The idea's cool enough -- go to Santa Fe, hang out with artsy people, learn stuff, maybe make a business connection or two -- but in my experience, trying to fuse "faith" with "art" usually entails a spiraling into kitsch. Boring, bland, saccharine nonsense.
This was not my experience at the Glen West Workshop.
I'm tempted to try and convince you -- to make a case for a faith/art fusion that incorporates what Father Richard Rohr harped on all week, that "All religion begins by making this one, fateful error: to make a distinction between the sacred and secular." I'm tempted to get all blah-blah-blah on you about the ways in which art is capable of reversing that trend... to, in the words of Father Rohr, "Invite you into a world where everything is sacred."
I'm not gonna, and here's why:
The seminar I attended with writer/director/actor/producer Aaron J. Wiederspahn was on existentialism in film. We followed philosopher Soren Kierkegaard down the rabbit hole of existence-preceding-essence, and attempted to approach the films we watched from a perspective that incorporated our holistic experience of them. "How am I feeling as I watch this film?" we asked, "And why?"
So rather than hit you with some abstracted polemic on the value of what I've just been through, I've decided to ramble on a bit about what I actually did, and how I felt about it.
Sunday, July 28. Day One:
I'm not great at beginnings, so arriving at St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM wasn't easy. I'd ridden an airport shuttle bus with a few other first-timers, and we awkwardly bumped our way up the steps to registration, pretending we were cool and collected. We weren't.
My go-to song quickly became "Creep," by Radiohead, which I'd hum or sing to myself as I wandered between events. For the uninitiated, the lyrics to "Creep" are as follows: "I'm a creep. I'm a loser. What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here." A bit on-the-nose, yes, but nonetheless apropos for how I was feeling.
Dinner, however, was fantastic. I'd do it all over, just for the food. In fact, I dream of a world where spectacular cafeteria-offerings like that are just a card-swipe away for everyone.
And later that night, at the reception after "Opening Remarks," I met and talked film with my seminar-teacher, Aaron. He's a jovial and engaging chap, but I found it a little hard to enjoy the conversation, since I was expending so much energy desperately attempting to conceal the vast difference between our respective filmic know-how. Aaron's a serious cinephile.
Monday, July 29. Day Two:
The first session was exciting, of course, but also filled with the awkwardness of unknowing. Would it be light-hearted, or serious? Would I learn anything? Would my classmates be dense... insightful... bombastic?
After a little bit of getting-to-know-you, and thoughts from Aaron on the existentialist approach to film, we watched our first movie, THIRTEEN CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING. It was dark and dismal, and I had trouble shutting off (or even balancing out) the naming/categorizing part of my brain. The discussion afterwards was illuminating and my classmates were wonderful, though, so I began to think that perhaps this whole experience would be good for me. That I might learn something about myself.
But the constant interactions with art and other people were still draining, and although I knew that these were my people (misfit artist-ocrats), I was ever-tempted to sneak off and sequester myself. This tension became my constant companion throughout the week. My decision to avoid all social media for the duration was forcing me to realize how I've come to use that garbage as a crutch against social anxiety -- a way to grab a quick hit of brain-juice without having to do the hard work of actual relationship. Cliche, I know, but there you go. Humanity is a cliche.
That, coupled with Aaron's ongoing encouragement to actually listen to our emotional experience, suggested I had a promising (if uncomfortable) week ahead.
We finished at noon, and broke for lunch. At three there was a reading by poet Amy Newman. She was funny, profound... beautiful. Then dinner, followed by a keynote address by poet Julia Kasdorf that was likewise beautiful and hilarious. Who knew?
"Worship" (I dislike the term as it's come to be used) was... surprising.
I expected it to be my least favorite part of the week, but the opposite was true. Perhaps this was because someone had told them that brevity is the soul of awesome -- but I don't think so. Our resident musician, Laina Barakat (who, incidentally, was in the film seminar with me) was great, and the aforementioned Richard Rohr set just the right tone: self-effacing, contemplative, and challenging.
There was a calmness to it... a peace.
Like when he opened one night by calmly, mellifluously reciting the words,
"Be still and know that I am."
"Be still and know."
I needed that peace as I stepped forward later that night for open mic. I'd signed up to read fiction. But there was a strict five-minute time limit, and as I wasn't willing to hack the head or tail off any of my stories, I ended up reading a few memoiric pages I'd written about the time my then two-year-old son had been admitted to the hospital for pneumonia.
I love to perform.
I hate to perform.
And standing there, reading, I suddenly realized that my legs were shaking and this was all still too immediately emotional -- that if I wasn't careful, it'd end in tears. I slid a little closer to the microphone stand to hide my shaking legs, focused on the words, and powered through. A hush fell over the group as I read about fatherhood and a broken marriage, and afterwards there was that sort of collective sigh-before-the-applause that signaled an emotional connection.
It felt good, having words I'd arranged bring others into my emotional moment. My ego did somersaults, then smashed onto its face. It wasn't enough. It's never enough.
