Bigger Things

Water rising in the streets. Highways cut off. Neighborhoods turned into islands as their residents hunker down to shelter from the deluge.

We know this story.

Oh, not on the scale that Houston has seen and endured, to be sure, with its millions of people and trillions of gallons of water. But our own memories of floodwater are still raw and fresh, not quite four years old. We still recall the power of the storm.

We remember river channels moving and attacking from new directions. We remember south Longmont isolated and Lyons evacuated. We remember the rain, steady, unhurried, relentless, never seeming to leave.

And one thing more. That even as floods divided the city, they united its people. For a while, the usual controversies didn’t matter. What mattered was reaching out to the next guy, and the next, and the next.

The scale has changed but the impulse hasn’t. A storm focuses attention to an amazing degree. All at once, people line up to offer shelter, or supplies, or even a hastily assembled fleet of boats like a second Dunkirk. I can’t say all criticism or animosities were forgotten – among 300 million people, that may be an impossibility – but for a while, they were eclipsed by something bigger.

Come to think of it, that’s a timely word. After all, it hasn’t been so long since that was literally true as well.

Just a couple of weeks ago, much of the country took a break from what it was doing to watch a hole in the sky. For some, it was transformative as totality turned the midday sky into a magical darkness. Even those of us just out of the main path of the solar eclipse were transfixed by shadow, reflections, and the hint of sun still visible through darkened glasses.

Again, it didn’t lift us completely above our controversies and arguments. But it did seem to put life on pause for a few minutes, to make the contention smaller as we stood and watched together.

For a moment, the scale changed. And our perspective with it.

For a moment, our focus was captured by something larger than ourselves.

It doesn’t last. Maybe it can’t. The author Terry Pratchett once noted that “Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.” We still are different people with different views, and when that singular focus has passed, we still have to figure out how to build a life together day by day.

But we can keep that common purpose on a deeper level. We can remember why we come together in times of disaster and wonder.

Because your life matters as much as mine. Because we share a world bigger than any of us. Because it’s not just about ourselves, but about the others in this world who are just as worthy of respect and dignity and help – and that each of us is an “other” to someone, who may someday need an outstretched hand and an open heart.

We may each of us see the road differently. But if we’re striving for the same destination, to reach a place that lifts all of us up and holds none of us down, then we can travel together. It won’t always be a peaceful journey – what family road trip ever is? – but if we can agree that helping each other is more important than scoring points or revenging wrongs,  it will at least move us all down the road.

A hurricane makes it obvious. But storms move on.

It’s up to us to make sure something bigger remains behind.

The Impossible Dreams

It’s been rabbit season for a while now. And I’m loving it.

More specifically, it’s been “Harvey” season. And after a year’s break from theatre, I’m very fortunate to have been caught by the world’s kindest man and his giant invisible friend with the pointy ears. A friend of mine was once in a similar state of theatre withdrawal and wound up agreeing, sight unseen, to direct the first show that came his way – which happened to be “Oliver!”

“Oliver,” he said in a daze after hanging up the phone. “That’s the one with 50 kids in it, isn’t it?”

Theatre withdrawal. It’s a terrible and awesome thing.

Truth to tell, this is a show I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. (And a good thing, too, considering it involved two months of rehearsal with a little time off for Christmas.) There is a short list of scripts that I consider “drop everything” plays, where nothing short of blizzard, flood or alien invasion could keep me from trying out. At the top of that list are “Harvey” and “Man of La Mancha,” the musical about Don Quixote.

That’s not an accident.

In a way, both plays are the same story viewed from a slightly different angle. Both are about a man who walked away from mundane reality and embraced a dream. His world doesn’t understand. His family thinks he’s crazy. But his own life is an infinitely richer, more appealing place because of it – so appealing that it even threatens to draw others in despite themselves.

“I’ve wrestled with reality for over 40 years,” Elwood P. Dowd tells a bewildered doctor, “and I’m happy to state that I finally won out over it.”

“Too much sanity may be madness,” Don Quixote’s alter ego muses at one point. “And maddest of all, to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

That’s something that’s inherently appealing to an actor. After all, we spend a fair amount of time walking in dreams ourselves, treating fiction as true and living with people who never were. We create entire families – cast, crew, audience – from the sheer power of that dream. And if we’re lucky, we carry a piece of it with us long after the curtain goes down.

Crazy? I’m sure many of our friends and family think so, especially after weeks of late nights and hastily grabbed dinners. But essential, too.

To paraphrase another “Harvey” character, it’s our dreams that make us who we are.

Oh, it’s possible to live without dreams. Look around. The daily news seems filled with the consequences of the oh-so-practical people more concerned with being right than doing right, where winning justifies anything, where grand visions matter less than seizing a small advantage today. Politics, sports, business – in some ways, it’s a world more hostile to the Elwoods and Quixotes of society than ever.

But once in a while, something lifts us higher.

Once in a while, we gape as a spacecraft lands on a comet or a rover explores Mars. Or we marvel together at the adventures of a boy wizard with the power to make children read 800 pages without stopping. Or we … well, do anything that lifts us beyond survival and self, and into the imagination.

Beyond that line is where hope is born. The power to dream of something better. The desire to make it be.

The madness that can transform all of mundane reality in its wake.

OK, that’s heady stuff from a crazy knight and a guy with a six-foot rabbit. But when you find joy in the middle of an angry world, it can be a little overpowering. Mad? Maybe. It’s the end of a withdrawal from dreams, and that always has powerful consequences.

Though if those consequences involve 50 singing children, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

See you on stage.

 

(PS – Want to join the madness? Show times and tickets are at www.longmonttheatre.org. Tell ’em Harvey sent you. )