts splashed with Art Nouveau florals, and chunky platform shoes. I thought I looked fabulous. I had moved to the Big Apple to pursue my acting career, having no idea how I was going to do it, except for some vague notion about going to the HB Studio in the Village to hang out with Uta Hagen. 

I had $500.00 and a couple of suitcases and within a couple of days I had found a place to live: a furnished room in a brownstone at 51 W. 73rd Street, third floor, rear. The bathroom was down the hall, and a woman named Zoya Gilevitch lived in the third floor front apartment. She kept her Christmas decorations up all year and, after she got to know and trust me, she would invite me in every so often for a cup of oxtail soup. I was half a block from Central Park West and the back side of the Dakota, the legendary apartment building where they had filmed “Rosemary’s Baby”. I told people my neighbors included John Lennon and Lauren Bacall. The room cost me $135.00 a month. And I was off!

Those journal pages are filled with relationships, jobs, happiness, sadness, overindulgence, fear, self-pity and rather painful self-awareness. It's riveting stuff and I had to tear myself away to get back to my writing. The past is that compelling. Especially when it's your past and you've written it like "Valley of the Dolls". And one of the things that jumps off those pages is the fact that I spent so much time worrying about the future and what would happen to me, to "us": it was bound to be bad, I just wasn't sure how bad. 

Fast forward: tonight I spent time again with my improvisation group, and as usual we spent the first fifteen or twenty minutes catching up on our weeks, our lives, and how we're feeling. Without getting too personal or going into specifics, suffice to say that several of us are or have been very recently spending a great deal of time in the past or the future. Some of us are older, conceivably at the halfway mark of our lives; some of us are having, or have had, relationship issues. We miss certain people, we're still angry at others. Or we're worried about death, ours or the death of a loved one...

Now, while this makes rich fodder for improvised scenes, it also reminded me that we do spend so much time in the past, which doesn't exist. Likewise the future with its demons and pitfalls and tragedies... or triumphs and passions and lottery wins. Dreams. Reading through all those pages of those journals is like reliving a dream. 

We're missing the moment, the "right now" that is, in fact, our lives. Of course we remember, or we look forward. But I for one would like to try and be more present. right now. Don't worry things to death. As Christmas Humphreys (noted British barrister and Buddhist convert, with one of the great names of all time) said: "Do what seems wise to be done, forget it and walk on (italics mine). Even if you come to a precipice, why walk around it or back from it? Why not go over it? It is probably the shortest way there!"

You learn something every day.


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