Greetings from Berlin!
I’m here in this fantastic city to facilitate an Unconference at a local dance studio. The place has a strong presence in the contact improv community, and the director used to dance with Pina Bausch, so you can imagine that I’m very, VERY excited. This is the second year in a row I’ve done this particular event, and I’m not sure which is more exciting, seeing the friends I made last time or getting to know the new people and share their passion with them.
“Europe – You Know, Where History Comes From.” – Eddie Izzard
There’s another thrill to being in Berlin. I was raised on spy thrillers, during a time when the Soviet Union was considered the biggest threat to our safety and the Berlin Wall was the iconic representation of the friction between ideologies. I read many exciting books on families trying to escape, on spies trying to smuggle information, on the harsh dichotomy between cultures. Now, of course, this was mostly fiction…but still, when I walk now across the line where the wall stood, when I see where they’ve left part of it up…that is a big part of my imagination made real.
Then there’s the buildings such as the Reichstag, such a tremendously iconic representation of the power of masses of people to make poor decisions based on fear…and also of moving beyond that, of recognizing the mistakes made in the past and striving to do better. That may be why I love this city so much; while it has a past that is horrific, it also has a lot of beautiful past, and it manages to both acknowledge that past without letting it overshadow the beauty that it can be.
There are horrific parts of any culture, when you come down to it – the British in Kenya, the U.S. expansion westward, the Japan in China, the Chinese in Tibet, the Tibetans in…well, ok, so I’m not that well versed in history, but I bet they picked on somebody. And when they learn their lesson – whether as a culture, or through the hard work and leadership of an individual, they usually put up something to remember. They create something to make sure that others can be inspired to also move beyond the mistakes of the past.
They create a monument.
I am a frustrating person to travel with. I don’t trust maps, for example, and prefer to work from verbal or written directions and descriptions. I also tend to travel only for the work I’m doing, so much of my time is spent inside a convention center, inside a theater, or (if I have time off) sitting at a table with a cup of coffee working online to keep my clients happy. I’m like the person who works in Washington D.C. but never has gone to the Smithsonian, or who lives in Minneapolis and never visited the Walker. In fact, I did live in Madison, WI for over two decades and never visited the House on the Rock.
Usually the people I travel with have taken time off from their work to go with me, and it is a vacation for them. Since they pay for the opportunity to go to these places, naturally they want to go and see them. I, on the other hand, don’t like the tourist model of travel. When I go to a place, the last thing I want to do is get a list of the monuments and go see them. That list becomes a pressurized mountain of to-dos and a potential list of all the things I will end up regretting missing if I don’t get to them. Not to mention that traveling that way takes up a lot of cash, and I’m about as frugal a traveller as you can get.
I used to feel guilty about not wanting to see everything in a city when I was there. I felt there was something wrong with me that what I really wanted to do was find a cafe, sit having some coffee, and write.
Then, after a while, I realized something about those monuments.
The Gethsemane Moment
Every one of them is a story. Usually that story is a story about passion. Sometimes hurtful, such as the passion for an ideology that leads one person to attack another, but more often it is a passion for something constructive. A passion for freedom, and the story of how that translated into great deeds or great works. They are the stories of people who were living authentically and doing what they felt was right, often in the face of immense obstacles.
The external obstacles are easy to identify, but I often imagine those internal ones as well. These people all had their own “Gethsemane” moment – that moment in the garden when, as the story goes, Jesus was faced with the reality of being sacrificed for his beliefs, and asked if there was any way that bitter, bitter cup could be passed from his lips. The answer, as it is often when a difficult thing needs doing, was “no”, and that’s when Jesus did what is my own personal favorite deed: he basically shrugged his shoulders, said the equivalent of “Well. There it is, then.” and woke up his sleepy apostles and went on to face the soldiers who had come to arrest him.
I personally don’t find facing the Romans or the Pharisees or bearing the pain and ordeal afterwards as Christians believe was the real shining strength in the story of Jesus. What I find inspiring is that moment when he faced his self-doubt and went on in spite of it. I can draw strength from that kind of story, and do, quite often.
What does that have to do with monuments? Hey, we’re talking about Jesus, here…you want someone who has inspired monuments, there’s hardly a better example.
But you may be wondering what that has to do with me getting over my guilt for notvisiting them.
It’s pretty simple: I believe in my work. I believe in the importance of sharing ideas about connection and presence and relationships and art and technique and expression. While I don’t expect anything I do to affect as many people as some of these monuments represent, in my own way I am honoring them by continuing that tradition of doing that which I am passionate about.
It means that I create my own monuments, like the wooden chairs near the river here in Berlin where I sipped wine and chatted with the performer and cartoonist Naomi Fearn about the lessons that art can teach us about the rest of life. It’s the bookstore near the Reichstag where my friend Evan taunted me with a Moleskine pen (such a thing of beauty…le sigh) which resulted in me resolving to write more so that I could justify buying such a pen. It’s the laundromat in Amsterdam where I sat with my friend Erik while we talked about how it might be worthwhile to write a blog about the lessons I’ve picked up in my travels and interactions with people about love, about life, about practice.
These are my own personal historic sites, and I create them by doing my work and continuing to honor my passion. These are the places that my grandsons will visit if they are ever curious about that odd Grandpa Gray. It’s my hope that they will be inspired to follow their own dreams and beliefs and passions, in spite of the inner demons. Plus: clean socks in Amsterdam.
Someday I may come back and just see the sites that other people have made. But for now…I’m busy making my own.