Today’s session comprised 25 participants from the UK, Canada, and India, as well as California, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Florida and New Hampshire. After the group’s brief silent-centering exercise, one narrator and two “actors” read an excerpt from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with two characters: Astrov, a middle-aged country doctor faced with a typhoid epidemic, and the elderly nanny, Marina. “Place” was a dominant theme in the discussion, both in terms of the scene’s physical space (a terrace garden’s avenue of trees) and the place/status reflected in society (aristocracy vs. serfdom). The discussion evolved into a series of keen observations and personal associations: trainees trembling under their blankets at night, like Astrov praying they won’t be called to work; knitting as not only textile but text, Chekhov’s weaving a story; and the numbness resulting from overwork in the medical realm. One participant noted that Astrov seems to construct his identity in relation to his patients, but not in relation to the structural dynamics of his profession. Beyond what was explicitly stated in the text, participants compared assumptions made about the caregiver Astrov as he “spills out his feelings” to a caretaker, Marina, whom one participant identified as a truth teller, “a stand-in for God.” What is it, the group wondered, that awakens Astrov’s numbed feelings: guilt? Judgment? Awareness of his privileged status? Feeling himself to be “as stupid” as anyone else? This question segued into the prompt: “Write about an awakening.”
Writers addressed both rude awakenings and gentle ones. A splintered door became a metaphor for awakening into sexual identity. A glacier’s slow descent with “ice falling away” described one writer’s gradual “waking up to truth.” The sudden trauma of a car accident was the catalyst for recognizing the impact of a longer, more destructive trauma. The last writer to read offered a gentler awakening to the morning sounds at a country house and the sight of a lake that “resembles eternity.”
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A country house on a terrace. In front of it a garden. In an avenue of trees, under an old poplar, stands a table set for tea, with a samovar, etc. Some benches and chairs stand near the table. On one of them is lying a guitar. Near the table is a swing. It is three o’clock in the afternoon of a cloudy day.
MARINA, a stout, slow old woman, is sitting at the table knitting a stocking.
ASTROV is walking up and down near her.
MARINA. [Pouring some tea into a glass] Take a little tea, my son.
ASTROV. [Takes the glass from her unwillingly] Somehow, I don’t seem to want any.
MARINA. Then will you have a little vodka instead?
ASTROV. No, I don’t drink vodka every day, and besides, it’s too hot now. [A pause] Tell me, Nanny, how long have we known each other?
MARINA. [Thoughtfully] Let me see, how long is it? Lord — help me to remember. You first came here, into these parts — let me think — when was it? Sonya’s mother was still alive — it was two winters before she died; that was eleven years ago — [thoughtfully] perhaps more.
ASTROV. Have I changed much since then?
MARINA. Oh, yes. You were handsome and young then, and now you’re an old man and not handsome any more. You drink now, too.
ASTROV. Yes, ten years have made me another man. And why? Because I’m overworked. Nanny, I’m on my feet from dawn till dusk. I know no rest; at night I tremble under my blankets for fear of being dragged out to visit some one who is sick; I’ve toiled without repose or a day’s freedom since I’ve known you; could I help growing old? And then, existence here is tedious, anyway; it’s a senseless, dirty business, this life, and gets you down. Everyone about here is eccentric, and after living with them for two or three years one grows eccentric oneself. It’s inevitable. [Twisting his moustache] See what a long moustache I’ve grown. A foolish, long moustache. Yes, I’m as eccentric as the rest, Nanny, but not as stupid; no, I haven’t grown stupid. Thank God, my brain isn’t addled yet, though my feelings have grown numb. I want nothing, I need nothing, I love no one, unless it is yourself alone. [He kisses her head] I had a nanny just like you when I was a child.
MARINA. Don’t you want a bite of something to eat?
ASTROV. No. During the third week of Lent I went to the epidemic at Malitskoe. It was an outbreak of typhoid fever. The peasants were all lying side by side in their huts, and the calves and pigs were running about the floor among the sick. Such dirt there was, and smoke! Unspeakable! I slaved among those people all day, not a crumb passed my lips, but when I got home there was still no rest for me; a switchman was carried in from the railroad; I laid him on the operating table and he went and died in my arms under chloroform, and then my feelings that should’ve been deadened awoke again, my conscience tortured me as if I had killed the man. I sat down and closed my eyes — like this — and thought: will our descendants one or two hundred years from now, for whom we’re clearing the way, remember to give us a kind word? No, Nanny, they’ll forget us.
MARINA. Man is forgetful, but God remembers.
ASTROV. Thank you for that. You’ve spoken the truth.
From Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov