Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager. —Susan Sontag
The autumn before I arrived in New York to assume my post at TCG, my father left this earth. His death was unexpected, and afterwards, he appeared often in my dreams. In one, I encountered him on a train platform. When I asked where he was headed, he said, “Boston, hon.” Hon is a term of endearment in Baltimore, where I grew up and where both of my parents were born, grew up, raised our family and ultimately died. I later learned the Baltimore Orioles were playing the Red Sox the night he passed away. My father, a die-hard Orioles fan, never missed a match—he always watched them on TV. I suppose his spirit, standing there on that train platform, was trying to get to Boston for the game.
My father’s father was a devout Catholic, an architect who was lauded for his work designing movie theatres, schools and churches. In 1958, he was made a Knight of St. Gregory by Pope Pius XII. My father, on the other hand, was not religious, or even particularly spiritual. He was a physician by profession, and, in his younger years, an avocational storyteller—he utilized the “audience” at our dining room table for most of his performances. In his retellings, he always presented himself as the quintessential bad boy. He told stories of his childhood friends and the trouble they got into. And every time he repeated a particular tale, the offense became bigger and his age became smaller: “I was two years old, and we were smoking cigarettes in the garage when…”
Among those dreams, the one about him that I reflected upon the most was also the most curious: I encountered him in an empty auditorium, where he was reclining on a sofa. As I approached him, he welcomed me graciously, looked me in the eye and said, “You’re not praying enough.” He was right about that. And then he said the words I return to regularly: “Don’t think about the past and don’t think about the future.”
In life, I’m quite sure my father would never have said either of these things. Deepak Chopra might say that, but not my father! It would have been quite out of character for him. Maybe my brain concocted these messages. Or maybe he really was paying me a visit, with special words from the spirit world. Either way, I was being advised to cherish the here and now.
The professed power of staying in the present is ancient, and it exists in some form in almost every theology and spiritual practice. In modern times, every yogi knows the teacher’s admonition at the start of class, following the greetings and the “oms.” It goes something like this: “Let go of your thoughts, try not to think about the grocery list, or the argument you just had with your sister, or your sixth grader’s homework…just stay in the room.” The idea of staying present, “staying in the room,” has transformed into a million mantras about mindfulness, intentionality, purpose, paying attention, observing the moment.
And it’s true. Memories and desires and “to-do” lists occupy so much of our minds so much of the time. And now, these thought processes must also stand up to the gravitational pull of Facebook updates, text messages, endless e-mails and—when you’re grappling with organizational issues like those I face daily at TCG—the pressure of providing innovative leadership and racing to put new business forms into practice.
As we enter the New Year, trend-watchers are forecasting the impact of the world’s continuing metamorphosis. As the futurist site trendwatching.com would have it, “Whatever market or industry you’re in, those who understand and cater to changing consumer needs, desires and expectations will forever have plenty of opportunity to profit. A remapped global economy, new technologies (or ‘old’ technologies applied in new ways), new business models….”
And the “to-do” side of our consciousness declares, “Bring it on!”
But there’s a complementary impulse that comes with the exhilarating mayhem of the 21st century: I predict a continued yearning for the stillness and peace that come with focusing on things that keep us in the present moment. This happens, as Susan Sontag points out, when we practice paying attention. And it does take practice for most people, including yours truly.
As a theatre community, we have the ability to join together to bring people to a place of attention—a place of focus, of being in the minute, of experiencing a shared encounter with a work of art, one created by artists who are also paying attention to their moments on stage. And together—whether the performance is in a theatre or a room or in a field—we become a collective, a revitalized entity based on that shared attention and experience, liberated from past and future, connected to one another and to the here and now.
That’s what I believe my father’s dream message was meant to convey, and that’s a crucial part of what we need as we begin our encounter with the joys and the challenges of 2013. Do stuff, Sontag says. Stay eager. We will. Let us discover in the year ahead both the momentum of accomplishment and the stillness of being. Let us work and dream.
Happy New Year.