Uncle Bob and I were left alone in our house in Alaska. I hadn't been alone with him like this before. What would we talk about? He was an eighty-year-old man: the actor, the yogi, the man who believed he could talk to God about changing the weather, or ask the ants nicely to please leave his kitchen -- the man who was so kind to homeless people that he eventually had to move because they congregated outside his house and wouldn't leave him alone. The man I somehow associate with wildflowers (maybe because of our name) had come to visit us in Alaska, and was wearing, as usual, his moth-eaten maroon sweater.
I was thirteen, maybe, or somewhere around there, and I wanted so badly to be an actress. I was proud to have him in my family even then: proud to know that acting was somehow in my genes, and proud to brag that my great uncle was "the snow-shovel guy in Home Alone." But we were alone in the house for awhile (pun intended) and what could the two of us do together? My Dad had always been there to start most of the conversations; I would simply have to chime in occasionally with a well-timed remark that would hopefully make Uncle Bob think I was smart, or profound or something. Simply put, I wanted him to adore me.
We made tea, took it out on the porch and sat next to each other on the little rocking bench. Something about being around Uncle Bob made me okay with not talking. In his presence it was more important to breathe, to listen, to look around. Maybe I was just in awe of his wrinkled hands and face, and the fact that he never changed his pants. The way his ears looked from the back, (the Blossom ears, just like my Dad's) struck me reverently into silence. Or maybe I really felt awkward and didn't know what to say to a man whose existence seemed so other-wordly and so human all at once. We looked out at the Anchorage snow-caped mountain range. I cupped my tea mug in my hands like a precious object in that way I like to do that makes me feel sensual and appreciative of the small things. His bright blue eyes had so much going on behind them, it seemed to me, that I felt whatever I could say would be utterly shallow. I realize now he probably wasn't as lost in metaphysical thought as I assumed: he must have felt awkward too. What do you say to a girl on a porch when you have lived for eighty years and she has lived thirteen? I wanted to ask him about acting. I wanted advice, but didn't know how to bring the subject up. He thought of himself as more of a poet than an actor. Would it be insulting to him if the acting was what I wanted to know about?
This is the strange thing: I honestly don't think I asked. Or at least, I don't remember asking....The way I remember it, he just knew, and without any prompting from me at all he said, beside me on the rocking bench, looking out at the mountains, in his slightly shaking, whistling voice: "Lydian. Acting is listening. That's all. Just listening." And then he took a sip of tea.
Now, it could very well be that my Dad had asked Uncle Bob earlier to talk to me about the theatre and acting, knowing how important it was to me. Or maybe I'm remembering it wrong, and somehow I did get up the courage to ask him. But the statement that "Acting is listening" and the way he said it to me, with such simplicity and honesty, stands alone in my memory, as if that bit of advice came to me from the universe through Uncle Bob. Sounds so silly, but I will never forget how special I felt to be directly receiving this wisdom from the man whose face I could picture pressed to the railroad tracks in Spielberg's Ghost Train, listening for the locomotive's fateful approach. Literally, in that case, in that gorgeous and moving shot, all he was doing was listening, and the metaphor thrives.
It was all I needed. That was it. I might have awkwardly tried to have a discussion with him about it after he said that, probably trying to demonstrate how much I knew about acting....but after awhile I let that go. I had permission now to simply listen: to listen with him, and to know that that was enough.
I smiled, I remember, so contentedly.
There are countless stories about my great uncle Bob. Countless eccentricities and legends that aren't really mine to tell (so I won't try), but this moment belongs to me. I will always remember his slow walk out the door to the porch, the way his dirty clothes hung off his skinny body, the way he seemed to infuse love into everything he said or did, and the way he spoke only to me, telling me exactly what I needed to hear.
Sometime in the last couple of years I got a message on my phone from Uncle Bob. Whenever we spoke on the phone he would read one of his poems -- that was a given. I loved this message so much that I transcribed it...maybe because I had an inkling it would come in handy at precisely this moment. It went like this:
"Hi Lydian how you doing? Thank you for your calls and I hope all is well with you.
(big pause. Shuffle of papers)
How do we learn as people to live peaceably together on earth?
More love, less hate. More joy, less pain.
How do we find love and joy?
(Another big pause.)
Now I have to press a button but I'm not sure which."
(End of message.)