Tuesday, September 10, 2013

dancing without the stars

Helena Modjeska
Last night, public television offered up a biography of Helena Modjeska, a Polish-born actress who made a 19th-century splash on the American and European stage. Her strength of character wowed me even as the biography itself felt a bit like a high-school term paper -- adequate and yet never telling me the color of this woman's blood.

Modjeska stood out, stood tall, broke barriers, had vision, put her ass on the line, was generous and had a series of other definable characteristics, all as a woman in an era that was almost as constricted and stylized as sharia law when it came to women. She reminded me of another strong woman of about the same era: Annie Oakley.

Each may have had a quite self-serving agenda woven into their lives, but each had the courage to fend off and break through not just those who disagreed with them, but also those who agreed. Where the linguistic Puritans do not smother the scene, I would say both had balls.

Annie Oakley
Balls and I admire them. Partly, but as a lesser matter, I admire them for the trail they helped to prepare for all women (think "women's movement"), but mostly I admire them as human beings. I doubt that I would want to meet either one of them. As former Poet Laureate Billy Collins once observed about revered writers, "Meeting your favorite author is one of life's most reliable disappointments." But that doesn't dim my admiration.

And all of this mental cud-munchimg makes me wonder if there isn't an important difference between admiration and adulation. The line between the two may be thinner than an anorexic, but still, I wonder if a bit of tortured reasoning isn't in order ... separating what, for all I know, is inseparable.

This blog post may serve as a perfect example. Here I sit, mentioning a couple of famous women, women I admire, women I might adulate -- straight, strong, and no doubt conflicted ... human beings. However badly informed I may be, still I am grateful to them. They help to paint an admirable picture in my mind ... exhibiting and exercising traits I too might like to exhibit or exercise.

But simultaneously ... how many people do you know who mention the stars in the literary or spiritual or academic or athletic firmament merely as a means of assuring their own luster? If I talk enough about spiritual or athletic hot shots, does some of that luster rub off on me and elevate me in your eyes? It's a cheap-date technique, no doubt, but that doesn't mean it's not common.

From the couch-potato watching his favorite team play -- and cheering like a bandit -- to the utterly devoted spiritual apprentice who humbles himself before some authentic cross or liturgy or ritual or panoply of saints ... how much of it is admiration and how much of it is a means of activating some wider applause-meter ... the I-can-name-the-stars-therefore-you-might-wish-to-treat-me-as-a-star stuff... the devotee whose ability to get up off the couch is dubious at best... the sincere one resting on the laurels of sincerity?

I guess it's a human trait, getting caught up thinking that admiration should or could become adulation and that adulation is enough for an honest peaceful life. God knows I've been there and may yet again. But these days, I feel a bit more comfortable, as for example in Buddhism: Gautama is just another Helena Modjeska, another Annie Oakley, another example of something I admire, another instructor I find credible. Whether my own star is burnished in the mentioning of other stars is, in the end, useless, no matter how applause-worthy. No matter how I adulate or hug or praise such people, still I am stuck with the only farm I've got. Admiration strikes me as useful. Adulation does not.

What counts is the balls ... not dancing with the stars, just dancing.

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