by Robert Barry Fleming on April 10, 2020
Coronavirus, Art, and the Existential Persistence of Impermanence, Resilience, and Hope
As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.
Theatre making is inherently ephemeral. A, sometimes, discomfiting fact that we have also been known to even celebrate. It is something art shares most intimately (and metaphorically) with life. It is also true, like life, we struggle when our work comes to a premature demise; an end well before we perceive the appointed time should arrive. The moment our best-laid plans are frustrated by the vicissitudes of life on life’s terms. Deep dissatisfaction that we are bound by a contract that where there is life, there will also, eventually, be death. Regardless of whatever constructs we’ve invested in, nature will have its way. We must shuffle off this mortal coil and that which we construct must fall apart and die.
[People] want to know how I optimize my body…but what gets talked about less is how I optimize my mind, and it’s just as important.
On March 27, 2020, I held my mother as she took her last breath and transitioned. It was undoubtedly one of the most profound moments I’ve ever experienced; the completion of a journey. (I had the privilege of having sharing that transition moment with my father nine years ago, as well). That this happened simultaneously as I was processing a profound professional rupture by having to cancel all programming associated with the 44th year of Humana Festival of New American Plays did not go unnoticed. In fact, March 27th was the day I was to open the last production of our five-play festival, GRACE. Which happens to be a musical thematically centered on a family mourning and finding resilience after the passing of a family matriarch. This milestone has become a reminder that life does, occasionally, imitate art and that it is also true that a grieving process that includes denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, can also include the search for meaning in our encounter with incomprehensible loss.
Just as a gardener tends to her flowers, care for your gratitude practice daily, and watch it grow, strengthen and blossom.
While we are all doing our best to do our part to flatten the curve, we are slowly recognizing just how essentially important disciplining the mind and elevating the spirit can also be in times of crisis, for the coronavirus is a disease of both the mind and the body. The deleterious physical effects are rivaled by the terror of the mind. Both are corrosive to our wellbeing, be it cognitive, physical, emotional and/or spiritual. Fear can provokes a search for control in any and all ways we can seek it out, many ways and, yet, we know that impermanence is at the foundation of life itself. How does one rectify this fear and the need for control, when what we have control over remains exclusively in the domain of only what we choose to do and where we focus our attention? Particularly, in the face of our complete and total lack of control over most parts of our lives and given circumstances?
“A peaceful mind creates a peaceful world”
“The quieter you become, the more you can hear”
I prayed the “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep” and The Lord’s Prayer three times over a two-day period with my mother as she lay actively dying listening mostly to artists my mother loved like Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston and the Lettermen (!) to comfort her. My mother was an extraordinary human being, with a love and an ocean-wide aesthetic variety of tastes in music and arts of all kinds which she passed on to me; a unique, loving, servant leader, who most identified herself simply as a nurse. She was instrumental in the establishment of the PhD program in nursing at the University of Kentucky in far too close proximity to gaining the right to vote as a black woman in this country. I've often wondered, as one might, what it took for her to have vision enough to contribute so generously to a society that struggled and resisted to acknowledge her basic humanity with the right to vote for much of her young adult life. Knowing my mother, my first great model of how a distinguished leader behaved, I suspect it had something to do with her enormous capacity to love and give of herself. She was one of the finest examples of a person who was truly liberated from bondage of self in relation to her ability to be there for others. Her generous spirit and laser focus on service, seemed to fuel a spirit of optimism and compassion that was rooted deeply in all she said and did. She lived with a dignity that remained intact, even as she peacefully passed from this earth.
If you want to fly, you have to give up the things that weigh you down.
From her lived example, and borrowed wisdom, I am reminded, there is no better time to exercise the kind of peace-building compassion and empathy for those we encounter on our journey than now. I wish us all the gift of knowing ourselves, knowing those with whom you have the privilege to collaborate, and knowing your environment; the joy of accountability in recognition of our power to co-create the world in which we live and work; and most of all, the peace of mind that comes from letting go of striving in separateness, competition, and subordination and transforming those internal and external spaces into the sacred and resilient ones of love and acceptance. From her example it appears leaning into everything that brings us closer to spiritual maturity by joyfully participating in the sorrows of the world puts into relief that it is not so much what the world does to us but how we respond to what the world does to us that seems to demarcate our acting from intentionality as opposed to acting out in reactivity.
Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays has nurtured the work of a multitude of artists and artisans for over 43 years. In the 44th year of this remarkable service, as a result of a global pandemic, Actors was required to simultaneously shutter five world premieres ending the dreams of five full companies of artists and artisans, our brilliant production team, admin, staff, and a global community of supporters as a necessity of exercising our civic duty to protect public safety. This was a great loss to the arts community in our region, in the nation and for many around the world.
We take care of the future best by taking care of the present now.
In solidarity with everyone who has given of themselves and continue the daily work of doing their due diligence in serving storyteller’s survival now and the future sustainability of theatre-makers and other artists in their communities now for the future; to anyone making a meaningful difference in service to the safety and wellbeing of others anywhere, I share this variation of a poem that always lived on my mother’s office wall as she served in various leadership roles in her career. I’ve been reflecting and meditating on these words of inspiration, healing, and hope for the possibility of our capacity to coming together to uplift one another in this challenging time. and I wish us all the grace to live in our best selves under this moment of global distress and, indeed, possibility.
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered
Love them anyway
If you are kind people may accuse you of ulterior motives
Be kind anyway
If you are successful you will win some false friends and some true enemies
If you are honest people may cheat you
Be honest anyway
What you spend years building someone could destroy overnight
If you find serenity and happiness they may be jealous
Be happy anyway
The good you do today people will often forget tomorrow
Do good anyway
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough
Give your best anyway
You see, in the final analysis it is between you and your God
It was never between you and them anyway.
Found written on the wall of Mother Teresa’s home for children in Calcutta—a variation on Dr. Kent Keith’s Paradoxical Commandments