‘Lighten Up’—A Documentary
[Note: ‘Lighten Up’ is the title of a creative writing course at OLLI-SFSU in summer 2018, taught by Sarah Broderick, a wonderful teacher. But what does it mean to “lighten up,” given the lived conditions of our lives?]
–Salem, Massachusetts, 1692. They lay the witch out on a door and put another door on top of him, which forces his head uncomfortably to the left. Then they start with the big stones. He tries to call out, “I’m not a uhh—” as another stone pushes all the breath from his lungs. He tries to breathe by expanding his ribs only to the sides, which affords a moment’s reprieve. The next stone somehow finds more air to be expelled, and now he can’t draw another breath. His heart pounds in slowing hammer blows Huh! Huh! Huh! as weight presses on every cell of his body. Patches of black cross his vision and he hears shouting and horse’s hooves and—? He fades, then comes to, hearing shouted bits: “…Outrage!...No you cannot!...governor…sentence…”
I’m dying, he knows. He fades out again but awakens suddenly as his lungs fill with air. I’ve already passed over, he thinks. No, the door is still on him but the load is noticeably lighter. They remove more stones and he can breathe freely. They lift the door off. The light and warmth of the sun fall on his body.
–Cut! Way too heavy. “Lighten up” doesn’t mean barely making it through terrible suffering and fear of death, even if he gets to the light of day and the load gets lighter and lighter. Next!
–Salem, Massachusetts, 1693. Same premise except the witch is a woman, but it turns out the “stones” are made of Styrofoam, and it’s just a practical joke. The villagers all hug the “witch” and laugh a lot, then they dance the hora and sing a song.
–Cut! That’s really stupid. We’re not implying the terror of death, even if it’s a joke, we’re not falsifying history, and we’re not doing a musical. Next!
–Salem, Massachusetts, 1694. Same premise, but before the door is laid over her, the accused is asked whether she has any last words. She tells a series of incredibly funny jokes until the villagers lose their appetite for her death and choose her to be Queen of the May, and they all dance around wearing white flowers in their hair.
–Cut! Can we get clear about something? We’re not doing witches, we’re not implying suffering, and stop trying to make a joke out of a horrible period of history. Next!
–I have a different idea. How about if a student in a writing course eats his own homework and throws up on the dog. They both feel really funny afterwards.
–So you think vomiting is lightening up? Unacceptably weird mix of inverted cliché and crudeness, to say nothing of ambiguity about the meaning of “funny.” Next!
–Okay, this idea is really in keeping with the theme of the course. Remember, we were to write in our commonplace books passages that bring us joy from the bleeding we’ve done during the wee—
–You’ve completely misunderstood the assignment; it’s reading you’ve done during the week, and hearing loss is no excuse. It’s in the syllabus. Cut!
–Ow, that hurts! There’s real bleeding going on, and you’re not using anesthesia or bandages. I’m getting out of here.
She looked upward and knew that was the way to go. She pushed off, swimming with strong, calm strokes, not panicked about running out of breath, up toward the light. She burst through the surface. Sunlight glinted on playful wavelets all around her. She woke up laughing. And the course was over anyhow.
About Rufus browning
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