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  • Writer's pictureZachary Desmond

#9 of 18: THE BURNING MIDDLE

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

// IMAGINARY ATLAS //

August 18, 2023

Vol 1, Issue 9


*****


So take my hands, love, there's a burst inside our minds

Feel my hands, love, cause I'm numb from the neck down

And there is fire, love, on the balcony right here

I can see our bodies burn but sense no fear


*****



Dear Friend,


Venus is in retrograde, moving through Leo. This last happened in Summer 2015. Do you remember? What are the resonances between that summer and this? What eight-year cycle is coming to a close? What underworld invisibles are re-rising into light?


We’re halfway through the Jesus year: 33. An integer begging to be fractionated. The first third. Very probably, I am several strides into the second third. No denying it. Clinging to The Beginning’s coattails imperils The Middle. Hallelujah! The Middle is come!


LULU at Mercury Store


“But what is the worst part about Capitalism? For you personally?” asks Tea Alajić without irony. She doesn’t roll her eyes or grimace, and the room of nine actors is silent, which is unusual. I have to think about it because she’s really asking us to pick one thing and a list would be easier. One feels way too personal. I want to say the right thing, as a progressive, as an anarchist, as a gender abolitionist, as a Christianized proto-pagan, as a proponent of democracy, as a creature who relies on air and light and water and touch to survive, as an artist alive for a brief time: right now and right here, in New York City, August 2023.


How precious to be here for this part, I think. And I know we’re in crises. All of them. But I was made for this. I was birthed into this moment just a few gasping breaths ago and I have come to love it, dearly and sincerely, the tilting of everything, ever-dependable gravity tugging on all those jagged steel carapaces above us. And maybe that is the worst part about capitalism pour moi, that an orthodoxy of unlimited growth makes queer everything finite and limited. It marginalizes the brief grand gift, separates it into parts, categorizes each part according to anthropophagus hierarchies, and commodifies what it “values” most until it’s exhausted. So, so tired. Shit though, that’s a list. I was trying to pick one thing.


[Sidenote] Lulu is a play by Frank Wedekind, written in the 1880s. It is a mercurial, sprawling, multi-genre epic about an orphaned girl who was either: (a) a naturally buoyant young beauty preyed upon by clownish, evil men at every stratum of society until her inevitable decline dovetailed violently into an untimely demise; (b) or an extremely deft shapeshifter unnaturally adept at leveraging the soul projections cast upon her by clownish, evil men to survive and even thrive in German bourgeois society, leaving a trail of dead lovers in her wake until her machinations finally caught up with her in the dramaturgically confounding form of London’s infamously never-caught serial killer, Jack the Ripper… or (c) something else entirely [content warning: language, violence, nudity]. It was censored by German state authorities. Wedekind died in 1918 at the age of 53, complications after an appendectomy. He did have syphilis. He was a complicated misogynist. [End Sidenote]


“What happens after capitalism?” Tea is asking us to think about it overnight. And I do. A lot. Someday I will write a novella here. Or a love poem. For now: I don’t know. The fall is nigh. The winter of Individualism will be painful. A real blow to our egos. I’ve been getting to know mine. It’s not prepared to go willingly.


THE WRITING MONTH in My Home


“I think we need to make bigger financial bets on ourselves,” says Sally.

“I have no assets,” says Zack.

“Yeah,” says Sally, “You gotta gamble with other people’s money.”

“Right,” says Zack, “I guess that’s what people have been doing.”

*****


I have written more in the last two weeks than I have in the last six months.


I have a working document with 20 play and film ideas in various stages of completeness. From a single sentence---Church Fathers in competition for gold/souls during the protestant religious revival in Upstate NY during the 1820s---to a twenty page outline with five mostly written scenes---an absurd comic four-hander currently titled MONEY WATER BABY---to a fully storyboarded but yet-to-be-titled short film, my first foray into the horror genre.


Something happened while I was in Europe and then the Southwest U.S. There are plenty of stories to tell about the away time, they are vivid and muscular and arriving daily. The story of the return, however, hasn’t yet found its flesh.


