“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”
Just had the pleasure of seeing Don Reed’s one-man show East 14thSt. at the Marsh Theater. It was his autobiographical tour-de-force of growing up in East Oakland with a Jehovah’s Witness step-father who occasionally beat him “for his own good” and a pimp father who was steeped in the low-life crowd, but told him “be who you gotta be.” As a teenager, he left the first to live with the second and ended up going to college in UCLA and creating his life as a successful actor, an extraordinary mime, an eloquent storyteller and an intelligent, soulful human being. Here was a stellar example of someone who used his “pains and troubles” to become a loving father, an upright citizen and a complex feeling person mastering a difficult craft.
John Keats was an English poet born in 1795 who also “felt and suffered in a thousand diverse ways.” His father died when he was nine and his step-father (are the fairy tales true?) was not kind to him. His mother died when Keats turned 15, when he was in boarding school just discovering his love of language and turning towards poetry. But one-year later, he was apprenticed to become a surgeon. Still he pursued poetry and published his first book, with a mean-spirited critic telling him to stick with surgery. His brother Tom died of tuberculosis at 18 years old and he himself contracted it and died at the tender age of 25. But not before he had written some of the most powerful and eloquent poetry in the English language.
Some of us our blessed with easy lives—food on the table always, enough money in the bank, loving parents and wonderful friends and no big catastrophes. Others struggle through poverty, hard times, people who shun us or betray us, loved ones snatched away by the jaws of too-early death. And most of us end up with some combination of the two. But as Ella Fitzgerald once said, “It’s not where you come from that matters, it’s where you’re going.” And it’s up to us to set our destination and do what we must to keep taking the next step forward.
The Balinese talk about taking seven steps up to Heaven or seven steps down to Hell. In the end, Hell is the same as Heaven. The difference is simply going up through seven happy places or down through seven sad places. Doesn’t matter which you take, you end up in the same place.
And so John Keats and Don Reed took on the world as a “Vale of Soul-making” and stepped forth accordingly. We would do well to do the same.