I had a lung disease when I was an infant: that part of the story is true. That doctors were at a loss to name or properly diagnose the disease, that my skin was a soft, periwinkle blue, and that my breathing was a labored, rattling wheeze for the first year of my life is also true. When the story gets murky is on the eve of the surgery that would rip open my lungs—a surgery that those doctors said wouldn’t have cured anything but might have given me a few extra months—my mother spoke directly to God.
God, quoth she, as she held me in the hospital waiting room. It has not yet been twelve months since my baby was born. But since the moment of his birth, I have been asking You “why?”
Her ordinarily sparking blue eyes would have been hazed with the red of sleepless nights, her always-wild bramble of curls would have been reaching far, far away from her head, as it does when she’s upset, the width of her hair indicating her level of distraction.
Why have You made my baby blue? she continued. Why have You given me this child only to take him away so soon? Why are You doing this to me, me, who has always been so good to You? These are the questions I’ve been asking, but now, God, now I see that You’re not doing this to me. I see that you’re doing this to my baby. It’s his war and I can’t go to battle for him. So I’m taking myself out of it, God. Not for my sake. But for my blue baby’s. It’s You and him now. And I think he’ll win.
And that night, the story goes, God answered my mother. With just hours remaining before the surgery, periwinkle faded to pink on my cheeks, my breathing became, for the first time since I was dragged from the womb, regulated, and my mother successfully vanquished that inscrutable disease from my lungs forever. From that night onward, even in my infancy, I knew my mother as she truly was: a giver of life, a subverter of death, a fierce and terrifying force to whose powers I and, it seemed, the rest of the universe, was at the mercy.
The tale doesn’t end there, of course. My fragile lungs and I continued to grow; I started going to school and then to dance classes; I attended Hebrew school three days a week, sat next to my father on Saturday mornings at synagogue, sang the blessings after the Sabbath meal with my family on Friday nights, studied my ass off for my Bar Mitzvah when I was thirteen; and all the while, I scrutinized the stories of the Torah and lessons of the Talmud for an occasion when God’s miracles might seem more real than my mother’s. But, while I was discovering that God hadn’t done more than send a bird to Noah in the past several millennia, my mother was proving her might daily. She was a reader of minds: never once did I get away with drinking in high school, and she always knew if I was actually making out with my girlfriend in a parking lot when I said I was at the movies. She was an interpreter of dreams: my dreams of flying meant I was destined for great things, she said, and my dreams of falling through cracks in the attic of an old farmhouse foretold a promotion for my father at work. She was my ethical guide and my moral code: when she thought something was right, I couldn’t help but agree. My every decision was based not on figuring out what I wanted or needed, but instead on the things that she divined to be for the best, and she rarely, if ever, steered me wrong.
The story of her metaphysical abilities served both my mother and me quite well until I left home to spend four years at the University of Michigan. As I navigated the swampy realities of dorm living, freshman hazing, and music theory classes, I found that the Midwest seemed to be beyond the reach of my mother’s omniscience. In Michigan, I was alone and unmoored. Groping for new principles and parameters to guide me, I found meaning in Friday night outings to the one gay club on campus, as well as in a professor’s deconstruction of the lyrics and chord progressions of “Send in the Clowns.” I began to lose faith in my mother’s powers because, like God’s, they now seemed distant and irrelevant. And, like God, my mother began to intentionally withhold her abilities from me; she would only reveal them, I learned, to those whose faith was unequivocal and unquestioning.
When I moved to New York, the things that had taken the place of my mother’s guidance while I was in college—the novelty of gay life, the infatuations with Sondheim and, for a moment, Jason Robert Brown—were lumped into the category of things that had once been done for joy and were now necessary for business. So I began to explore, searching for newer, more resilient things in which to believe. I went to the Shambala Center on West 22nd Street because, rumor had it, Elizabeth Gilbert had begun the journey towards her Eat, Pray, Love zillions by meditating there. But trying to picture a feather floating in front of my mouth and sitting with harried, middle-aged women who went around town without makeup or hair product just left me with the itchy sensation of needing to sneeze. I left Shambala and dedicated myself to Jivamukti Yoga in Union Square. Though I got a terrific high from the intense dehydration at the end of each hour and a half class, the studio’s rabid preaching of veganism and animal rights quickly changed from inspiring to grating, and, more often than not, I left class craving a t-bone steak instead of believing in something greater than myself.
By the time I was hired for a production of Beauty and the Beast in Houston, I had been in New York for about five months, and I didn’t believe in much of anything. I brought The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to Houston with me, thinking I might like Buddhism if it didn’t come couched in the scent of patchouli oil and guilt trips about my leather dress shoes, as it had at Jivamukti.
Every morning in Houston before the 10 a.m. rehearsal, I’d read a few pages of Living and Dying (“According to the wisdom of Buddha, we can actually use our lives to prepare for death”). Then, I’d lie on the carpet of my sterile efficiency hotel room, plug in my headphones, and listen to a guided meditation whose brainwave technology was meant to perpetuate the speedy and frictionless manifestation of my highest destiny.
Feeling blissed out and morally superior to the rest of the cast, I’d show up for rehearsals ready to take my role as a pitchfork-wielding townsperson seriously. There were only a handful of us who had been hired as union actors and flown in from New York. The rest of the cast was made up of local talent and high school students from the in-house teen-performing ensemble. I assumed I’d been jobbed in for Beauty and the Beast to perform a specific role or feature, but I was willing to be patient, to allow the director’s larger plan to reveal itself in good time. This was what I believed in, I realized: the all-knowing wisdom of a director or choreographer to utilize me for the greater good of the show and, ultimately, for the forward motion of my career.
