BootsnAll Travel Network

The Life Not Taken

Streaked into Ashland under a bright sky in Jeremy’s cobalt blue Miata, top down, icy wind in my hair, sun splashing on snow-patched mountains and flowering trees. It was, as Seth says, “one of those moments you know you will remember for the rest of your life.” Jeremy is dashing. Think Peter O’Toole with a compact muscular body, a tidy white beard, sharp cheekbones and flashing vividly blue eyes. When we left Portland it was raining. We met hail and sleet and later clear sunny skies, we got acquainted and talked about books and art and music and Bob, and forty miles north of Ashland we put the top down. Ashland is a perfect little artsy hippie town, Victorian clapboard houses with clumsily-painted murals of happy hippie scenes on the garages, homemade sculptures in the yards among the daffodils, pretty little stained glass decorations hanging in windows. The town centers on the three theatres; the weather is below freezing at night but up to the mid-fifties (F) in the daytime. The production of August Wilson’s Fences was just right: well-acted and tenderly staged. God, what a powerful script. And I have been thinking since I got here of the life not taken: it’s as though I can see a ghost-image of myself in that other life, the one I dreamed of, visualized, and hoped for but didn’t get.

I could see myself arriving here in 1974 (reading the playbill, I see who my coworkers would have been and what they have been doing all this time)–I could see Seth growing up here, see myself playing all the eccentric aunts, spinsters and madwomen, the mothers and now the grandmothers. Played all those Marsha Norman/Wendy Wasserstein/Tina Howe roles in the 80s. I watched that movie: I worked hard and loved the work, reared Seth and tried to get Christopher here with us, fell in love and had a crisis. Career or love? I chose career. Every show was a new family, a new life, a new challenge. But I spent my whole adult life in this pretty little town in the mountains. Sure, there was an occasional trip. But here is where my show took place, here among these brilliant set-designs, wearing just the right costumes, hearing the usual applause, working with one director after another. Despite the artistic satisfaction, a sameness set in. I felt I had missed something. What? I had vague longings for movement, for surprise, for political relevance, for intellectual stimulation beyond theatre.

And then: if I’d lived that dream, I would never have discovered the story of Queen Anne, never hauled Seth off to England so I could study eighteenth-century manuscripts and stroll through Blenheim Palace sobbing and furious. I’d never have gotten my degrees, never have written any books (rehearsals would have taken all my time). I wouldn’t have worked in prisons or known the prisoners who have been my teachers, friends, and correspondents these 35 years (no prison in Ashland). I’d have never become anybody’s favorite professor, never stormed through the lives of the people I HAVE loved, passionate and earnest. There would have been friends, sure, plenty of interesting people make their lives in theatre. But they wouldn’t have been the odd lot of disparate and unrelated characters they have been. I’d have never gone to Africa, never met M’e Mpho or Palesa or Manko, never learned the soul-wrenching lessons they taught me.

No. I wouldn’t trade the life I’ve had for the one I dreamed. The dream was nowhere near as spine-tingling, as fraught with cliff-hangers, as uncertain and unpredictable and difficult and joyful, nowhere near as intense and full of movement as the reality.This is why I don’t believe in visualization. Wild as my fantasies have been, rich though my imagination is, I’d have never cooked up the extremely unlikely and utterly eccentric life I have had–and am still having–if I’d been running it. I wouldn’t trade the roads I stumbled upon for a career at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Beautiful as this place is, I thank Providence or Destiny or Random Chaos or whatever it is that gave me this life. Someone recently sent me this proverb: “If you can see the path ahead of you, it’s not your path.”

This morning the hostel is crawling with teenagers and twenty-somethings making breakfast, playing the “I have been there” game, and I am an old, old woman, laughing and pleased.

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11 responses to “The Life Not Taken”

  1. Choose ‘love’ whatever form that happens to take; theatricals are as awful as any careerists, if not worse. I’ve gone off Ashland though, “a perfect little artsy hippie town”, and as for the painted murals – errck. Pity, it looked almost genuine in photographs

  2. Kendall says:

    It’s true, Stephen. I think you wouldn’t like it. It’s pretty, but it’s small, pleased with itself, and rather self-consciously a product of yuppie culture of the USA. The theatre is very good, the architecture is old and genuine (for its type), but I think you would find the town a bit suffocating. The setting is spectacular–everything built on steep hills surrounded by steeper hills full of sheep meadows and above them, cedar forests. I’ll send photos and put them on Flickr. I’m glad to visit and to see the place; I’m VERY happy to be here with Bob and Jeremy; it’s campy and charming–but not to your taste. The theatre is excellent. But I think you would need to give it a pass.

  3. Kathryn says:

    One more thing. Stephen, in the life not taken I chose career. In the life that did happen, I chose love. And it crashed and burned, every time. But what a ride.

  4. oh well, what’s a broken heart compared to some sound knowledge of its erratic functioning …..

    I’m afraid places in settings as glorious as Ashland seems to be usually attract undesirables. Looking forward to hearing the grisly details in your own inimitable way

  5. Dave says:

    This entry– and the dialogue between you and Stephen –hit me like a miracle. A much needed miracle. I realize that no matter what difficulties I am facing in Brazil, the reason I am here is because I chose love. And it is a ride, what a ride. Fasten your seat belts. Go.

  6. Kathryn says:

    Hooray for you, Dave! Hang on! Send postcards (like this comment) when you can. I’m cheering for you and believing in you!

  7. John says:

    God, Kendall, I love this post. Printing it now for tonight’s prison workshop where the writing assignment will be titled “The Life Not Taken.” We miss you.

  8. Kathryn says:

    Hug the whole room full of thugs for me. I miss you. And them. And love you all.

  9. h sofia says:

    “If you can see the path ahead of you, it’s not your path.”

    I need to print that, frame it, see it, trust it. Me and my pathetic (if that can be meant non-negatively) little life. I’ve never been one to take chances – at least, that’s how I feel. And I’m afraid to fail. So things haven’t been exciting or very tumultuous for me. Unless something traumatic happens, or I decide for some inexplicable reason to throw everything away and overhaul my personality, I don’t see that changing. So I’m trying to settle into myself and break things down into many, tiny, wonderful parts. Because that’s all I seem to be able to process anyway. I can’t cope with too much.

  10. Kathryn says:

    You must be having a moment of unusual (and excessive) humility. From what I learned in our first and only meeting, I know you have already coped with a very great deal. And the universe is soon going to deliver more unpredictability to you than you have ever had before! Hang on. Parenting is a wild ride of another kind.

  11. […] one of her most recent posts, The Life Not Taken, she writes about a visit to Ashland, Oregon (home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), and the […]

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