I am waking up early. I am moving my body, stretching my muscles, juicing my joints. I am meditating, napping, taking it easier and easier. And I am writing for hours. Every. Day. If you know me, really know me, the way that I have only ever allowed a handful of people to know me, you know that doing each of these things was once a grave and daily struggle. But now: patience and calm. This does not feel like mania. Neither is it a grind. I am no longer interested in hustling. Or asking for things like a little boy who hopes he has tricked the adults into believing he’s earned a treat.


Thus spake I, to the following dreams we commit ourselves:


  • By the end of this month, I will have finished a new play.

  • By the end of 2023, I will have started my own production company for producing plays and films.

  • By the end of next spring, I will have four public readings of four plays over four months, one a month from January to April.

  • By this time next year, I will have completed production on a full length film. It will do very well.


Consider it done.


WORKING THE MIDDLE in Your Home


This issue marks the halfway point of this project and I’m about to ask you a lot more questions than I usually do. Walk with me?


At summer’s start, I shared this exercise with five of my dear artist friends. We meet regularly over Zoom for much of the year. We come from all over. Currently, two of us live in Sitka, two are in D.C., two are in Brooklyn; finding time can be difficult. We weren’t going to be able to meet this summer, so I made a half-hour video with a series of prompts about recognizing the end of the Beginning and heralding the beginning of the Middle. I invite you to join us:


Prologue


Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing

and rightdoing there is a field.

I will meet you there.


When the soul lies down

in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

[Boo-yahhhh!]


- Rumi, 13th century Sufi poet and mystic [with editorial]


Before we begin in earnest, imagine for a moment that your life has been entirely without mistake. There is nothing you must correct for, no path you ought to have trod. Your life landed you here, today, and it is complete even in its current, incalculably unwieldy form. Imagine bringing to your every former self a spirit of total forgiveness. Life, right now, is happening in THE way that facilitates your soul’s deepest evolution. Despite your every story to the contrary, up to this point, it could not have been anything but this.


What then?


Part One


In the March 2023 issue of Art In America, performance artist Aki Sasamoto and climatologist Nick Lutsko are interviewing each other. They are discussing what improvisational performance art and atmospheric science have in common.


Sasamoto

… My background is in structured improv, and I thought, weather patterns are basically structured improv, since it is difficult to predict the near future even with a certain understanding of patterns.


Lutsko

Weather is all about this combination of predictability and chaos. You can count on it being warmer during the day than at night; or warmer in the summer than it is in winter. And yet, there are often unexpected events. I wonder how you think about balancing structure against disorder.


Sasamoto

I’m not trying to create chaos, but I do like to perform the same piece in iterations. If two weeks pass between performances, my body might change. As a woman, my body can feel different depending on where the moon is. I don’t write down my concepts and I don’t have scripts, but I do repeat performances, which is like the difference between storytelling and storywriting: in the storytelling things change, although the story is the same. If I perform the same piece when I’m twenty, and then thirty, and then forty, it should be different each time. Like when you read a book again ten years later and different things stand out to you. That’s what fascinates me about repetition.


I was inspired by this ten-year increment thing. Contemplating the Jesus year and the beginning of the Middle, I was imagining myself ten years from now. I will be 43. Decidedly middle aged. My question for you is: How does the idea of you “ten years from now” affect you? How do you see yourself ten years from now? What do you look like, feel like, love, crave, care about, enjoy, fear, long for, ten years from now? If you have a moment, I welcome you to jot some notes about it here.


What surprises you about what you saw?


Part Two


“It is perhaps the height of arrogance to presume we know what our lives are for.”

- Tamie Parker Song, Essayist and Improvisational Artist

My friend Shaun is getting his PhD in Theology at Boston College. He was always an exceptional scholar, really loves the work of scouring the literature, seeking real-world insights from people with lived experience, building the case for an idea from the ground up. Within the wide forest of Theology, he was drawn to the copse of Ethics, where he climbed the tree of Bioethics, and is now making a nest on the branch where the ethical quandaries of contemporary biomedical research on incarcerated populations blossom. He’s a few years in, starting his dissertation. Only a few years to go.


