Interviewsand Articles

 

A Taste of Freedom

by Richard Whittaker, Dec 17, 2022


 

 











In my second ten-week class with David Ford at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley, CA, I revisited a number of memorable experiences and brought them to class each week. I was searching for a theme that might catch fire. But for the first six weeks, each prospect revealed itself as being out of reach for the time available or otherwise beyond me. Finally, at week seven, mysteriously, a through-line materialized and seemed within reach. But was there enough time to craft it and commit it to memory? 
     Performance of this kind is new for me, and each week of rehearsal was so rich with its ups and downs - and unexpected moments - that I counted the whole experience worth my time whether I ended up with a performance or not.
     It did happen, though. Here's the evidence.  – r.w.



(Special thanks to Anne Veh and Rajesh Krishnan of Imageseers)

Here is the text of the performance should you care to read it.
[center stage]
With the pandemic, like a lot of people, I started going for walks. Then I get an idea. Why not walk in places I’ve never walked in before? It would be an adventure. So one morning I drive down Moraga Avenue hang a left, drive a few blocks and park. I’m in Piedmont. There’s a lot of money in this community. I come from far more modest circumstances and walking here feels a little transgressive. I halfway expect to be called out at any moment: “Hey. Do you live here? Can I see your ID?" As I walk, I wonder what other unconscious fears hem me in. But as I begin to relax, I’m struck by how fresh everything around me seems. And in the morning light, even the fallen leaves on the sidewalk are beautiful.

[stage right]
After this, I start walking in neighborhoods I haven’t walked in before five or six days a week. And it becomes kind of a practice.
One day I’m walking in a neighborhood near Telegraph Ave. And I run into a schizophrenic guy who gets in my face, “Bloody fuck-knife. Cut them all to pieces. Too tall, too small. Too many shit towels in the sink to drink, to think, to blink.”
     What do I do?A Milton Erickson story pops up, and I improvise: “How many bricks yesterday? Well, circle the shed top to bottom. The office door’s on the 2nd floor. 578. Bird hinges.”
    That stops him - and I walk on by. 
    That’s another thing I’m interested in on my walks - encounters with strangers.

[stage left]
Like one day I’m walking on Indian Rock Ave. in Berkeley. Ahead of me, I see a guy retrieving his garbage can from the street. He looks like he’s in his eighties.
“Beautiful day isn’t it?”
“Indeed it is.”
“How’s the garbage service around here?”
“Well, they seem to do their job every week.”
 “This must be your house.”
“It is”
 “Are you an old-timer in this neighborhood?”
“Well, yes. You could say that.”
He’s still with me, so I’ll take a shot.
“By any chance, are you a retired professor from Cal?”
I am.”
Bingo...
What was your field?”
“Psychology.”
“Clinical or experimental?”
“Experimental. But when I got hired, I was teaching in their clinical program.”
“Were there any figures on the clinical side who interested you?”
“Well, there was a professor in the department who liked Erich Fromm very much. Fromm wanted to use psychoanalytic insights like–“the anxiety of freedom”– to look at society. A lot of people have an unconscious wish to escape freedom. Fromm saw how that played out in Germany with the Third Reich. And it’s relevant now.”
“Right. It’s all too relevant. How much trouble do you think we’re in?”
“A lot more than I could have imagined when I started teaching.”
 
[ Center stage ]
On another day I’m in Kensington.. I park near the Colusa Circle and walk up into the hills. After a few blocks I come to Richardson Road.. hmmm, and I head down it. I notice a big sculpture and I stop to take photos, and I notice an older woman walking up the road from below who stops to watch me. There’s something different about her. When I finish I head her way.
      “Hello.”
      “What are you doing?”
     “I was taking photos of that dragon sculpture.”
     “Why do you call it a dragon?”
     “Well, it reminds me of a dragon.”
     “It’s just your interpretation. Why do people turn things into something negative?”
     “I don’t know what you mean.”
     “ You’re calling that a dragon. I don’t see a dragon there.”
     “I’m calling it a dragon, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s something bad.”
     “Well, dragons aren’t good things.”
     “Maybe, but I wasn’t thinking that. I like it, and millions of Chinese people love dragons.”
      “Are you the man who took photos of my house yesterday?”
     “It wasn’t me.”
She seems satisfied and continues up the street. I continue down the street and, coming around a curve, I see something amazing. A small white house with some sort of hand-painted script all over it – kind of Middle Eastern looking - and the car in front of the house is covered with it, too - even the windshield. If somebody was taking pictures of a house, this has to be it. And it has to be this woman’s house.
     So immediately I head back up the hill. I want to find out about this. And when I get to the top, I see her sitting on a low stucco wall.
“Hi again.”
“Hello.”
“Is that your house with the blue script painted on it?
“Yes, that’s my house.”
“I’m glad I caught up with you.”
“I sit here every day. The people in the house told me not to sit on their wall. But I keep coming back. Finally they say, ‘Okay,’ you can sit here. People ask ‘why does she sit there?’ I say, ‘You can sit with me, but no talk. Just sit and watch.’

