Right now I live in a big, old house behind one of my favorite cafes on a quiet block in Chicago. My roommates and I cook for each other most nights of the week. Sam makes me mojitos and plays Chopin on the piano. Julia is unafraid to do an open-mouthed, point-and-laugh at me when my Sunday pancakes turn into a hash of semi-raw batter. Last night we played shuffleboard for about a million hours and noshed on truffle fries at the bar. Usually light-hearted days and nights.
On Friday, though, a few of us saw a play that obliterated us. We left the theater in silence; a reverent, stunned and full-headed hush. High school kids from Albany Park Theatre Project had interviewed dozens of community members about their stories and assembled them into a performance called Home/Land. True stories, told in words but also motion and rhythmn, color and light. About inustice and intolerance and irrational hate and unspeakable resilience. Transforming a tiny black box space in a utilitarian park district building with some of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen on a stage, let alone from a group of kids.
I’ve been thinking a lot about telling stories; how we transmit our personal experience and knowledge to others. I’ve always revered English. Though I break its rules for kicks and for joy, I can easily default to its formalities, the way my fingers still know what to do with a rosary. But last year I learned of English’s slippery places. How other languages tick and translate, from speakers with other native tongues. In candlelit cafes we’d compare idioms for hours, passing a notebook back and forth. Swapping words and turns of phrase like kids sharing sticky sections of peeled orange — valencia, clementine, blood.
In French there’s l’esprit d’escalier — “the spirit of the staircase” — to describe that feeling of leaving the room only to suddenly realize all you wished you’d said. There’s also coup de coeur — one of my very favorites. It means something like “I heart that”. Your passion of the moment.
The play brought immigration issues to life; discrimination, neon orange jumpsuits for fathers who tried to get work, elderly nuns who fought to legalize prayer in deportation centers, traffic stops that turned to panic and kids who couldn’t say their parents’ real names in public.
Even on the bus ride home, we still didn’t really talk.
Non-fiction theater about social justice has been in the news. You know, the Mike Daisey/This American Life thing. His play, and that original radio episode, hit people hard, too. What’s the word for how we felt as audience members, listening for the first time to stories of hardship and injustice? It’s not guilt or sympathy or even empathy.
When we got home from the play, I paced the house. Grilled my roommates. Googled. Tip of my tongue. Like schadenfreude, but in reverse? Maybe that hippie word, “grok”, one of them said. The difference between knowing something in your heart instead of just your head.
Today I came across the word somehow, not even looking for it, clicked on through
and there it was. Oh, the Germans. I should have guessed it’d be you guys. A squiggly, innocent-looking word that sums up entire sentences of English thought.
Weltschmerz. World pain. Wikipedia tells us, the modern meaning of Weltschmerz in the German language is the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realizing that someone’s own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and (physical and social) circumstances.
In a physical sense, the only thing I can compare it to is the pain of breaking a bone. It’s not that the pain itself is worse than a sprain, it’s the slight grinding of bone on bone that’s sickening, because that’s how you know something’s really fucked up and will take forever to mend.
Our best shot is through stories. We need human bridges to these big issues, of
course. This is not a revelation to any journalist. But my new vocab word might help explain the tenor of the backlash against Daisey. People felt so betrayed over a selection of facts in a play and a radio program. Things that usually merit little attention at all. Why did this sting so badly?
I propose it’s because he’d made us feel that particular, rare flavor of world-pain — and for what? For nothing? There is plenty of truth to his words. But it is so much easier to push it far away, fast and hard and angry. We can forget it. It wasn’t real. Thank god. It was just a sprain. We got hurt for nothing and now it’s over.
Theater is particularly effective at spreading this feeling because of its inherent intimacy and immediacy.
On the bus after the play we didn’t talk but then on the walk from the bus stop to the
house we did. The night opened up with rattling el trains and light spilling from dive
bar doors and on all the trees, new green leaves shuddered under a near-frost but
I still don’t have words for everything.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “Each one (of us) has the incomparable taste in his
mouth of his own life, and yet each feels himself more insignificant than an insect
within the immense collectivity whose limits are one with the earth’s.”
I just know that in Phnom Penh, a little French girl taught me a new
way to eat an orange. We were at the rum bar late at night and she came over to our table. Maybe four years old. Long brown curls, a white pinafore and a bow-tie mouth. She reached up to me and offered the fruit, so of course I took it. And she showed me how you can make a little hatch in the top — take off just a circlet of peel. Then squeeze it a bit until the golden juice starts flowing free, and put it to your lips and drink. I think it’s an analogy for something, and someday I’ll find out which one.