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Snow, Sam, and finding goodness l Chuck's World


Last updated 12/27/2017 at Noon

I sat in a church on Christmas Eve, wallowing in carols and the comfort of familiar voices, and I was given an assignment.

The speaker asked all of us to reflect on goodness, something over the past year that had moved us, restored our faith in humanity, shone a light on decency and compassion and justice. Something to remind us that there is joy even in the midst of uncertainty and worse. It wasn’t hard for me.

“It’s snowing outside,” I thought, and that seemed to be enough joy for the night.

So let’s all reflect on that for a minute. No one is claiming a banner year for the human race here at the tail end of 2017, but we got ourselves a white Christmas, a spectacular one, and as far as I’m concerned that helps.

We can argue about the merits of snow, the inconvenience and mess, but it’s hard to disagree with inclement weather that shows up on a holiday, all white and fluffy and not making much of a fuss. It was a perfect storm, and it helped.

Because it hasn’t been great, I have to say. Nobody needs a refresher course on 2017. From Charlottesville to Houston to Las Vegas to San Juan, from headline to even worse headline, we remember. This was a bad one, and the one before wasn’t that great, either.

And a new year, under any circumstances, will always arrive with a bittersweet aftertaste. It’s impossible not to note the passings, from long lives well lived to those cut short by disease, accident, or disaster. Everyone with a website and a search engine has an “In memoriam” post this week, a morbid game we play every December. Who won, who lost, who lived and who didn’t.

I play this game as much as anyone. I can’t help it; famous names and faces from the past startle my memories, showing up suddenly like long-forgotten bookmarks.

David Cassidy, Glen Campbell and Tom Petty all had influences on the popular music of my youth. I doubt that anyone with the slightest interest in show business and entertainers didn’t feel a hole in our cultural history with the passing of Jerry Lewis, and I can’t be the only one, in this era of sexual misconduct exposure, who thought that Hugh Hefner picked an appropriate year to shuffle off.

There are hundreds of names on the list, of course, and those are only the famous ones. Many of us have experienced personal losses this year, producing a strange sorrow between the passing of friends and family, and merely the familiar.

It’s the familiar that’s on my mind, though. None of these deaths were ignored in the media, but this can be personal, and one of them was.

Sam Shepard had a familiar face, and it showed up in familiar places. His performance in Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece, “Days of Heaven,” was followed by a strong supporting performance in “Frances” and then an iconic star turn as Chuck Yeager in “All the Right Stuff,” as well as nearly 70 other film and television acting credits.

But even though best known as an actor, Shepard was cherished as a playwright, a dark, brooding, subversive voice that shattered the landscape of Mamet and Rabe and the rest of the 1970s theater world.

His breakout play was “Buried Child,” a fractured family drama that suggested fault lines in the domestic stories we tell ourselves. Something wicked isn’t coming our way; it’s buried in the backyard, he said, and we buried it ourselves, a long time ago.

“Buried Child” was first produced in the summer of 1978; two years later, I was in a summer repertory production of it, appreciating having the lead but frustrated by playing someone half a century ahead in life, with gray wigs and latex wrinkles. Not to mention doing the little dance we all had to do around our star power, actress Mercedes McCambridge (who played my wife, if you can imagine. Or maybe don’t imagine).

I learned to love Shepard, though, love his words and musings and poetic wanderings over an America that seemed to be shifting under his feet.

I didn’t know he had ALS. I didn’t know much about his life in recent years, aside from an occasional reboot of his canon, or a surprising role in a film I wandered across while searching for something else. That feels appropriate somehow, since Sam Shepard always struck me as a searcher, a seeker of something over the horizon and possibly only found in the past.

He was almost a silhouette of the past, in fact, at the same time jarringly contemporary and a throwback to an earlier American man, leathery, lanky, solitary. Sorrowful.

And even if this kind of a character only existed in our stories, well. Stories were Sam Shepard’s business. It was this aspect of the man, the writer, less an iconoclast than an observer, that impressed me in those formative years. I’d never approach his way with words, or his presence on and off the screen (no one would ever refer to me as lanky, for one thing, although I hold out hope that maybe somebody will), but he remained an influence, and a hero.

It’s all personal, as I said. I mourn the loss of a personal hero, but he reminds me of a goodness, a possibility. A hope. And as we head into 2018, that’s going to have to be enough.


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