Once upon a time in a magical land far, far away there was a city that rose beside a vast sea. In that city there rose a many-hued palace known for its wonders of music and laughter. One afternoon the sky grew unexpectedly dark. Deep thick clouds rolled over the city and its palace. Just a few minutes before the king and queen were to convene the court the clouds burst. The noise from the thunder and the rain pounding the roof was so loud that people could not hear each other.
At just that moment a beautiful young princess arrived. She was a visitor from a far distant land who had travelled many miles and many days to meet the king and queen. Most of all the princess had come to meet the crown prince, the only son—for that matter, the only child at all—of the king and queen. The prince had met many princesses, but none was judged fair enough to become his bride.
So said the queen. Before the deluge. When persons could barely be heard.
The princess walked into the midst of the courtiers, lifted her head and…and…and she screamed into the microphones above their heads. The crowd roared with approval and the courtiers….well, as for the courtiers, they did their best not to laugh too hard and failed.
The wondrous palace was a tent. Once upon a time America indulged in a past time known as tent theaters. They flourished near larger regional metropolises between World War II and the 1970’s. Famous actors would travel from city to city to act with local troupes. It was less expensive than bringing in a New York show and gave local actors a place to learn their trade.
In the summer of 1974 while the heavens poured out their torrents on Milwaukee, Joanne Worley and a gang of hearty actors bravely carried on their matinee performance of “Once Upon A Mattress”.
Ms. Worley did something I have never seen an actor do before or since. Already famously popular as a cast member of the television show “Laugh In”, she sized up a terrible situation and turned it around. It was all by chance. Her first few lines were lost to the crashing rain hitting the tin roof over our heads and, yes, the sides of the tent were still made of canvas. Then she had a line which took directly under a microphone. She saw the audience perk up. We could actually hear her! It was a miracle!
For the rest of the play Ms. Worley broke with the director’s blocking and went from microphone to microphone to deliver her lines, frequently at the top of her lungs. She encouraged open rebellion among her fellow thespians in her attempts to get them to break the musical’s directions.
It was a case of inspired revolt. To imagine it took place in a city as staid and conservative as Milwaukee! True, the year was 1974 and America was in the middle of a cultural renewal. The instigator was far more welcome than most, too, as she was a famous comic actor who provided relief to the working and middle classes with her inspired anarchy.
The princess, like the princess in the play, rose above convention and met life head on. In that she was successful.
Not just in once upon a time can this be true. In every time we have the opportunity to up end situations in our lives. We can take a disastrous situation and turn it around. When life pours, we can swim. We can get our fishing poles out and prepare to catch whales. We can do more than be inundated by the flood.
Once upon a time a very talented young artist went on vacation with her husband. While they were on an island of dreams known as Key West they saw a most extraordinary sight. They saw a pelican walking across a parking lot between rows of parked cars. The artist was so amused and so taken by the unusual thing she had seen that when she returned home she decided she had to paint it.
A year or two later she hung the painting in an exhibition. The artist was a friend of mine. She told me about the painting and told me that she wanted me to have it. I found it rather quizzical that she would want me to buy it, but she had it set aside for me.
When I saw it, I knew why she wanted me to own it. It is one of the quirkiest, funniest paintings I have ever seen. It is almost like looking at a cartoon. Every time I pass it, I think of my artist friend and smile.
A few weeks ago I noticed that the painting was beginning to change. I checked the glass, but it was fine. The problem was with the painting itself. One day last week I looked again and saw that something like chiaroscuro had occurred. It seemed as though another painting beneath was trying to come through. There is nothing under.
The chiaroscuro is a vague brown color, like ink on parchment. It is the head of a man. For all the world it looks like the Sorrowful Christ. I asked a Catholic priest about it. He said that he had heard of other cases where similar had happened.
This is not because I am a saint. Not even close. I’ve met a couple of saints, one of whom is still alive. The only way in which I at all resemble Thich Nhat Hanh is that we are both men. He is a teacher, monk and saint. I am a scrivener, a writer.
Sometimes things just happen.
Once upon a time.