Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My city of ruins

A third of my hometown was blasted to splinters.

In real life, tornadoes don't give you a bump on the head and send you off to Oz. They drive you to hide and cower and scream, and you hear the sounds of things flying that aren't meant to fly, and your ears pop and your skin crawls and sky is the deepest bruised black and the house blows out from around you. If you're lucky the tornado passes near you but not through you. It runs through farmland and not through the town. If you're unlucky the tornado sucks down to the ground and chews its way through your house, your neighborhood, or, in the case of Joplin, a third of the city. A day later they had counted more than a hundred dead.

Tornadoes are to May in Missouri as wildfires are to California in October. In May in Missouri, any evening the thunderheads may build up and the air begins to change and you glance at the sky and wonder. Thirty years removed, I still feel the thunder and the unexpected hanging in the air. When tornadoes come to the ground chances are they will tear up some barns and plow  through the fields. But when they intersect with a town, and when the tornado is strong, people die.

It was Sunday evening in Joplin. Some people were taking part in their second church service of the day. Others were putting dinner on the table. A "tornado watch" was in effect, but when you live in that part of the world it's a common thing. Even when the "watch" becomes a "warning" you may not pay attention. It happens all the time, and you don't know where the funnel is, and it wouldn't matter if you did because there's nowhere to run. The sirens sound. If you have a basement you go there. If you don't have a basement you hide in the bathroom or a closet or just sit and wait.

Then you hear something that sounds like a train. Everyone always says it sounded like a train. And for a few seconds you are overwhelmed. Roaring, crushing, shuddering. Screams people make on rollercoasters. A dog barks. A woman shouts out Jesus! Heavenly Father! Thank you, Jesus! over and over. Powerlessness. Panic. Surrender.

If you live through it, you're in a shock that won't allow you comprehend what you see. Trees you've climbed stripped of their bark or torn up by the roots like onions. A brick embedded in the side of a car. Houses of your neighbors disfigured, indecipherable trash piles. What was once familiar has become an alien landscape. Houses, schools, a hospital, nursing homes, churches, some 8,000 structures, now churned and tangled waste.

What's to become of Joplin, that rough old town with the outlaw past? Can they put it back together? In the week since I began to write this, I've come around to saying yes. It's a place that's been remade before, and it will be remade again. Some, the rootless, will have  lost too much and will walk away. The rest - more likely to keep praising God than to complain - will bury the dead and clear away the mess and quietly rebuild their town. The work will continue long after the television news crews have moved on to the next disaster. The work will continue long after everyone knows it will never be the same.

Congratulations to the Times' writers who did this piece. They captured a true sense of Joplin and its people.


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How The People's Temple made me a better person

The evangelist on TV was working up a lather, all about the book of Revelation. Smoothly building with interpretations, suspending the climactic resolution. I watched his gestures and his face, and listened to his rhythm.

For the last couple of months, I had spent time watching those evangelists on TV, seeking others out on YouTube. A good actor works at his craft, and I am about to play Jim Jones, one of the most charismatic evangelists known. I'm doing my homework.

Suddenly he says something that makes me want to listen more than examine. "Adam and Eve," he says, "were failures. So we are the descendants of failures." He leaves this tangent and resumes his Revelation sermon.

Failures, I thought. The pulpit vernacular would call for "fall from grace" or "original sin" - not "failure." It's all about the choice of words, I thought. It's always about choices.

A certain friend, if present, would remind me that actors always find some parallel between their role and their life, some line in the script that magically describes both the actor and the portrayed at that moment in time. The truth of that did not detour me from the intersection between this fresh image of mankind as "failures" and the real-life characters my friends and I are portraying in a production of "The People's Temple."

People think they know the story. Jonestown. They saw the magazine covers back then, or the documentaries on milestone dates. Bunch of "crazy cultists piled up in the jungle." The people who "drank the Kool Aid." They know the ending, but they don't know the beginning, why they belonged to Peoples Temple in the first place, the director would say. Let the play tell the whole story.

The whole story, we learn over the weeks of rehearsal, is about love and need and seeking social justice. It's about civil rights and politics and money and manipulation. It's about finding hope and an imperfect peace in a world that had lost its mind. It's about megalomania and self-deception and group think and going along to get along, and in the end, it's about frustration and fear and paranoia and madness. It's about flawed people; or, in other words, all people.

It's instinctive to turn away from something disturbing, to close your eyes and your heart to something you can't understand. To tell this story we had to choose not to turn away but to look deeply into the words and the meaning, into these lives, to see through another's eyes. It was painful, and joyous, and painful again. It was a journey worth taking. I know that all of us see the world a little differently now. Maybe we will have a little more compassion and be less likely to judge. Maybe we won't turn away when someone we care about makes bad decisions, or when we see someone "acting crazy," but instead will choose to open our hearts and understand. It's always about choices.