March 6, 2015KR BlogReadingRemembrances

The Problem of Extreme Elation: Remembering Spalding Gray

It is difficult to be delicate regarding the death of Spalding Gray. Tomorrow, March 7th, marks eleven years since he was found floating in the East River, two months after he had gone missing. After the discovery of his body, the actor and performance artist who blurred the distinction between real life and the stage like no other, was confirmed to have jumped from the Staten Island Ferry. I mention the details only because anyone who knows anything about Gray knows, most likely, that he struggled with illness and depression that led him to attempt suicide on multiple occasions. This was no secret, and in performances he told stories that careened wildly, offering intense glimpses into the heart and mind of someone who struggled to be well, and who acknowledged the struggle to be well; the stories were also full of hilarity, raw honesty and love. They were, most of them, true stories from his life, memories that haunted or inspired, sifted through and brought to the surface in art and as a means of survival. He did it brilliantly. He did it most often sitting at an empty desk with a glass of water and a few notes, a simplicity perhaps comprised to balance the intensity of stories that spilled forth with such potency that his audience must have been overwhelmed with gratitude to be in the presence of such vibrancy.

Gray was a master at details. In one performance that I’m completely smitten with, he recalls a childhood ritual he invented to deal with anxiety: “I can remember that when I was feeling anxious and my parents were away, I would go in my underwear into my mother’s closet and just stand there, and look at her dresses and her shoes and, snifff, smell the inside of that closet, and look at myself in her full length mirror, and I liked that very much.” As the monologue continues he explains that he would then squeeze himself between the crack of his parents’ beds, pushed together, and, “I would just hang there, in my underwear, until I didn’t feel anxious anymore.” In the video of this performance Gray holds his arms out in the empty air. Outlined against a black curtain, it looks like he is floating in space, a powerful image, as he’s made us imagine he is being held snugly in place. Memory, time, shifts. The child looking in the mirror, asking for acknowledgement by reflection, of the self alive, and OK, and later, of his little body squeezed bare between the beds of familiar scent, speaks to something that’s innate in all of us. We want, it, to be OK.

For the past few days I have been thinking about Gray intensely, perhaps sensing the difficult anniversary. Though it’s true I think about him often… particularly, I think of a passage from Gray’s journal, published posthumously in The Journals of Spalding Gray. It’s a passage I have copied and written out and printed and copied and carried with me and shared and read again and again:

“What really upsets me in these past days is the problem of extreme elation—it’s the extreme part of it that is hard to endure, it is exhausting and I hope that it will soon pass and not leave me at the bottom of a well. I see so much in everything I see or touch. I just can’t get enough of life. The sky tonight was like the end of the world—the dinner tasted so good—I will explode…. I want to embrace the whole world. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this way before. It makes me somewhat afraid because I know its not lasting. I long to get on some level ground. I can hardly carry a conversation with anyone because I am so distracted by all that’s going on about me… the smallest things GAS me. They overcome me (the cat being caught in the curtain, this yellow flower in a glass on my table, the air mail envelopes, the Morton Salt shaker, the blues and yellows) I don’t want to call it a trip but…I feel like I’m on a roller coaster and there are all these levels of reality, all these realities that I’m riding through and what a fantastic ride. There must be a time for it to stop…I must pull myself out—I must be the driver.”

While this passage is ominously tinged and clearly full of struggle, what I’m particularly drawn to and identify with is Gray’s intensity of love for the world’s “miracles,” as I like to call them—the ordinary objects and details that rise to meet the mood of the moment—when every object, event, encounter seems to come together as if destined, offering meaning, purpose, joy. It’s a glimpse of the sublime, the highest high, that, in the end, leads to what Gray so perfectly calls “the problem of extreme elation.” The problem, of course, is you have to come back down. How to “be the driver,” when the world is flooding your senses? It’s like someone in love forgetting how to use the cash register. The next moment, it’s someone in heartbreak not caring how. The warning to be the driver persists, but it’s hard to care when the details collide for those isolated highs. This list: They overcome me (the cat being caught in the curtain, this yellow flower in a glass on my table, the air mail envelopes, the Morton Salt shaker, the blues and yellows) is likely the best description I have read of how and why (and without saying why) certain “things” floor the soul. Yes, it is exactly this way sometimes. That little salt shaker is so dear.

There’s an artwork by the artist Ragnar Kjartansson that I love, that reminds me so much of Gray, particularly in light of the journal excerpt above. The object is a hand blown, glass bulb scripted with advice Kjartansson’s father once gave to him, which his father prefaced with “the most important thing I will ever tell you.” The advice, as scripted on the glass, reads: “It is beautiful but sad to be a human being.” I have this bulb hanging in my room; I think about, feel it, often. And it hits me much like Gray’s air mail envelopes hit me, a joy nearly impossible to convey, an object or moment signifying something amazing, but shadowed by a fall.

Gray, like any true artist or writer, worked with, tried to own, the beauty and sadness of being a human being. It’s tragic that he succumbed to the sadness. And I don’t want to end this by saying “but…” It’s tragic. And. He left an awful lot of beauty in his wake.