“Oh be careful! If you breathe it breaks!” I loved how the actress’s voice rasped across that line—all panic at her fragile glass statue in the hands of another, her voice unused to speaking. The love in the half-catch and quaver of her breath, the hitch of fear, this is what haunts me from the performance. This was the American Repertory Theater’s recent production of “The Glass Menagerie.” Celia Keenan-Bolger, who, as Laura, seemed shrunken smaller than a memory in presence of Cherry Jones’s oxygen-stealing, heart-breaking, mesmerizing, Amanda and Zachary Quinto’s tightly coiled rage as Tom. Except, in this moment where Laura shares the best she has to give and all her stymied love and fear and hope runs ragged towards the light, ripped from her lungs, her heart.
I find myself thinking of love and fear and protection in a variety of guises often. If we are not careful, we will all break all that we love, starting with our own hearts and bodies and ripping up through the cosmos to climate change, space trash, and beyond. But if we are too careful, too concerned and cautious, perhaps nothing good will ever happen. You’ve go to break some eggs to make an omelet, I was recently reminded. That was the message I received from the play. Yes, all the hopes come crashing down, shattered like a carousel unicorn against a wrecking ball. But, even at such times, we still all get out of bed, eat breakfast, convert oxygen to carbon dioxide, and get about the business of living. For some, of course, this is easier. Not everyone has the crushed hopes of Amanda Wingfield to contend with, for example. But, we’re all a little damaged, a little crippled here and there. Dancing to the music across the alley, as Laura does with her gentleman caller, may not fix club feet, broken hearts, skinny legs, warts, or any of it. People are people, not messiahs or silver bullets. But the dancing, the risk-taking, the fun, does make the bumps and bruises better, just to know that as unique as our cripplings are, everyone has them. And that they do not matter any more than the weight we give them.
One of the more amazing and instructive moments of my life—thus far—came when I was briefly studying Zen life in Japan as an undergrad. My freshman Philosophy professor, myself, and three other students when touring around Japan on a Freeman Fellowship grant for three weeks. One week brought us to Osaka and the classroom of my professor’s professor. He—Robert Carter—put the classic Zen Ox-Herding pictures on the overhead projector and proceeded to blow my mind. Through the series, a young boy is looking for the ox, a metaphor for enlightenment and wisdom. Once he finds the ox, he is able to stop searching, to rest with the knowledge, to see that the ox was everywhere and nowhere in one moment. There is one picture that is full of life—mountains and trees and waterfalls. The next in the series is empty. Dr. Carter explained that the trick is to look at the world through both, as if focusing a telescope’s different lenses. Like a kaliedescope, seeing everything and nothing in tandem. There is a sweet tension in holding opposite views in one thought, and knowing that both are righter than rain.
At my best times, I can almost do this.
After seeing “The Glass Menagerie” I started thinking more about ways in which I treat myself, my hopes, as if made of glass. I am, at times, afraid to breath around my hopes, so fearful that everything I want and love will shatter. I am thirty-one and have spent at least the last fifteen years trying to be as capable in as many capacities as possible. I know myself to be sturdy, and that I can--with help--heal from whatever breaks me. So my fears are as foolish as Laura’s. She is a terrifying character to identify with in that regard. I try to remember, as I go about my life, that I am not glass, that I will break, but not shatter, and that’s normal, that’s life.
But then, with my new thoughts of “Throw rocks at the glass menagerie! Do not be so precious as too forget to live!,” I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. They have an entire exhibit of glass flowers. “The Glass Herbarium,” if you will, (and I will.)
I had expected the flowers would be blown glass sculptures, or stained glass windows of gardens. I was not in the least expecting to see case upon case of glass flowers laid out on parchment paper as if in a botany textbook. I hadn’t, foolishly, expected such a perfect marriage of Science and Art.
My mother and sister and I wandered up and down the cases. I found the plants I most consider friends—diapensia and mountain sandwort and moss campion. These are all plants that I smile at as if I have fallen in love when I see them in the mountains. They are part of what I love and feel bound to protect from errant feet and changing climates. And here they all were, preserved in glass. Are they safer in glass, are these glass flowers in glass cases in a museum with temperature controls and neat signs saying to keep off the glass, than their wild brethren?
I worry, very much, that they are.
So here are my two lenses of glass to view the world through today, after my cultural excursions—protect what needs protecting, and get out and live with the rest. I don’t advocate for smashing the glass flowers, but for loving the real with the same ferocity we protect glass flowers. That goes for our human lives, too--I'm all for living life with the same dedication as some might polish glass unicorns, (or bunnies) and hide from beautiful, shattering, reality.