Friday, February 17, 2006

Lessons on Faith from the Pileated Woodpecker


I was at the farmer's market a couple weekends ago, buying watermelon radishes, when who should be standing next to me, whistling over the sunflower sprouts, but Bill Talen, AKA Reverend Billy. I choked--I always choke when I see writers in public places--and didn't get the chance to say hey! I just read your book! And thanks! So I'll express it here.

I first encountered Reverend Billy about twelve years ago, when the two of us had a regular weekly gig together, a variety show put together by Galinsky of Manhattan Monologue Slam fame. Billy would, in his white suit and clerical collar, stand springloaded in front of us and preach like a banshee, and I often wondered where he was going with this persona, who felt to me more mayhem than message. It was the kind of religious parody that made me edgy, being a good preacher's daughter with respect for my father's beliefs and work (even if I don't share them).

But now, judging by Bill Talen's memoir, WHAT SHOULD I DO IF REVEREND BILLY IS IN MY STORE?, I realize he wasn't exactly sure himself where the persona was going. He was embracing the character on instinct, and he thankfully didn't give up. His approach to art had more in common with my father's community than my art did: he was going on faith. He was getting to know Reverend Billy on those Thursday nights twelve years ago, and in the years since has found a message I can really get behind, embodied by his Church of Stop Shopping. The message: if we wean ourselves from the temptations of genericized consumption, we'll lead better lives.

But I don't want to dwell on the message, you can read that for yourselves. What impressed me in the book was his method: the attentiveness to his environment, the courage to make an ass of himself, and foremost, his faith that if he doesn't know exactly where it is going, it is still worth doing. It is especially worth doing. He embraces the risk of real "story," where the happy (or meaningful) ending is not assured, and has been lucky and tenuous enough to generate some interesting narratives along the way.

I, for one, always love a peek under the hood of art. Like the part where Talen meditates on the Pileated Woodpecker before invading a Starbucks with his choir, then dissects his process a little:

About the Pileated Woodpecker: I was a bird-watcher when I was a kid and I was alone a lot. Now that I'm getting older, these long-dead feathered souls are soaring with me for my political performances. I've been doing these actions more and more, and I now have been revisited by Storks, Anhingas, Loons, Pelicans, Ravens...Their presence seems to make the vulnerable ego something I can leave at home.

...maybe the aviary of memories has power for me because the species I love are disturbingly eccentric. Night herons, fish eagles, snowy owls. They have mutated happily away from the mainstream pigeon on the street.

I recommend this inspiring book, where religion becomes a metaphor for art--and vice versa--where God is odd, where supermodels are called out as the "state terrorism" they are. Let's join Talen in his fight against "marching into dominant, commercial narratives."

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