To My Parents on the Occasion of Good News

family portrait 8 by 10 webI found out a few days before Christmas that I’m going to be the new Vice President of Local Arts Advancement for Americans for the Arts.  The official announcement will be made in a few days, and when it’s out there I’m going to post this.  I’ll be overseeing a team that generates and disseminates research, programs and services to help local arts agencies, service organizations and advocacy-minded arts groups and artists to put art back in its proper place as a driving force of betterment in our country.  I will help to tend the fire for communities across the country, and I will not let it go out.  I am proud to have been asked, and I can’t wait to start, but right now, I’ve just gotten home from seeing a certain movie about a failed revolution in France, and I have something to say to two people.

When I was eight or so, Mom, you put on a long red trench coat and, Dad, a blazer, and you and my brother, Brad, and I went to see Les Miserables.  In my memory, we took the train to Grand Central station and walked to Times Square, stopping at a glossy gold hotel to go to the bathroom and look at the cascading water falling inside the lobby.  I imagine we went to dinner, but my memory skips, and we’re sitting in house left, the whole room is dark, the stage is glowing, and I feel like I’m in a cocoon, like the room and all the people in it are made of black velvet and they are snuggled around us, concave and focusing the energy and light from the stage onto us, onto me, shorter than the rest, my eyes bright.

I remember the women sweeping by in their dresses, whisked along past each other on concentric turntables, moving faster than they should be able to.  I remember “I Dreamed a Dream.”  I remember the light pouring down on a woman in white as she sang “Come to Me,” and how she collapsed back and died, and how that made me feel.  I remember hearing the word “shit” during “Master of the House” and cutting my eyes at you, and seeing you laughing.  I remember being mesmerized by Eponine, the one I really related to, and being devastated when she sang “A Little Fall of Rain.”  When the barricades rolled in it was like my head cracked open, like air was touching my brain, and when they fought the battle on stage, and the whole barricade turned and Enjorlas and his giant red flag draped backwards over the chairs and wheels and wood, I thought my heart was going to burst out of me.

There is a moment in the second act when Javert, the inspector, having been granted mercy by his foe, the hero Jean Valjean, and unable to reconcile his strict system of honor with the reality of his life, sings of his despair.

I am reaching
But I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean
There is no place I can turn
There is no way to go on.

The last word carries up, soaring, sustained, a beautiful, crystalline agony of a note, and Javert, having climbed over the guardrail of the bridge he was standing on, leaps.  The bridge, which was sitting on stage, spirals up, up, up into the sky, a perfect piece of stage magic, a swirling set of gobo-filtered lights twist around Javert as he stands on his tiptoes and holds his arms high, waving, swaying, and collapsing to the ground, onto a trap door that sucks him down, drowned on stage, broken.

I don’t think I understood the nuance of that moment, but I understood the emotion.  I remember, Mom, that you had draped your red trench coat over your lap, and you, Dad, had your arm over my seatback.  I put my pale hand on the red, and Mom, you grabbed it in yours, your nails catching the light.  Dad, you touched my shoulder.  I looked up Mom’s face and she was crying.  I felt Dad squeeze my shoulder, and like a game of telephone I squeezed Mom’s hand, too.  You looked at me, Mom, smiled, fumbled for a tissue.  The show went on.

When I went to Georgetown, it was to become a lawyer, and when I decided instead to go into theatre, you took the news as well as could be expected.  You didn’t, I don’t think, understand it was your fault, in a way—that you had so entwined this art form with your love for me that I couldn’t see another way to see the world, that you had taught me so many incredible lessons about life and love and tolerance and joy and magic in our journeys to not just Broadway but the Candlewood Playhouse and the Goodspeed Opera House and all of the other places and times that this just seemed the most right.

I have watched a Hamlet fall into the arms of a waiting Horatio after seeing the ghost of his father, in a little black box theatre in Australia when I was far away from you and lonely and confused, and felt a pang of love for the man no one yet knew I loved, that I maybe didn’t even yet know I loved.  I have seen a ghost dance just once with the woman he longed for, both draped in a sheet, and collapsed into inexplicable tears at the joy.  I have watched a sun rise and snow fall, I have watched a man pretend to be sizzling bacon, I have watched a totalitarian state hold its grip and a fairy tale disintegrate.  I have seen leprechauns and crazy butlers, kick lines, helicopters, airplanes, birth.  I have learned to be myself in part because I have learned that I am the accumulation of my experiences and in part because I have learned from you it’s not really worth it to try and be anything else.

Art has made me, as it makes all of us—or at least those fortunate enough to have parents like you—whether we know it or not.  It has built in me a fire to ensure that we all have fires inside of us, that we all can experience the magic of the world, that we all can learn the lessons. And so:

To my parents on the occasion of this good news: I do not think I am what you might have expected, but you have shown me support all the same, every time.  I do not think you have always understood my passions, but you have made them yours all the same, every time.  I do not think you will remember a little boy in the dark, holding a hand on a background of red raincoat and feeling the gentle press of another hand on my shoulder, but you took me anyway, and again, and again, and you fostered hope and joy and understanding in my soul.  Tonight, as I watched Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway sing my favorite lines from my favorite musical on a giant screen, I began to cry not because of what I saw, but because of the accumulation of my life, the specialness of you, and the pride I feel in being able to tell you that I have, I think, done well for all that art that you so kindly gave me.

And remember
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of God. 

I love you.

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  1. Kathryn says

    As someone who has watched and loved theatre through out the years with you – I am beyond excited and proud of all you have and have yet to accomplish in life.

  2. Aunt Ellen says

    The most beautiful love letter I have ever read. Thank you for sharing it with us. What a very exciting adventure for everyone. Enjoy.

  3. Alicia White says

    Hi Clayton,

    What a beautiful letter.

    Congratulations on the AFTA position. That’s great news and I know you’ll do wonderful things there. I’m sure you’ll be missed at TBA.

  4. Linda DeCost says

    Clayton: Wow!!!!

    I met your mom and dad only a few years ago and I agree, “They are both very special people.”

    Best wishes in your newest endeavor.

    Your Mom’s Bridge Partner

  5. Lori Robishaw says

    Beautiful sentiments beautifully written. You will be a great asset to Americans for the Arts and you will love working there (I did).