I played that scene

I played that scene for all that was in it,

for all that was in me, and

for all the coloured kids in the audience –

who held their breath, they really did,

it was the unmistakable silence

in which you and the audience

recreate each other –

and for the vanished little Leo,

and for my mother and father,

and all the hope and pain that were in me.

For the very first time, the very first time,

I realized the fabulous extent of my luck:

I could, I could, if I kept the faith,

transform my sorrow into life and joy.

I might live in pain and sorrow forever,

but if I kept the faith,

I would never be useless. If I kept the faith,

I could do for others what I felt had not been done for me,

and if I could do that,

if I could give, I could live.

Leo Proudhammer in: James Baldwin, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone


Of course, I cannot claim to sense what James Baldwin’s young fictional actor might have felt during his breakthrough performance. All I can say is that his description seems breathtakingly apt for my life-changing experience when attending my second week-long psychodrama workshop in a residential feminist center in 1985. During the summer I had attended one that had opened my eyes when observing the workshop leader on stage: That’s what it is – coming alive.

Partly I felt taken back to my fascination as a 15-year old with the contemporary theatre in my home town of Stuttgart. Director at that time was Peter Palitzsch whose mission statement I would later read: Theatre simply has to change the world. – Without knowing of that sentence, theatre performances gave me at age 15 that much needed sense of the world being changeable.

Partly, as the psychodrama director improvised, I was taken back to my favourite painting, hung less than a mile from the theatre of my school days -. Caspar David Friedrich’s Bohemian Landscape, translucent with pre-dusk light. This picture had been a place holder for my own hope, my faith since primary school. An entirely anonymous faith – for which I had no name, no words. An elusive hope beyond hope.

Baldwin’s reference to faith offers rich material for reflection: Like his fictional protagonist, he had to shake off the abusive and bigoted ‘faith’ he grew up with. I found myself gently guided to an innate faith, without religion since primary school.


~ by Barbara S on May 18, 2020.

5 Responses to “I played that scene”

  1. Almost 35 years on, awe inspired by the experience demands silence. So to do both the Moment and my drive as a researcher justice, I am not only following aspects of Narrative Methods and Writing in the Dark where literally the paragraphs show new details only as I type. I am also using the Language of Not-Saying that circumscribes mystical moments.
    And for the latter, I am applying a further technique borrowed and adapted from the Buddhist Koan collections: A riddle may be expressed in dense poetic form, as a haiku, further hidden more than explained, embedded in a short essay. Comments added provide further context and allegories. I employ these techniques freely and liberally, as I have recently been encouraged by an art teacher and mentor as to be done when painting abstracts: Relying on the gesture, the bold brush stroke, the immediate contact with the medium, trusting self and process. This light-hearted immediacy is somewhat similar to experience in Psychodrama. It taught me, almost asmif by way of osmosis, that playing real or imaginary scenes from life not only can have a cathartic effect – playing in the suspended atmosphere, with the lightness of touch, allows a fresh look on the matter, as if from a deus-ex-machina perspective – as protagonist and/or director. For me, this also meant a reminder of another gentle moment to which I shall return later.

    • Because of one aspect of what grabbed and held me at that Moment, at the cemetery gate,35 years ago, I not only had to draw a new world map for myself, but had to investigate what I considered to be two aspects of the Moment: Insight as arriving and Consciousness as receiving. But that would take time. Other aspects of the methodologies to be employed also became clear much later only. Now, in looking back, I see the whole project as one of creating autotheory – from lived experience: The main criterion being to represent the experience as appropriately, as precisely as possible. IN other words: Dealing with a Dialogue with Being as experienced is not only not a diversion from honouring the lived experience. It is rather, in this case, a contribution to the body of knowledge that may be useful for others exploring what assists them surviving high sensitivity, anxiety and emotional abuse, With a background of having analysed practically relevant philosophy questions for my BA dissertation in Education 7 years previous, I ‘followed my nose’ by way of hermeneutic: Exploring what I needed to know, circling deeper and following inspiration and guidance from one author to the next, starting with those I had felt some affinity with in NGOs and on social justice issues over the previous 10 years but who had felt strange through their belief, their base in religion. Luise Rinser’s novels come to mind, especially the older ones – tackling existential questions in-depth and with depth and with what I learned to identify as an existential horizon. From there, it was not a long way to dabbing into Karl Rahner’s philosophical writing which fascinated me in its clarity.

  2. Here I was, at 31, attending my second week-long residential feminist Psychodrama course. The first one, a few months earlier, had opened my eyes to that which I had always sensed but not known, known but not acknowledged, felt deeply while not being able to put into words.

