Teri Orr: Winding roads and story lines
Sunday in the Park
Park Record columnist
On Monday, 73 years old sounded a whole lot younger to me than it did the day before. It sounded too young.
Words from Salon Magazine: “Throughout all his various works and appearances, Shepard established a (perhaps unwanted) iconic status. Attractive and rustically ‘all American’ in a way that seemed stolen from a Dorothea Lange photo.”
There were a couple of times over the years at Sundance when the tall, ruggedly handsome face passed by me. And later there were glimpses with/of Jessica Lange — his partner for nearly 30 years whom he never married but fathered two children with.
He was married only once — to O-Lan Jones — and they had one child years before the beautiful actress, who by then had bedded the beautiful Russian ballet dancer and bore that man’s child found Shepard … after and before his times with singer Patti Smith — their tattoos chosen together in their youth.
There was lots of alcohol and drugs and hallucinogens that made the already fertile mind dance with strange partners and also comfortably alone. So many plays and short stories and winding roads.
The acting roles — the Emmy, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations — then the Pulitzer Prize for a buried story come to life. The race horses and Kentucky bluegrass of his later life, but also all those childhood years on the avocado farm on the California coast where the Tule fog would circle the trees and blanket the farm and the mind until the ghost shapes tricked you into thinking you could embrace ether. And the dusty, unforgiving heat and winds and dryness he would seek out lifelong to try to erase/embrace the alcoholic father, a young girl’s suicide and the abuse.
But then over roads on washboard riverbeds under the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, he would write for decades. Sometimes at the Santa Fe Institute in a cottage. Some mornings at a coffee shop off The Square, where I saw him one morning a few years back, and I had the momentary good sense to keep on walking and not, instead, stop and offer to buy him breakfast and ask him all those questions I had about craft and characters. Wasn’t it okay when fiction and fact blurred until they just became story?
A few months ago I was back in Santa Fe and wandering The Square and ended up at a small bookstore. Sitting on a side table — not exactly on display — was his newest book: “The One Inside.”
So I grabbed it and read about 50 pages in front of a fire in a hotel library, but it felt disjointed and patchy — or maybe that was me — so I set it aside, brought it home and put it in a pile.
When I heard the news, oh boy, on Monday he had passed away days before and his family was just now sharing, it hit me hard. Sideways. Breath sucking. The family said they wouldn’t have anything else to say. He died in Kentucky at his horse ranch of complications from ALS, which had been diagnosed recently — well, a couple of years ago, I guess, but recent in a lifespan of 73 years.
So I picked the book back up after I found it in a stack by the side of the bed, and I read it in two sittings. The reviews have been mixed, but reading it now — along with the friend/love letter Patti Smith published in The New Yorker the day after we knew he was gone, you knew, they knew this was coming. She wrote the forward to this last book, and reading it now, she knew then. It is clearly there — between the words — the decades of friendship that included a thorny love. Sam’s story line is part fevered dream and part autobiographic apology and part fantasy and part fueled still by substances that kept his altered mind creating.
It is the echo of a warped screen door banging on the back of a sagging porch on a ranch or a farm or a casita in the desert. There is a hound and a beautiful woman and a bottle and a long goodbye to a messy past with no regrets but plenty of misgivings. You feel reading it now how that last chapter for him, with an awareness of the functional erosion ahead, must have been like a dustbowl story line to a life driven and driving a beat-up pick-up with a load of split red cedar, fragrant, bouncing around in the bed.
The mind can make up stories and alternative realties to those lived — witnessed by those who tried to love us, those we loved, those we were desperate to have the love of. …We have all been fools in love.
He wasn’t Brando or James Dean or those guys not of my era. He was the rugged iconoclastic literary genius who also acted, who lived to keep telling tales that made us uncomfortable but wiser at great personal cost to himself. It is a tale as old as the pen and bottle you dip in: How the madness can end up on the page and twist you so hard you have to stop reading just long enough to absorb what you have just read.
It isn’t all here — the emotions, the parts that still need to make sense, the coyote howling, the cold winds, the smell of the horse farm and the burning piñon pine on a high desert night. The topography of love gone and gone wrong. The landscape of melancholy.
I will take some time to wander around the back roads of his writings, remembering it matters just as much to know when to holster words as when to fire them off.
To be reminded of the twisted roots of our landscapes: How we time travel all the time and how different the world can feel just one Sunday in the Park to the next…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
$110.7 million could be spent on doing a lot more good than just the acquisition of a Monet, Tom Clyde writes.