The Darkness of Our Souls

Michael-J-Pollard-The-Stripper-1963

One of the mostly darkly comic moments of my high school career was the day of officer elections for Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It was my junior year and I had been very involved in Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) since my freshman year. I went to every meeting, every weekend retreat, every Tuesday night bible study. I wasn’t really an athlete, but I sure was a Christian and I had every Amy Grant cassette tape to prove it.

If you are a person that remembers high school, you might remember how some clubs were a little nerdier than others. FCA was not a nerd club. I’ll never forget my freshman year, going to meetings, spellbound by the devotions given by junior and senior club leaders, popular boys and girls, who talked about how their relationship with Jesus really helped them get through the day. And also, to win games.

By my junior year, FCA was the one club I was most involved in. Many of the people I considered my best friends were also in that club.

When officer elections came up that year, I knew that I really wanted to hold some kind of office during my senior year. I aspired to be that upperclassman giving devotions, inspiring freshman about how Jesus really makes your day better. So I signed up to run for every office: president, vice president, secretary, treasurer. I think there was even something called stu-co rep that I threw my name into the hat for. I was sure that with all that putting myself out there, something would pay off. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

The day of elections, my first clue of the tragicomedy to come was that every FCA member in the school showed up to vote. While FCA boasted a large membership, meeting attendance was never mandatory and often not heavily attended. That day was the exception, every lumbering football player, towering basketball player and Aqua-Netted varsity cheerleader showed up to vote for officers that day.

The first office that we voted for was president. I don’t remember how many candidates there were, I don’t remember who won. I just remember it wasn’t me.

I won’t drag this out for you the way that afternoon dragged on for me, but each election bore the same result. Each time my fellow FCA members had an opportunity to vote, they voted for the other candidate. By the time we got down to stu-co rep, there were snickers that travelled through the auditorium when my name was announced as one of the candidates. Like Carrie at the prom, in the moments after that pigs’ blood fell on her head, I realized that whatever it was that I wanted from these people, boys and girls I considered my peers, I was not going to get it. By a show of hands, the vote took place. Someone other than me won.

That afternoon, after the calamitous election, I went home and took to my waterbed. I don’t remember crying specifically, but I probably did. What I most remember is laying there, heartbroken and embarrassed. In all my years of living in Independence, I don’t think I ever felt so alone.

My only consolation was that someday I would leave Independence and leave Kansas and show them all. I would have a wildly successful adult life and when I came back to Independence to visit, everyone would clamor around me, wanting to get close enough that my stardust might rub off on them.

And while I have left Independence and left Kansas, my life is just kind of a life. Not too glamorous, barely any stardust at all.

Did I have any idea, on that lonely spring afternoon, as I pouted in my bedroom, how many times I would think of that day in the 30 years to come? I don’t think I did.

On that afternoon, I decided I was not going to be a member of FCA my senior year. I would not be sharing my athleticism or my Christianity with people who did not appreciate it. And I held to that resolution. Instead, my senior year was filled with rehearsals and performances for four different plays.

It’s no wonder I loved being on stage, acting in these plays. The thought of becoming someone else is what I’d spent 17 years dreaming about.

One of the plays I did in that busy senior year was written by William Inge.  The play, A Loss of Roses, was Inge’s first big Broadway failure, the first of more than a few.

Inge wrote quite a bit about his hometown, my hometown. In his adulthood, he did not spend a lot of time in Independence. From what I’ve read, I don’t think he liked visiting. An overly sensitive man, a success who never stopped feeling like a failure, I think his visits home dredged up too much pain.

It’s always a little embarrassing to write about one’s pains, one’s sensitivities. Inge did it beautifully, but now, now that we know how much sadness he bore his entire life, it’s heartbreaking. Lola, always ready to play the victim, but stronger than she realizes. Rosemary, on her knees begging a man she may not even love to marry her because the loneliness is killing her. Millie, overshadowed by her beautiful sister, defiant that one day she would leave Independence and live a successful, decorated life.

Sometimes I worry that I am in a downward spiral, that the trip to the Menninger Clinic that William Inge and Deanie Loomis took might be in my future too. There are days that I am overwhelmed by my sensitivities. There are moments when I wonder, am I the only person bothered that no one stops at stop signs in Los Angeles?

I woke up at 5:00 a.m. this morning with the fear that everyone in my entire home town hates me now. Over something I wrote about in a blog yesterday. And then I fretted over that fear because who really thinks that way except for the delirious and the paranoid?  And then to try to make sense of it, I sat on my couch and typed all this out into my little phone. And then, later, I’ll go back to reread what I’ve written and judge it and decide whether I’m willing to share it, the ramblings of my overtired, oversensitive, quite possibly delusional brain.

Of course, you know I published it. You know I took that risk. It’s what we writers do, we risk revealing the darkness of our souls. Even us failures, especially us failures.  And vultures that we are, we all take solace in being reminded of others’ failures, because they are not our own.

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Guest Blogger, Michele Medlin Laikowski: Mr. Blue Sky

3451142218_b62b4a8380_zWhen I was at the William Inge Festival last Spring, I attended a symposium where the topic of 9/11 came up. A Kansas playwright posed the question, “Did 9/11 personally affect you?” Perhaps because I once lived in New York and have friends that still live there, I was shocked by the question initially, I believed that 9/11 affected everyone. But as the people in the room weighed in, I realized many felt that 9/11 was something very sad, a tragedy to be sure, but not something that affected their day to day lives.

On the morning of 9/11, my Mother woke me up with the phone call telling me that the twin towers had already fallen and that the Pentagon had been attacked. I remember my sleepy brain trying to process what she was saying, it was unreal. And one of my Mother’s most pressing concerns was whether I had talked to my good friend Michele, who at one time had worked at the World Trade Center. This is something my Mother reminded me of on Monday when we were talking about 9/11. So, prompted by the conversation with my Mother and remembering the discussion at the Inge Festival, I asked Michele if she would share on my blog, her memories of that day. Whether you were on Manhattan or 1190 or 2451 or any other number of miles away from that island, I still believe 9/11 affected all of us.

Mr. Blue Sky

On September 11th, 2001, I was early for work. Not particularly unheard of at the time but of note because otherwise, I’d have missed seeing the events come to fruition as they unfolded. I worked at JP Morgan. We had news on 24/7 because the bankers needed to see what the money would do that day. So, coming in, a little early – changing from my sneakers to my heels – sitting in my cube, I heard the panic first in the news reporters voices and then I heard it in the voices of the other employees who were watching and then, I went to the little screen and heard it from the voice in my head. You’ve all seen it, I’m assuming, so you know that feeling of horror and disbelief I experienced. Still to this day, I find it hard to believe. That kind of horror belongs in a picture show and it should have a giant monster behind it – not misguided men who have hate like a tidal wave, flowing out of them. No one should have that much hate. It’s ironic then that what they did that day while hateful bred love that is what I remember most from that period.

Anyway, the day went on and it became apparent that this wasn’t a mistake and the panic in my head made its way out to voicing my concerns to my boss that perhaps, staying put in midtown Manhattan, was possibly not the best option. He tried for business as usual for several hours until he realized that the trains were stopping to run out of Grand Central and he’d be stuck, like the rest of us, on this island. So he hoofed it to the train to his lovely home in Westchester. We got to leave around 10:30/11, my friend, Leigh, who was a temp for some clothing company was forced to stay until something insane like 2 … BECAUSE WHAT IF SOMEONE CALLED THERE. Her location was right next to the Empire State building. We were on the phone for hours until you couldn’t get a signal any more. In retrospect, it may not have been hours. Having a clear view of that day, years later is fraught with half-truths, I’m sure, it’s so hard to know a timeframe beyond once the towers were hit. She was also my neighbor so as soon as she got off, we got together and smoked a ton of cigarettes and drank beer and if it weren’t so awful, it would have been an amazing day. The weather was absolutely perfect. There wasn’t a cloud up in the sky. Well, except for the clouds of smoke that billowed towards us from downtown, the clouds of people grey people making their way home and the clouds of war eminent on the horizon. But, those clouds, were dissipated by the amount of pure love that we all felt for each other that day. I have never in my life seen or felt anything like it. It started on September 11th and it lasted for a month, 2 months – just this feeling of kindness flooding the streets. I don’t wish for this to happen again, it goes without saying, but I would adore to feel that love once more. This will be the 12th year since it happened and for the most part, the majority of NY’ers have moved on and brushed passed it but every year at 8:46 AM, a shiver runs through all of us.

Guest Blogger, Joel Williams: Independence. Does that mean Freedom?

imagesA few days ago, I asked Joel Williams, a longtime friend and another Independence, Kansas product, if he would like to be a guest blogger here.  We have much in common, but the one thing I think that binds us together is our interest, perhaps one could say devotion, to all things related to William Inge.  I love what he had to say and I know you will, too.  Here it is:

 

Independence. Does that mean Freedom?

Like Ray, I grew up in Independence, Kansas. Like Ray, I’m a fan of William Inge, playwright and novelist (1913-73).

What I don’t know is if Ray is looking for the same things in the work of Inge that I am. What am I looking for? Oh, of course I’m looking for the familiar, for signs of the past, for explanations of human behavior, especially those humans in Freedom, Kansas, Inge’s version of my hometown. I’m also looking for what my particular experience growing up in Southeast Kansas did to and for me. A decade or so ago, I bashfully told a friend about William Inge and my hometown, downplaying its significance, and he buoyed me up, comparing his experience and saying, “No one ever made art about Reston, Virginia.” I doubt the literal but not the essential truth of that statement. It made me take a deeper look at the matter.

When I was about 13 years old, my mother took a night class at Independence Community College (once attended by the playwright himself) that had Inge as its subject. She came home and discussed the class, the teacher, her fellow students, and, finally, the plays and the novels. I took an interest, slowly understanding that his work was all about people I knew. My parents pointed out the houses around town that figured in the plays. As adolescence proceeded and I came to regard my hometown as a closed, insular environ worthy of escape, I got even more curious about Inge. I learned that he performed his own escape act, moving away while casting his eyes back toward Independence and keeping his hands on the typewriter.

Every few years, I find myself going through a self-imposed Inge Intensive. I haul out “Four Plays,” then force my partner Roger to sit through a dinnertime viewing of Splendor in the Grass. Recently, I ordered my own copies of My Son is a Splendid Driver and Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff, and read them before flying back to Independence for the Inge Festival. Do enough of that reading and all you think is, funny, there wasn’t much freedom in Freedom – all those old maid schoolteachers accepting or rebelling against the strictures of small-town life and beauty queens dreaming of hopping a train to Tulsa to get together with shiftless bad-boy ramblers.

So, what are the results of growing up in The Real Freedom? I suppose that being surrounded by actual Kansas schoolteachers, beauty queens and bad boys while comparing them to their analogues on stage and screen made me acutely, intimately appreciate what an artist can do with words on a page and actors on a stage. Compared to other small-town natives I know, I think I see my hometown as something of a stage set, a place where Human Drama Happens. And I do occasionally find myself putting my life experiences into the narrative frame of an Inge play – oh stop it Joel, you’re acting just like Sonny! If I can’t have Bud I’m gonna go crazy, crazy!!! And when I think about the reason why I left Independence, I guess I was afraid of becoming a kind of old maid schoolteacher and yearned to run off to the city on a boxcar. So I did.