Last night, Sarah and I went to a tiny listening room in Santa Fe to hear Alan Arkin read poetry accompanied by Bruce Dunlap on guitar. I knew Bruce as a virtuoso on guitar. But I didn’t know much about Alan Arkin’s skills as a poet. Turns out I still don’t know much about his skills, for he actually was reading other poets’ work, most of which came from the anthology The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, but I don’t care. For from the first line of his first selection, my boy Yeats’ “The Second Coming” to his encore singing of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” I was transfixed and transported. And this was first because of the power of the words he read, some of which were written 800 years ago. But it was also because of Alan Arkin’s ability to bring those words to life.
If I don’t know much about Alan Arkin the poet, I know less about Alan Arkin the man. Don’t know if he is actually more like Captain Yossarian from Catch 22 or the heroine-using grandpa from Little Miss Sunshine, but again I don’t care. For he was able to embody the spirit of those poems better than anyone I’ve ever encountered. And so whether he has actually possesses the virtues the poets describe or just has an uncanny ability to embody and understand those virtues, the effect was the same. He reminded me why acting is a true art and of why I love words…and more, why I love the world.
There have been times when my confidence in the role of art, of poetry, of music has dipped. This tends to correspond with lulls in my creative output and a heightened focus on problems in the world, stories in the New York Times, perhaps. It happened a fair amount while living in tech-heavy California, where such a priority is placed on progress, on innovation, on speed, on the virtual. Sometimes, in the face of big problems, it seems a frivolous pursuit to devote time to twirling words around in the mind or messing with melodies on a guitar (let alone focusing on the clouds in the sky). And when we talk budget cuts or we think about the failings of our schools and have fears about our future, of falling behind China or India or everywhere, the arts seem the first to go, as we revere science and math. I’m not about to deny the importance of real world problems or of physics and calculus. We need science and math to build bridges, after all. But there other bridges that are built through art. And last night, I felt like those bridges–the less tangible ones, the more spiritual ones, the metaphoric bridges, are the stronger ones, the longer lasting ones, the more important ones.
It’s Christmas time. And I am jewish. But in my family, we celebrate as much as we can. We have a big tree and a menorah. We make Christmas cookies on dreidel-decorated placemats. I have in the past teased Sarah about her love of Christmas (which is really really big), often pointing out that in my humble opinion, the holiday would be less insane if stretched out over, say, 8 nights. But last night, as I listened to the poems (and then as I heard Alan Arkin sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”), I felt the spirt of of Christmas in a way I’m not sure I ever have before.
Our Christmas, which would be seen as quite secular by many Christians (though it is quite sacred by my understanding of spirituality), is mostly about love, of being with your loved ones, of expressing that love (perhaps through too many gifts and too much food, but still), of being grateful for that love…and of becoming a better, more caring person through the realization and embodiment of that love, and then ideally of carrying that love beyond the family unit and out into the world…of letting that sustain you and nourish you, so that you can perhaps sustain and nourish others with it.
And that is what I felt in those poems. For in the end, our time is short and our purpose is confusing. And so we must do our best to love while we’re here–ourselves, our children, our spouse, our friends, our neighbors and our world. And hearing the words of the masters, read by a master (and accompanied by a master), reminded me of that powerfully.
It’s been a year full of much pain and much sweetness. All years are. Sometimes the skies have been clear. Sometimes the storms have been fierce. Sometimes those skies echoed our hearts. Sometimes they coldly disregarded them. Some of us have been luckier than others. Some of us have had a terrible burden to bear. This will always be the case. If it’s not us now, it will be us later. Good poetry and a good Christmas finds a way of capturing that cruel beauty and somehow still filling us with the desire to love a little stronger, to live a little fuller.