Tennessee Williams: Someone To Tell It To


 “Our myths, like the Chinese lamp over the bulb of reality, are not yet in place, or they are askew. We wake up, get a taste or a glimpse of what we face, and we put the myths back in their proper places,” Tenn told me.
     The day is full of our creative, delusional operations. If we pray at this time, eat the right foods, meet friends for lunch and uplifting conversation, read the right books, attend the proper functions, attend to our work, apply the virtues and attributes we have selected from the spiritual buffet, we may make it to our beds in a peaceful state of mind.
     “Now I lay me down to sleep,” we murmur, calm and surrounded by God’s love and his angels. We sleep and we dream, just as we were previously awake and dreamed. Tenn learned that some of his Jewish friends believed that our souls were taken from us in our sleep, sent back to God for repairs and adjustments. Perhaps the soul traveled and picked up knowledge suitable for the particular journey prescribed by God for this soul. If we are lucky, our soul is delivered back to our body before we awake, but some souls can’t be mended; others can never find a task for which it is suited. Death occurs. The soul never returns. So the observant Jew awakes and immediately expresses gratitude for having been allowed to wake and live again. “The Jew finds his pardon has been granted.” Tenn said, “his show has had its closing notice ripped from the theatre doors, his warranty has been extended.”

    Both Tenn and Irene Worth traveled to ancient caves, some in Lascaux, France, where the first examples of art are believed to have been found. Worth also traveled to Africa and the Middle East, the “very heart of the world,” as she called it. Deep within these caves are drawings, symbols, words. Desires etched with sticks and blood and embers from the first fires.
      “I think it was prayer,” Worth told Tenn.
   “I think the images were friends they needed,” Tenn countered. “I can’t know if they invested these crude images--which were definitely human in concept--with supernal powers or abilities. But in the dark, in the night, or in doubt, they could look at these images and imagine that they cared and understood and might help. Before there were crosses of burden to be borne, there were crushing doubts and fears, and they could be released to this…what? Friend?  Ally?”

     They needed--as we all do--someone to tell it to.

Irene Worth
    “That’s it,” Tenn said. “We have our stories-- which is to say our lives-- and we need to have them observed. I matter! Look at me. I feel! Honor that. I’ll be there for you. Please, in the name of whatever I have created to tell my story to--God, Satan, the Blessed Virgin, Krishna, a tree in a veldt, a doodle on a cave wall--know that I walked here and I matter.”
    Irene Worth also told Tenn of African tribes who honored, and perhaps worshiped, trees and the leaves produced by them. “We would see the largest, most incredible trees,” Worth told me, “and you felt that their roots must have extended to the center of the earth. Perhaps the roots of this tree could connect me to Lincoln, Nebraska, where I was born, or New York City, where I lived and worked. You touched the tree and were led to believe that you were connected to everything and everybody. True? I don’t know, but I felt the power of the moment. I believed when I touched the rough and ancient bark of that tree that I was touching something that had been a witness to so many things in history and time. Now, it was a witness to me. Am I now part of that tree?”
     The most fervent of pilgrims might write down their hopes and dreams--their prayers--on pieces of paper and bury them at the root of the tree. Tenn imagined that people must have dug in to the earth to place their own petitions and come across centuries of lists, admonitions, requests.
     Tenn never made it to the grand trees of Africa, but he told me that he went to his childhood home and made a similar pilgrimage. I did not ask if the home of which he spoke was the one in Columbus, Mississippi, at Main and Third Streets, or the Episcopalian rectory in which he lived with his parents and grandparents in St. Louis.  Tenn had written his prayers on a piece of paper, which like all blank pieces of paper he endowed with spiritual power, and had buried it at the foot of the grandest tree on the property. I tried to imagine Tenn arriving at the home, one of which was operated by the state as a museum, and the other bearing new tenants, with a spade and a piece of holy paper and digging a few feet down into the earth.
     “I had my little ceremony,” he told me. “I had my list of prayers. I looked up at the tree, which had seen me before, which I hoped remembered me. I had passed it so many times. I had kicked it in anger. I had leaned against it and had dreamed. I looked above and beyond the tree to the sky and threw a prayer up there, too, just in case. If God had made the tree and made it powerful, I might as well send a copy of my prayer to him.”
    Tenn closed his eyes, said his prayers, and buried the piece of paper.
    He told me that the piece of paper held three prayers.
    Would he feel comfortable telling me what they were?
   Of course, he replied, nonchalant. We had no secrets.
   Tenn’s three prayers were:

     I want to write.
     I want to write.
     I want to write.

     “If I write,” he told me, “I live. I matter. I have drawn myself on the walls of the cave that is my heart and the heart of others, who may feel as I do and recognize themselves in what I write. There must be others who have felt as I have, who have feared as I have, who await their salvation, whatever it may be, and whenever it may come.”
   He needed, as always, someone to tell it to.
   Crosses to bear. Crosses made of wood harvested from trees. Blank pages harvested from trees. Kahlil Gibran, a writer to whom Tenn had submitted at one point, wrote “Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky/We fell them down and turn them into paper, That we may record our emptiness.”
      Tenn claimed to remember a tree written in the works of Rabindranath Tagore that held sticky blossoms to which all dreams flew and adhered. Or that could have been “The Sweetheart Tree,” the Johnny Mercer-Henry Mancini song made popular by Johnny Mathis, a record of which Tenn owned and played incessantly during 1965 and 1966, dark years that were partially enlightened by the lyrics.

                        They say there's a tree in the forest,
                        A tree that will give you a sign;
                        Come along with me to the Sweetheart Tree,
                        Come and carve your name next to mine.

                        They say if you kiss the right sweetheart,
                        The one you've been waiting for,
                        Big blossoms of white will burst into sight
                        And your love will be true evermore.

     Tenn could recall that it was Tagore-- whose Creative Unity had been a gift from his mother--who had written “Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening Heaven.”
     “I need my connective devices,” he said. “I need the beads of the Rosary and the branches of the tree and the balconies of Royal Street. I need the Stations of the Cross, which may honor the Assumption or, in my revision, the writing of Streetcar on St. Peter Street. I need to stand at the caves of Lascaux and witness the work of a fellow man, who needed someone to tell his stories and his worries to, or I may have you drive me to the corner of Coliseum and Constantinople, where I once was loved. All of this connects. All of this reminds me that I once wrote and may write again. All of this lets me know that I lived and I might have mattered.”

©  2015  James Grissom


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