Tuesday, July 30. Day Three:
On Tuesday, we watched DEAD MAN, the Jim Jarmusch film starring Johnny Depp. I was starting to get more into the spirit of things. The feelings. The gut-punch of it. In the afterscussions, I talked about my creative neuroses, and possibly almost cried a little.
Rather than go into all that, I think I'll suggest you take a moment to listen (with your emotions) to Neil Young's theme song for the film:
In between seminars and readings were random moments of conversation and creative connection.
Mostly, though, I was thinking about Tuesday night. Because Tuesday night after she got off work, a childhood friend was going to drop by and pick me up for a night on the town. By childhood friend, I mean a girl who was a high school when I was in Junior High. By girl, I mean a woman who was a high school hottie when I was in Jr. High, yet who somehow always seemed to be kind to the slatheringly-hormonal little goober that was me. A woman I'd not seen in perhaps fifteen years.
She came, we went, and it was good.
It's always good to set aside for a while the disjunction of being an Amazonian former-missionary-kid in a North American world where no one ever quite gets (or cares) what that means, because their culture and yours are too omnipresent to ever be acknowledged. It's like that "What the hell's water?" quote from David Foster Wallace, except that as an MK you feel like you're swimming through that water encased inside a translucent skein of oil, and the only people who you can ever quite fully touch are those who likewise came from the same, oily puddle.
We talked for four hours, and I didn't once sing, hum, or whistle "Creep" whilst I was with her. When she dropped me back off at the college, I wanted to cling to that. I wanted to propose marriage, or whatever it would take to keep that feeling there.
Which is, of course, ridiculous.
Wednesday, July 31. Day Four:
I have found it again, in tiny ways, in the Community of the Makers.
In our workshop we watched BEFORE SUNRISE, and even though I'd seen it before, I found myself sinking down into it. Thinking -- because of something someone else had made -- about the world I lived in, and was involved in Making with my own, small choices. And in this act of watching, we (the watchers) found another sort of connection. Another sort of together.
So of course, after all that Conversation I went off to hide in my room, for a nap.
I decided to check my email first, though, and got the unexpected and mind-boggling news that my screenplay, KILLING HARPER, had made the quarter-finals for the Nicholl Fellowship. This made the prospect of a nap impossible, so I floated down to the common area by the koi pond, looking for someone with whom I could share my moment. I found several someones, and after bragging shamelessly about my good fortune, feigned a little post-script humility by reminding them all that screenplay competition selection was a highly-subjective, arbitrary process -- that the same screenplay had already been rejected by two other competitions.
One of the someones told me that this was the sort of thing you said when you lost. They told me to enjoy my moment.
When part of the group headed off to workshop some songs, I joined them, and ended up getting asked to be a part of the mini singing-group for Saturday's worship service.
Pumped-up ego... check.
Ah, what a vapid soul I am. An endless black hole of need.
Later in the afternoon, Jeffrey Overstreet spoke candidly about his life, and then read from one of his published books. He, too, was divorced, once. Perhaps because of this, I resonated with his honesty and with his description of the never-ending futility of the quest for creative affirmation... something he was just learning to let go.
After another glorious supper-and-conversation combo, Larry Woiwode did us all the honor of the first-ever reading from his as-yet-unpublished current novel. Larry is, in the words of my workshop leader, "legit," and his reading was beautiful, funny, and profound.
It was strange to listen over the course of the week to professional writers reflecting back to me the very anxieties which often make me feel so alone... so desperate for the imagined "solution" of professional acclaim.
Another worship service, another open mic.
|"Where the Path Leads," by fellow Workshopper Daniel Sorensen (check out www.dansorensen.com)|
So much beauty, so much talent. I began to feel a bit of what I felt a couple years ago, when I had the privilege of visiting the Museum of Modern Art, in New York: Overwhelmed. Gob-smacked.
Tomorrow was our "Free Day," and I was looking forward to it.
Thursday, August 1. Day Five:
Being early for breakfast on the day off meant I got to share a solitary table with Father Rohr, and we ended up talking about theology. Our similarities of thought were conspicuous, but once again I kept pulling away, mentally, from the conversation -- ever-evaluating what I was going to say before I said it, in order to be sure to sound like, yes, I understood things.
It worked, too. I impressed the man.
I tell you that first because I want you to like me, but also so that you'll know that deep-down inside, it was all a sham. I understood nothing. I was faking it, hoping for love. Perhaps, Father Rohr would say, this is okay. That there are always connections to be had, despite the endless weaknesses and frailties conspiring to keep us apart.
After breakfast I met up with Dave and Davis, two young Canadians who'd found each other and me, and were ready to find whatever Santa Fe had to offer a trio of displaced, pedestrian Canucks.
...and this is but a smidgeon of the art on display in a one-mile stretch of road with well over a hundred fine-art galleries, packed with such good work that the MOMA-effect was completed, and the three of us were done in. After only seven galleries, we lowered our eyes and bee-lined (mostly) into downtown Santa Fe, where we toured old churches and ate food-stand fajitas in the square, as an old man with a garishly-ornate harp minstreled away the afternoon. It was idyllic. It was lovely. It was, again, a little too much.
