Friends at the Edge

I started an essay back in 2004; it wasn’t ready yet so it just occupied space on my computer. In 2008 I updated it a bit, but it still wasn’t ready.

The title was a play on words: for years I literally had friends at The Edge of the World Theater –we called it “The Edge”.

But I’ve also had friends on the edge – challenges with relationships, physical and emotional health, employment, and a lot more.  I was thinking a lot about the nature of friendship, and how mine are so wonderfully varied.

This week one of my friends from the theatre passed away, and I’ve been thinking a lot about him in particular, but also about my friends from that time.

I’ve flirted with theatre more than I’ve had a relationship with it. And perhaps some of the emotional importance of my theatre friends is due to the sheer intensity of a show: night after night, week after week, and most of the time – laying bare pretty much everything. Too hard to have a lot of pretense when working that hard. And I think some, too, is because those were formative times for us. We were hitting our stride, confident, ready to take on big challenges, and make a big difference in ways that were important to us.

Anyway – not sure that my essay is done, but now that Thomas has stepped past the edge, I wanted to share it.

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Friends at the Edge

I’ve got a lot of these: Drug addictions, unemployment, dire relationships, medical complications and more. Lately, I’ve been looking for some common thread (besides the accident of me) that ties these things together and what makes a friend.

I’ve just found out that a local theatre company that has been home to me off and on for close to fifteen years seems to have shut its doors. And while some of the players have moved on (and some have moved) some also remain the same – or at least constant. This rather small group of people reminds me that people do change, that relationships are static and dynamic all at the same time, and that kindness and compassion spring from sources both likely and not.

Roger has been the music director from the very beginning, and these past fifteen years have brought him many changes: He’s been divorced, quit drinking and smoking, took a full time job somewhere besides the theatre. And in the midst of these rather remarkable changes, he hasn’t changed at all. He remains one of the wittiest men I’ve ever met (and I’ve met a lot!) and has a capacity for kindness that seems rather limitless. I remember one show when an actor arrived at the theatre in poor shape – had just learned of a suicide. He’d barely hit the door before he began apologizing for what he felt would be a distracted performance on his part. Roger, without even waiting for the end of the sentence, was up and across the stage to embrace him. At the time, I was working at an agency with a Christian mission statement – and I had an immediate sense that the folks at my day job wouldn’t have responded nearly as well.

During a run, Roger, (with much eye rolling and sarcasm) also fixed my guitar amplifier, brought strings, a strap, some additional gear, a harmonica and an inordinate amount of patience with my playing. Clearly, Roger and I are friends.

And yet – Roger and I see each other maybe once every eighteen months or so, and rarely correspond in between. Over the past twelve years, I’ve probably performed in 10 shows with Roger – that’s maybe a year in actual time. Despite the fractured nature of our time together – I also know that I could phone Roger from jail at 4:00 in the morning and he’d come and fetch me. You can see that I’m re-thinking what it means to be a friend.

There’s another person at the theatre, too, whom I’ve known for about the same time. In that time we’ve lost a friend to cancer, I played at her wedding, and was around for her divorce. Lori and I have been in perhaps five shows together. Granted, a show is intense – five or six weeks of 5-7 nights a week. And we’ve played a few gigs together, too, and mourned the loss of that friend. And somehow – Lori knows me. One night after the show the cast was out for a drink, and someone asked me what I did for a living. “I work for a tech company”, I said, and Lori immediately looked stricken. She reached out and touched me, so I continued, “It’s a nonprofit, and I help other nonprofits”, I said, and Lori relaxed and a beautiful smile crossed her face. “I just so think of you as a do-gooder”, she said, “It would be so weird if that weren’t true.”

I was deeply touched. Somehow, despite the small amount of time that we’ve spent together, Lori knows one of my essential truths. Clearly, Lori and I are friends.

And then there are the people who I just don’t see anymore. Richard, Kathleen, Steven, Thomas, Doug, Mark. We’re all in touch. When we are anywhere near each other, we visit. I know what they are all up to, where they are, and (I like to think, anyway) the important truths about them. So, even though we only connect at the edges these days – it’s a pretty strong connection.

And I have other friends on the edge. A college friend and long-time music buddy is in the throes of beating an addiction. (So far, so good). We don’t see each other much anymore, either: I’m a part of an old story for him – and while I wasn’t a part of the addiction story – you can imagine how late nights, music, and cold beer went together all those years – and now – not so much.

Another friend is at the edge in a different way – he’s still making music full time. Most of my music buddies from back in the day are mortgaged and married – and late nights and erratic paychecks aren’t in the cards for them anymore. But Joe has managed to keep singing and playing. He’s made a commitment to doing what he loves, and ‘tho I think that puts him at the edge for some – in other ways – he’s right at the center of where he wants to be. You can imagine that our paths don’t cross nearly enough, but when they do, it’s pretty spectacular. Joe sang at my wedding recently, and one of my other guests wanted to know why he wasn’t famous yet.

And now one of my friends, Thomas Arthur Grant, has stepped over the edge; he passed away this week. I’ve been thinking a lot about him.

We were in Godspell together, a musical from the early 70’s. It’s the Gospel of Matthew, set to music.

Thomas was tall, elegant, handsome, and with a huge, open smile.

Despite it being November (or maybe even December), our friend Richard convinced us all to go white water rafting before the Sunday show. I can’t remember many of the details, but remember it was fun, wet, cold, and then even colder, particularly at the end when we had to wait for someone to come and pick us up.

I was freezing, and Thomas noticed. I can’t remember if he said anything, but he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into a gigantic bear hug. The physical warmth was almost immediate – I have no idea how he could have had any warmth to share. The warmth from his kindness warms me to this day.

When I found out that Thomas had passed, I found an old copy of the soundtrack, and went for a run in the rain. I don’t have any pictures from that show; but I can remember in detail the smile on his face, the part in one of the tunes where he’d catch my eye and play a little air guitar along with me. And I remember the way he would move from prone to full height, to strike a pose – everything from his toes to his fingers a perfect, straight line.

So. Theatre friends. Music friends. Friends in trouble. The more I think about it, almost all of my friends are at an edge, one way or the other. And that’s good.

-Patrick Shaw

2004 and 2008 and 2015

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4 Responses to “Friends at the Edge”

  1. Patrick, well expressed and quite touching. It’s amazing when I think about how our company experiences at the Edge shaped us and formed us and gave us grounding for our lives to come.

    There’s an old African saying: “A person dies twice – once when he passes and again when the last person who remembers him is gone.”

    May TAG live on for quite a long while yet.

  2. So beautiful. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. I started by reading your latest adventure and finished off by reading this post. As Kellye said “thank you for sharing this” and being part of my life.

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