But by the middle of the second week of rehearsals, I still had done nothing more than a beer stein clog dance, strolled around a village square selling baguettes, and followed Gaston around with ad-libs like “let’s get him!” and “kill the beast!” On the day we were to stage the “Be Our Guest” Act I finale, I decided I couldn’t leave my fate in the hands of the director any longer.
Dear God, I began. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified your servant, who’s me, and given me the skills and the training to dance the Salt Shaker feature in the Act I finale of this show. Baruch hu. You know, I’ve been through a lot already in this life. The lung disease to start, the color blindness later, the lactose intolerance after that, and God, You know how much I love cheese. And I know I’ve questioned You. But hey, I was just doing research. Just double-checking that there was no one else as great as You. Turns out there isn’t. So here I am, asking you to please, please, show me there’s a reason I’m down here in Texas. Please, grant me the Salt Shaker feature in “Be Our Guest.” If You do, I’ll know I’m on the right path, the path I’m meant to be on, Your path, doing Your will. Thanks very much. Amen.
I stood on the edges of the studio with the rest of the cast, waiting for the choreographer to begin placing us. I stood with my hands clasped before me, trying to look as though I was capable of dancing in the front line and having a feature, a look that was willing but not too eager; a look I’m pretty sure came off looking like a scowl. The choreographer began by teaching the girls playing napkins their can-can steps. When we finally got to the heavy, Slavic-sounding music of the Salt and Pepper Shaker feature, the choreographer called forward a classically trained high school student, who, admittedly, could dance circles around me, and a forty-six-year-old Californian dude, who, I can objectively say, could not. The rest of the rehearsal was spent learning that nine minute number, which, as a dancing fork, I didn’t enter until the final thirty-two bars of music, when I’d join in the back for the kick line.
I started to think about the story my mother always told in tandem with the story of her conversation with God: the story that makes my sister roll her eyes, purse her lips, and remind me that I’m our mother’s “miracle baby.” The story is, of course, that I lived when, by all accounts, I should have died, and that was a miracle. But at twenty-three years old, doing Beauty and the Beast in Texas, I didn’t believe in miracles, and I wasn’t sure I ever really had. I was beginning to think that living with death on my shoulder for a year—even a year I have no recollection of—had made me a believer not in miracles, but in the realities and certainties of nothing but death. I had never been afraid to die, but I couldn’t remember a time when I hadn’t been afraid of not achieving all the things my mother expected of her miracle baby. I wondered how much of what I wanted to achieve in life I had worked toward only because it would make her feel it had all been worth it; all her prayers to God, all our doctors visits, all the nights spent in hospital waiting rooms, her days spent pounding my back, begging me to breathe. What could I ever accomplish to make my mother feel I had lived up to the miracle she performed in keeping me on earth?
The fact was, no matter how or why I was given a second chance as an infant, I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing with my life. Even then, in Houston, I knew that being a fork instead of a saltshaker wasn’t the end of the world. I mean, truly, I knew that. But I was fairly certain that my reason for existing had little or nothing to do with portraying various kinds of flatware at a regional theater in Texas. I had been waiting for a miracle to point me in the direction I was meant to go. But instead, I had been left with the sense that the age of miracles, in my life at least, had come and gone, and wouldn’t be returning any time soon.
When I got back to the hotel that night, I planned to plug in my brainwave meditation CD. But first, I opened up that heavy copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and began reading, “Whatever joy there is in the world all comes from desiring others to be happy, and whatever suffering there is in the world all comes from desiring myself to be happy.”
I rolled my eyes. Then I huffed and rolled my eyes again. Then I called my mother.
“Hey, Ma,” I said.
“Hello, my honey!” she said. “So. Tell me everything.”
I thought about telling her the story of the forty-six year old who had stolen my saltshaker feature. I thought about telling her how I was the only Equity actor in the show who didn’t have some kind of specialty track, how the hotel room had a nauseating, plastic-y smell, how I had to share a car with three other actors, how I was thoroughly and horribly dissatisfied with every aspect of my life. But I didn’t tell her any of that. Instead, all I said was, “We staged the act one finale today. It’s going to be gorgeous.”
“Ooh!” my mother replied. “I can’t wait to see it when we come down.”
There’s no end to a story like this. Beauty and the Beast opened, my parents came to see the show, and during the two-week run, I ended up having a really good time with that cast in that odd city. The show closed, I went back to New York, and I resumed auditioning and looking for something—anything—to believe in. While I was looking, what I found was that, no matter what, life kept happening. Something or another was always coming along to disrupt my certainty in God, in the Government, in love. A period of dissatisfaction would pass to be replaced by a time of utter fulfillment at some gig, which, in turn, would be replaced by a period of honeymoon romance, which would inevitably be overthrown by a period of debilitating heartache. Knowing that each day is just going to give over to another day that could be exactly the same as the day before or so different that my world would be broken, I began to wonder why I was fighting so hard. I sunk into a depression as I wondered what I’d been struggling to prove in all the years since God or my mother or whoever decided to let me remain alive. But I was beginning to see how, sooner or later, that bleak period of feeling blue would dissolve into a wide meadow of time characterized by something supple and elusive; something I could only think of as hope, but others might think of, and they could be right, as faith.