Let’s imagine you’re getting your PhD over the next ten years! Given your life so far, what’s your specialty? What are your talents? What overlooked inquiry glows at the intersection of your most ardent passions? What highly specific thing do you get to spend the next ten (fully funded!) years working to become the world’s leading expert in?


Here’s another way I framed this for myself: What do I actually want to be best-in-the-world at?


I’m a writer and an actor. It’s easy to fixate on things like winning an Obie, or an Oscar, or the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, working with a favorite director, or having a career like X famous film and stage actor. But that’s incredibly boring. Putting aside the careerist impulses, the path to accolades, the role models you hope to emulate, what thrilling question (that might take ten years to answer!) is nobody asking but you? If you care to, you can write about it here.


Part Three


What if during my tireless pursuit of achieving or acquiring everything I ever thought I wanted, something much more interesting happens?


It’s ten years later. You’ve identified a beautiful, specific, thrilling field of study. You’ve established yourself as the expert. Huzzah and kudos! People want to learn from you!


Perhaps you’re a professor crafting a syllabus, or a global phenom being interviewed on international radio, or being honored by the titans of your industry at a luncheon in a drab hotel conference room with a shoddy PA system. The task is to give the attendants a place to start, something to help them kickstart their studies so they can follow your blazing trail.


What are six essentials for beginners in your field of expertise? These are the highly specific cornerstones, the seeds of your eventual flowering. They can be books, TV shows, podcasts, art installations, experiences, meditation practices, albums, album covers, conversations with a wonderful mentor or comrade, poetry, live comedy performances, speeches by organizers of political movements, newsletters you don’t remember signing up for emailed to you periodically by a friend or acquaintance, whatever!


What are SIX things that you would hand to somebody if they looked at you with adulating eyes and said with utmost sincerity, “Where do I begin?”


bell hooks’ All About Love, you might say. Or a map of the Pacific Crest Trail. Or a 10-day silent meditation retreat. The 3rd season of Dan Harmon’s Community. Marc Maron’s 2015 interview with Jason Segel on his podcast WTF. The play Trestle at Pope Lick Creek by Naomi Wallace. Start here, you say, And you will have some critical tools required to do my kind of work. And hopefully add to it.


If you have some ideas, feel free to write down six things right here.


Part Four


And now we return to Rumi and the field. “When the soul lies down in that grass,” says Rumi, “The world is too full to talk about.” How can we possibly assume we know what our lives are for?


This is a soft question about the extraordinary circumstances that have made up your singular, wildly irreplicable life.


Go back ten years. Think about the last ten, twenty, thirty, forty years if you got ‘em. Back to the books you read as a child, then reread later with longer eyes. What choices, diversions, missteps, collisions, accidents, coincidences, teachers, relationships, revelations, desires, regrets and unsatisfiable hungers can you look back on from the vantage point of today and say, “Oh yes, I see now, I have been on the path to this very moment for years!”


You can make that list here if you want to.


Then look at the sum of those events and curiosities and encounters and wonder at the awesome accumulation of experience, the steady erosion of unnecessaries, and say,

“Wow. However many years ago, I started this journey which has made me a master in this field out beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing, the field of my particular life. For the next ten years, twenty, thirty, forty if I got ‘em, I’m going to take that mastery and alchemize it into expertise, turn it over and over and over until it becomes something thorough and enduring, something alight with passion, my own, endowed by fire. And perhaps it will remain, a gift for others who come after me, perhaps those lost in the forest, reaching out for direction in the dark.”


They will thank you, in their way, those who don’t yet know that they must forgive themselves for everything. Those crawling around in the dark with no way of knowing they are already on the path, already forgiven.



*****



Yours on the balcony,


Zachary



*****



Here are links to past issues and as always, happy to hear your thoughts and reflections.



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