Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt |

Michael Bettencourt


I just finished a stint with the Episcopalians.  It didn’t work out, but for the time I was there, I had a front-pew seat on “high church” practices - the big show, as one of my colleagues called it, and indeed it was, with incense and choirs and a pile-driving organ and a veritable corps de ballet in the chancel moving this way and that according to patterns I couldn’t really suss out but which got everyone where they needed to go without collision or confusion.

I know I could have gotten explanations of the movements and structures, but I’m sure they would not have given me the Episcopalian feel.  It reminded me of when I tried to explain baseball’s rules to the Marvelous María Beatriz.  As I waded in deeper, and her look of confusion grew confuseder, I realized I was just spouting nonsense.  To an outsider, a sport’s rules, like a religion’s rules, come across as both arbitrary and dreamlike, sequences that appear sensical but, when laid out end to end, turn out to be compositions of made-up stuff lumped together, more entertainment than enlightenment.

And then I hear a radio program on the subject of “quiet” (I know, ironic - but it was a Sunday morning as I sat in my kitchen drinking coffee and listening, so the time and place had a tint of quiet to it, so not completely ironic).  One story featured a man who chose not to speak for 17 years.  Which made me think of the liturgical choreography: what if everyone just shut up for a year and stopped trying to make the made-up stuff seem more important and more mega than it really was?  How many lives might be saved, not only from violence but also from the boredom that comes from listening to it all?  How many of us might become low-church Quakers speaking up only when something really needed to be said, and even then perhaps hesitating because how is one to know that the something to be said is really needed and maybe it shows a better respect to just shut up and listen to the silence of each other’s presence?

The Episcopalians use so many words - readings for this and that at all the services, all gatherings started with prayers, booklets for every ceremony, institutes and “conversations” and meetings meetings meetings.  After a while, it becomes a Tower of Babel made up of babble, syllables reaching skyward mortared together by the anxious hope that all this talk, driven by such good intentions, will - must - change the world for the better.

I made a statement at a meeting that the Episcopalians reminded me of the Unitarians, who would rather talk about heaven than actually get there.  I was assured that the Es were not at all like the UUs.  Could’ve fooled me.  They seem equally ineffectual in changing the world and proud of all their trying.

What’s my point in all of this? We seem to be able to talk ourselves into rage and violence but can’t talk ourselves into peace and compassion. And those games whose rules require the players to speak of peace and compassion can’t seem to turn the tide. Maybe the whole species should just take a vow of silence for a year, go into hibernation, and let the world catch a rest from all our games, our rules, and our Babel-building.  Who knows?  Like the man who didn’t talk for 17 years, maybe we’ll regain our voice by being voiceless, letting the silence dissolve our insolence and leavening our blood with humility.

Except that we can’t really be silent all the time - asking a human to shut up is like asking an acorn not to become an oak.  So my compromise - a half-silence - has been what I call “just part of my day” - recording snippets of the human life around me as I take the subway or walk the streets or go on my daily run, small events extracted from the flow that relink me to my prime mates on this planet by delinking me from the chatter in my head, using the eyes as a way of letting silence narrate.  A few of my findings:

    A woman holding a manila folder with DIVORCE written in Sharpie across the tab.

    A cat goes prancing by with a bird in its mouth (I assumed the bird was dead).  It (she, most likely) was joined by a kitten, and the two went off to feast.

    A young girl with this tee-shirt: “Kiss me like you miss me.”

    Contrasting families:

      I came across a black woman and young daughter standing at the corner of Maiden and Nassau obviously looking for directions.  She was pulling a blue suitcase, small enough to fit in an overhead bin.  She was dressed in wildly patterned tights and a sleeveless black sweater.  She was about six months pregnant.  I asked her if she needed help, and she showed me a piece of crumpled paper on which someone had printed “Coalition for the Homeless” and the address, 129 Fulton Avenue (it's actually Fulton Street).  I directed her where she needed to go, and off she went.

      When on the train going up to have lunch with the Marvelous María Beatriz, a white mother and her two children (5-year-old girl, 2-year-old boy) came on, all Teutonic in their blond hair and blue eyes.  They huddled together on the seat, she opened a bag of chips for the son, who dug in his hand while the sister rolled her eyes.  Intact and on an outing for the day.

    Sitting on the train to the right of the exit door.  On the other side of the door is a mom and her child, both blond and blue-eyed. The child, a boy, is in a stroller facing his mom.  Next to her, to her left, is a kindly looking old black man.  The boy has a hold on the index finger of his right hand, and the two of them are smile-playing with each other.  The mom seems perfectly okay with this.  The sight of his small uncreased hand around the creased finger of the black man and everybody cool with this felt right.

I have more of these, but you get the point: paying attention to something other than ourselves and not doing it through the sounding brass or clanging cymbal of rules but through the half-silence of biting the tongue and sourcing ourselves in what passes right in front of us every day.

If we can’t do that even once a day, well… (and here is where I let your silence complete the thought).

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt September 2014 |




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