    Now it was about trying out different roles and practising that new inspiration… : Sitting cross-legged opposite another group member, protagonist of that scene – as she had chosen me as her needy sister. In the role of her sister I had to repeat, again, again, ‘but I need you’… whereas she kept shaking her head: “I can’t help you…”

    At the same time, I felt Warmth, Love, Presence flooding through me, being held by it – beyond belief.

    For the protagonist, the scene remained somewhat unresolved. She simply left.

    Our trainer, fortunately, left me alone during break time where others might have commented on ‘hard work’ done: I  went for a walk through the village, on a foggy November afternoon – walking with that unnamed Presence, returned after many years, beyond words.

    I passed the village church.

    rooted to the spot,

    at the cemetery gate:

    inscription on the tomb stone

    So, the liberating playful experience did not end with that psychodrama scene. It had more to tell me. Gripped at the end by what I would come to understand yet another element of Begegnung (Dialogue) in Martin Buber’s concept or Tele in the language Jacob Levy Moreno would have used. He developed the therapeutic and world-changing techniques of Psychodrama as a young psychiatrist, playing at lunchtime in a park in Vienna, with prostitutes hanging out there.

  3. While I studied a distance learning course in theology and a couple of postgraduate modules in RE, I never lost the awareness that religion, for me, at best, was secondary to consciousness. Even in a big volume of the work of philosopher and Jesuit Bernard Lonergan I found later a sentence ‘art can get us there in an instant’ – ‘there’ being a spiritual outlook. And Lonergan certainly was not known for using a single word where a thousand would do. The nature of what reached me at that cemetery gate and the desire tor respond authentically led me to study Buddhist meditation (in German simply called ‘Zen’) in the understanding that this would go and be at home beyond religion. That seemed to be true in the encounter with one Buddhist monk, teaching in Germany at the time. Later, when he sought approval and support for a foundation in Germany from his elders in Japan, that changed as he emphasised both his claim on authority and that of the Buddhist tradition. He did, however, recognise my experience as authentic. – ‘Not a Buddhist, not a Christian’ – was what my feet were pattering for a few years. The irony of my life: Having looked in from the outside on my hope for much of much childhood, by honouring my experience in play, I was an outsider – much as the poet and Carmelite John of the Cross put it:

    If I am not to be found in the common places –
    some will say I am lost.
    And indeed: In being lost, I was found.

    Later, when reading JK Kadowaki’s Zen and the Bible, I found myself reconciled with my philosophical me, owning a version of negative theology: He read the New Testament as I would: Beyond critical exegesis, beyond narrative analysis and certainly beyond dogmatic truth. Yet, as for my own real life response to a call beyond calling I was still in the dark and not because I remained sans religion.

  4. While I was still drawing details of my new world map, over 10 years later, the work of Bernard Lonergan on Insight came into my field of vision, I started to my studies as the ‘understanding’ part of Lonergan’s 4 transcendental precepts: As a scholar, undoubtedly aware of how much of religion is based on superstition and distorted myths, he perhaps half consciously, pioneered an approach that would facilitate the individual’s self-appropriation, including dialogue with the transcendent:
    Be Attentive – attend to your experience fully;
    Be Intelligent – understand the matter as best as you can, including stretching yourself;
    Be Reasonable – you will have to make (new) fact and value judgments: don’t go overboard with
    expectations of yourself (or others), weigh up what is yours to do;
    Be Responsible – be as serious as authentic and respond to what has been given (as insight) from and with all your being. Doing that, Lonergan say, will lead to a state he calls Being-in-Love. The philosopher who was not inclined to use one word where one thousand would do, somewhere writes ‘art can get us there in an instant’ – ‘there’ being a new orientation towards a wider horizon. I had to experiment at least, involving more trial and error than I care to admit, with a new life style. I completed my philosophical quest, provisionally, in 2004, 19 years after the Dialogue with Life and Feminist Psychodrama, with an MA in Contemporary Philosophical Theology. The dissertation was highly praised as an original contribution by the Academic Lead at College, after my initial supervisor unsuccessfully had attempted to get me failed for side-stepping religion. It had been my philosophical quest, based on my lived experience. Karlfried Graf von Durckheim was, as far as I know, the first person who after WW2 conceptualised what he called Seinsfuehlung or Seinserfahrung – a brush with or touch of Being and a deeper experience of Being. As indicated, this presented itself to me with the challenge to investigate philosophical theology if only to clarify that it was in my view not necessary to come to a theistic belief to do the experience justice. Further, my experience , if I would grow to respond fully to it, showed the potential for the condition of the possibility was met that it was not necessary to jump through hoops of therapeutic exercises as designed by Karlfried D. and those working with him in order to ‘get it’.

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