If you're a current or former member of Chicago's theater clan (and, no, it isn't "theatre" with a fucking "re" because this isn't fucking Canada, so if you feel the colour rising in your face, take a walk for a few kilometers and wolf down some of that ham you call bacon), you must by now know of the series of gut-punches received by circumstance of late. In the space of a week, there have been a succession of mercilessly swift and unjust fatalities that have claimed the lives of several among us - Molly Glynn, whom I knew a little bit (though I will not inflate or exaggerate this acquaintance - I knew her to say "hi," we had many mutual friends, etc.), Bernie Yvon (whom I knew not at all - it will come as no shock, perhaps, to learn that I did not log lots of musical theater time), and Sati Word (whom I did not know, but who'd worked with a number of my good friends).
I have been struck by the social media outpouring - of money, of photos, of remembrances. Where once we might all have heeded the toll of the church bell to gather in a square, each of us squinting under a shared sun, boots shifting on shared dust, we now march ourselves to our devices and gather in cooler glow of our screens, tethered not by proximity and place, but by this electronic and disparate web of intention and sentiment not bound by any clock or map. And it is this farflung connectedness that has gotten me thinking. About the nature of this peculiar form of grieving.
Mostly, as with the sort of vernacular monuments that spring up in the wake of the death of a cherished celebrity - lopsided piles of Beanie Babies and dollar store candles, wilting daisies and curling photos lining some patch of fence where the died, or outside the gates of their compound - these online observances and outpourings have a dashed-off or hastily scrawled feel. It can be - for a person such as myself who spends a great of his time, and squanders a great deal of his energy on the fool's errand of taming words - like trying to understand the experience of shopping through only the Sharpied signs posted on cash registers by merchants: it can give you some sense of the ideas lurking below them, but fails to capture or convey much of anything on their own. Because taken individually, in terms of communicative precision or potency, a no-caps "thinking of you" or "all the feels" succeeds in putting across about as much as "take a penny, leave a penny," or "no bills over $20". Taken indivdiually, such posts and shares and likes are as flatly inexpressive as a winky emoji or a traffic sign.
But, taken together, I think they achieve a new kind of resonance - akin to the way a single human voice can sound reedy and plaintive and lost, but when joined with hundreds of other in chorus can become thunderous and indomitable. So while I am no fan of the barely considered, the half-thought, the minimally expressed, I have come to recognize the sweep and majesty of such things when cumulative. In the same way that watching a single foot soldier wielding a halyard in close combat, only to fall bleeding into the mud, will seem squalid and pointless, wheras if you survey a valley filled with tens of thousands of such men unfurling below you, then each mud-spattered throat unleashes not a hoarse and frightened battle cry, but becomes the breath of a single pipe in a vast church organ with a voice like thunder; each footfall is not the doomed march of one spindly-legged life, but a drumbeat from within the earth-sundering roar of a human tsunami.
Then, too, there is a capacity - one that for me is too goddamn finicky and stunted to beam to me a strong and steady signal - to forgive the frailty and limitation of my fellows. We are not all of us endowed with the abilty to bend words to our purpose - words are unruly and willful, and in the same way that were I to attempt calf-roping, yielding nothing but shame and broken bones - I must peer past the crude phrasing and wobbling cadence to look upon the intention that underlies it. I must set aside my epic capacity to be a snob and a dickface to gaze at the earnest good will that forms the unseen bedrock of good will that lies below the topsoil of inelegance, the flesh of solace-giving hidden by a poorly made mask.
We are too easily gulled by the delusion of individual achievement, of solitary genius. Where these occur, there is cause to celebrate them, obviously. But if there is anything like real greatness in us, it finds its fullest expression when were are banded together; if there is anything enduring or worthy that has hope of outlasting the hasty little spell we're allotted here - squinting, baffled, in this dusty square - it is and can only be when we can recall the need to relinquish the self a bit, and voluntarily subjugate our small-scale schemes to the wisdom of the village, the aspiration of the tribe.