I sit down next to her and a car passes..
“Why do they have tail lights?”
“What do you mean?”
“The cars. They all have tail lights. What are they afraid of?”
 “What do you think?”
“They are afraid of death. But we’re all going to die.”  
“Yes. And we don’t think about it.”
“We have to think about it because it’s going to happen.”
“Do you have a spiritual practice?”
“Tay offa see.”
“Theosophy?”
“Yes. Tay offa see is not against any religion.”
“Where are you from?
“Egypt. I was born in Giza in 1935 about three miles from the pyramids.”
“What brought you to the U.S.?”
“My husband was the Egyptian Consul in San Francisco. I am an artist.
I study the face. The face can’t lie. I see from you face here and here (she touches my face) you are kind.”
I’m thinking “Can you believe this, Richard?”
And I’m struck by how beautiful this 87 year old woman is.

“What’s your name?”
“Bebe Barrett.”
“Bebe, would you let me interview you?”
“Why do you want to interview me?”
“I interview artists for a magazine I publish.”
“Yes. I have nothing to hide.”

[stage right]
Two weeks later, one morning I drive back to her house hoping to interview her and catch her sitting in the sun, near her front door.
“I am a sun worshiper. It grows the plants. It heals people from arthritis and other diseases. And it warms us.”
Her front door has things painted on it and I notice some small writing in English. “Bebe, [pointing] what did you write here?”
“It is a quote from Nietzsche. ‘This is our true predicament. Together with the fear of man, we have lost the love of man, the affirmation of man, the will to man.’”
[ gesture - “wow”]
"That's an amazing quote, Bebe."
[pointing]. “Does this script by the door here say something?”
“It is a prayer. From a point of light within the mind of god, let it estream into the mind of man and descend to the earth. Peace…”
“That’s beautiful. Where does that prayer come from?”
“It is from Tay offa see.”

Bebe invites me inside and we continue our conversation. 
“I went to the Sorbonne.” I ask for more information, but soon realize her memory is failing. We do finish the interview. It’s short on details, but it shows the bones of a remarkable story, one I never could have imagined I’d be hearing.

[ stage left ]
Now I know the difference between walking through a place and passing through a place with a car wrapped around me is like day and night. We all know that. But having it come so vividly to life makes me feel like I’ve stumbled across an oddly hidden secret.
Just a mile or 2 from my house, there’s a world of unknown territory I can explore without an airline ticket or passport.
     And you know the saying, “Strangers are just friends you’ve never met”? I think that’s another secret. And I discover that the key to unlocking it is just saying something: “That’s a nice garden you’ve got there.” “It looks like that car hasn’t gotten out of the driveway in a while.” Or just. It’s a great day to be alive, isn’t it?”

[center stage]
One day I’m walking in Albany west of San Pablo Ave. in a neighborhood with a working class feeling. I feel at home among these modest houses, and thanks to Albany Hill a lot of them have views of the Berkeley Hills to the east or look west across the bay to San Francisco.

It’s warm. The sun is setting and I’m taking my time getting back to my car. When I finally do get back, I just want to sit there with the windows rolled down. It’s a moment I notice, because I always go straight home. This time I want to linger. And I realize I have the freedom to do that. It’s a small revelation.

As I sit there pondering this, the city lights are coming on across the bay, and I notice a melody going on in my head. It’s familiar. [hum it] I think it’s from the Episcopal liturgy.
     I was an altar boy. I wore a cassock and carried the cross up the aisle at the beginning of each service and down the aisle at the end. I took my role to heart. What were my feelings then, over 60 years ago?
     As I’m pondering all this, the melody keeps going in my head. I think it’s the doxology. I’m trying to remember the rest of it - [sing] “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” and someone walks by. Shit. People can hear me.
The thought sends me into hiding. “Jesus. Am I still so afraid of what other people think?” I sit there with a struggling with this. 'Richard, you can't..  You have to...
And finally… [sings]
Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father Son and Holy Ghost.  

It’s so quiet. And the lights across the bay are so beautiful. Darkness has fallen, but what happened can’t be seen, anyway.

You know, a law exists - there’s an inverse ratio between the speed of travel and the degree of relationship one has with the territory one’s passing through. The slower I go, the more I can be in relationship with where I am.
     The desert looks empty when you’re driving through it – just dry gullies, rocks and dirt, a few scraggly plants. But when I slow down, pull off the road and stop, get out of my car and walk out into that silence...
It’s like a miracle.
There’s so much out there to see. 

.               

 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.         

 

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