Home again, home again, for a nap, in preparation for the Thomas Parker Society at Jeffrey Overstreet's apartment.
What can I say about the Thomas Parker gathering? I can't take you there -- can't wrap you up in the laughter, the joy, the tears, and the sorrow of upwards of thirty people crammed into one, tiny space, reading everything from hilarious essays cribbed from the internet, to garbled foreign toilet-installation instructions, to beautiful and haunting recountings of deep, personal shame.
Ever since I'd heard about the open-but-not-quite-public event, I'd been eager for the opportunity to read something a little longer-form, and had the pleasure of sharing the story "Sanctuary" from my book... a story that contributed to the loss of my job as a teacher and that I (correctly) assumed would resonate deeply with an oft-disenfranchised gathering of Christian artists.
I was by no means the best writer in that room, but the appreciation was palpable, and tangible (I sold four copies).
It was wonderful to be in such a deeply supportive community. In no other place could I have told so many people that I was living off savings for a couple of years whilst attempting to break into the screenwriting industry, and have received such vocal and unanimous approval.
Thomas Parker lasted from eight until past midnight. I went to bed drained.
Friday, August 2. Day 6:
A whir. A blur.
How do you start your morning with Charlie Kauffman's SYNECDOCHE, NY and not feel even more lost and wrecked for the rest of the day? By the time David McGlynn's reading rolled around that afternoon, I was asleep in my bed. I heard it was wonderful, and was sorry to miss it. David was one of the first people I met at The Glen and (as was typical) hadn't even let on that he was one of the faculty... which meant I got in several good minutes of conversation before I started to hear that nasty little Impress-Him Gnome nittering away in my ear.
Oh me, oh my. What a great place to go and find yourself. What an oftentimes tragic self to find.
After yet another fantastic dinner (can you say, "endless ice-cream bar?!"), playwright and faculty member Buzz McLaughlin did a dramatic reading of the first act of his National Play Award-winning work, "Sister Calling My Name."
Buzz is father-in-law to Aaron Weiderspahn, and I'd been hanging out with him and his lovely wife a bit that week, so I was a little startled to realize as he began to read that not only did I know the play, I'd actually seen it performed at Pacific Theater in Vancouver, BC, back in the year two thousand. It was (and is) a powerful, moving piece.
My anxieties, my dreams of acknowledgement, my hopes for... something -- all those were still with me. But somehow, I'd also begun to relax into the company of Makers. To believe that, despite all my frailties, it was going to be okay.
Another Worship gathering, another open mic.
Saturday, August 3. Day 7:
Saturday was the day of Aaron J. Wiederspahn.
This time, there was no film to watch. Just three hours of facilitated discussion on existentialism. On film. On life. On our undivided Selves.
More good food, more good conversation.
And then, at 7:00 in the evening, Aaron showed his most recent film, ONLY DAUGHTER. Only Daughter, Aaron explained, was shot on a shoestring, with a cast that had never before appeared on screen, and a crew that had never shot a feature-length film. He made it because he needed to make something, whilst trying to get his bigger projects off the ground. He made it because he wanted to use art to paint a picture of grace.
It opened with (implied) oral sex, and continued on through a succession of explicit newditty in sex scenes and strip clubs -- a harsh depiction of a slow, wending path through pain and regret, toward a final glimpse of grace.
Crazy. I mean, where else can you show a thing like that to a room mostly full of Christians and have only around three people get up and leave?
Father Rohr followed that with some comments on how the film fit with his theme of reality as paradoxical and complementary... a reflection of the sort of non-dualist thinking that is the highest level of consciousness.
And after that?
Which I, of course, attempted to shirk. I mean, free hors d'ouevres and booze maybe ought to be my thing, given my obsession with all things free. But there was still that thing with the crowds of people in the place, and the disco ball, and ermagersh--they can't be--they are... it's DANCING!!
Dancing, as we all know, is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.
It's also a lot of fun, and once my equally-awkward Canadian homies Dave and Davis started to get down, well... that was it. I stripped off a little bit of that extra ego, chucked it into the closest trash can, and proceeded to get jiggy with it, the universe, God, and my fellow artisans.
A fitting end to a lovely, confusing, rewarding week.
Sunday, August 4. Fini.
So what can I conclude about the Glen West Workshop? Probably nothing, since conclusions seem to be antithetical to experience.
After a shuttle-ride conversation with a lovely young screenwriter, I sat in the Albuquerque airport with a married couple of retired, English teachers-turned-writers, sharing stories as we waited for the jet-planes that would whisk us away from our week, back to our workaday lives.
That was the end of my Glen experience, and so that is where I will leave you: sitting in an airport food court, swapping stories.
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*Note: I put a lot of time into giving you this ad-free reading experience. If this post means something to you, you are more than welcome to pay me back by linking the bejeebers out of it on your social medias. And/or better yet, you could go pick up a copy of my book, "IMMORTALITY (and other short stories)." Dankegratzithanks.