The Sweats


Whether a full production or simple reading, I always reach a moment when "the sweats" come.  Out of nowhere, without prelude, the sweat beads up and rolls down.  I've finally been able to link it to a particular state of the viscera, i.e., that sinking feeling that comes as the words roll out and a tiny strident voice begins to ululate, "This really sucks, doesn't it?" I imagine hateful laser eyes boring into my nape as people fume about having to sit still for such crap, having to pretend that the words merit listening to.  My ears seem to doppler, the voices stretching and shrinking in pitch, and I fear that I will turn into some version of the impossibly moist Albert Brooks news-anchoring his way to disaster in Broadcast News.

After a while the condition clears and I can sit in the darkness and pay a straight and respectful attention to this gift being offered to me by these kind people reading my words with gusto and intelligence.  But it never fails to happen: ten minutes in I am always attacked by the inward demons of potential failure, their outward stamp the wet negative half-moons under my arms and the itchy threading of rivulets through my beard.

Failure (fear of) (though that may be redundant) -- God, what an ever-present presence with me!  No matter how many scripts I write, how I better my craft, how many times I get praised, how often I get offered useful criticisms out of a desire to see me succeed -- I can't silence this squeezing hiss that tells me I'm a fraud and a thief.

Where does it come from?  Perhaps I could trace it to this or that psychological locale, but I think it's threaded deeper than that.  I think it comes with the territory of being human because our whole lives areexamples of failure at work, if nothing else than the failure to keep from dying.  And I can't deny a strong desire to avoid facing this unavoidable, to find a retreat where the heart stills and the self does not feel so "at the mercy."

Towards this end, the Marvelous Maria has recently been bringing yoga into our lives: morning stretches, afternoon restoratives, a practice called Phoenix Rising.  Part of her concern is bodily health as we get older, but she also seeks a haven from living in a brutal city and from a job that overworks and undernourishes her.  Much of the focus of this imported yoga is on "relaxation" -- loosening, lengthening, lifting.  The instructors on the tapes speak about the need to release all the tension our modern lives inject into us, cleansing what has been fouled by the drudgeries and indentures called our careers and salaries.  Yoga as antidote, relaxation as analgesic.

I have been doing this now for several weeks and, yes, it is calming and gives hearts-ease -- but my body seems to be rebelling against such gifts.  It wants to hold on to the stress that the yoga master wants to wash away; it feels this paradoxical discomfort at letting go of the tension that it has spent a great deal of time acquiring, even if such tension is purportedly toxic to the spirit.  It's as if my body/mind does not want release from what makes it feel caged and jumpy.

This is what I have concluded about this conundrum.  Relaxation has no dialectic.  It is touted as a state to be acquired and then carried through the day, as if it were an aromatic sachet held against the nose as one slogs one's way through the daily job swamp. The sachet is fortified each day -- an essence, a spirit, a serenity that becomes a path that can become a life.

But I need dialectic to feel anchored to this earth, my life.  And given the way I'm built -- my existential temperament, my semi-Catholic belief in our fallen but redeemable nature, a Puritanical reserve mixed with a hesitant idealism -- relaxation tastes like pale tea against the brewed heady bitters of mortality, finitude, gravity's pull, failure's push.

So this is where I have come in thinking about the sweats.  I will take what relaxation gives me -- it would be foolish not to -- but I will never really be serene because, as bad as the sweats feel, I need them.  It's the possibility of failure, not the acquisition of success, that keeps me sharp (though I don't mind the balm of success as often as I can get it).  Without the sweats, without the sense of impending implosion and mortality that the sweats bring, it's too easy to mistake contentment and peace as the purpose of living life.  Failure and its attendant fears are what give me a rich artistic lode of frailty and fracture.  Happiness is not a source of art -- the challenge is to refine my sense of failure so as not to be overwhelmed by it, not delete it from the forces that inform and re-form me.

©2004 Michael Bettencourt

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Michael Bettencourt has had his plays
produced in New York, Chicago,
Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

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