Jeepers, Creepers, Where’d Ya Get Those Peepers?

(Finally, after months of not being on stage in front of an audience, Steve Wilent has been able to perform a couple of times recently. He discovered things are a little different than  what he was used to before the pandemic.)

Guest blog by Steve Wilent

I was standing on stage about to start my one-man show According to John. I have performed this 45-minute version of the Gospel of John for over 30 years but this would be, thanks to COVID-19, the very first time that I have performed it to a congregation of masked people.

It was a bit jarring at first.  I was used to seeing full faces out there.  Faces that had mouths that would grin if I said something funny or would fully open if I said something really funny or perhaps droop in sadness to a character’s failure or lips that stretched thin during a stressful scene.  So many ways to know that the folks out there were connecting with me and in turn I with them.

But that was all gone now.  Now, due to the masks, all I had to go on, apart from a bit of body language and the muffled noises they made, was their eyes.  The biggest problem with having a sea of eyes to look at is that, regardless of the emotion, everything looks like a squint!  Happiness, sadness, stressfulness, nervousness, passion, hatred . . . it all comes across as a squint.

I remember an advanced acting class when I was in college.  I was in a short scene with a female classmate. We were portraying two young lovers experiencing their first argument.  I don’t remember the script. I don’t even remember my acting partner’s name, but what I do remember is that right at the height of the argument Jim Kirkman, the class instructor, suddenly yelled, “Stop!”

I remember freezing right there on stage and thinking, “What the heck?! We haven’t even got to the good part yet!” Kirkman then hopped up onto the stage and walked briskly past my acting partner and over to me. “Close your eyes,” he commanded. Ever the compliant, affable actor, I did so.  Mind you, I didn’t simply allow my eyelids to softly come together; no, I shut them with such force that you might have been able to audibly hear them slam together. There was a sprinkling of suppressed laughter coming from the other students, who in this moment were quite happy not to be the target of Kirkman’s coaching.

I heard him say, “Steve, relax.”  Again complying, I relaxed and for some reason decided that to fully relax I must also open my eyes.  Kirkman grabbed my shoulders and quickly spun me around so that my back was now to What’sherface. Kirkman gently squeezed my shoulders and said, “What color are her eyes?” Understandably nervous I said, “What color are whose eyes?” I heard titters of laughter coming from the cheap seats. Before Kirkman could say, “What’sherface’s eyes,” What’sherface, sounding annoyed said, “My eyes, you moron.” Calling me a moron, I thought, was just her way of letting me know how attracted to me she was. I thought.

Kirkman, gesturing with his thumb over his shoulder said, “Yes, Steve, what color are her eyes?”  Being put on the spot tends to do funny things to people.  My usual way of handling this kind of pressure was to try to say something funny.  So taking a cue from a popular Elton John song I said, “So . . . excuse me forgetting, but these things I do. You see I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue . . .” Truthfully, I just wanted to say that, what I actually did say, in a moment of surprising self-awareness was, “I don’t know.”

Kirkman suddenly spun around to face the class and pointing back at me with a bony finger yelled, “Exactly!  You don’t know the color of her eyes because you were acting at her and not with her! When you act with a fellow human being you focus on their soul.  The eyes are the windows to the soul, people!  Use your eyes to see into their eyes!”

Back on stage in front of the masked and socially-distanced congregation, remembering Kirkman’s words helped me to link to a much wiser man’s words, “The eye is the lamp of the body . . .” Jesus said.  Suddenly the sea of squints out there became a sea of souls to me.  Precious souls, who now more than ever needed the hope and the courage to be able to thrive in this time of pandemic.

I have now made the decision that when things “get back to normal,” I will continue to focus on and minister to people’s souls, through their eyes.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, mine are blue!

The Eyes Have It

Eva Martine Neighbors — Oct. 12, 1930 – Mar. 14, 2012

I don’t like “favorite” questions. Don’t ask me my favorite color, or favorite book or movie. I freeze up… suddenly I can’t think of a single book or movie title and the only color that will come to mind is probably the color of the shirt you are wearing.

I have a similar reaction to “best” and “most” questions. What’s the best “this” or the most “that?” I don’t like ‘em. Don’t usually answer them. Just ask Lorie if you don’t believe me.

But this past week I have allowed myself to ask the question, “what will you miss most about Mom?” And after much reflecting, I would have to say the answer is, “her eyes.”

She had the most amazing eyes.

As an actor, you learn a lot about eyes and the role they play in communication. Eyes can say so much, sometimes more than words can ever express. Our words can hide things and be deceitful… not so easy to do that with the eyes. I learned a lot about acting through my mother’s eyes.

Some people have squinty eyes. Like my dad. It’s hard to read a squinty-eyed person. You never really know what they’re thinking. If they are happy or if they are sad, the eyes don’t change. You have to look for other clues, like their mouth–up, happy–down, sad. If my mom squinted it meant the sun was in her eyes or the milk was bad.

My mom had what I will call saucer eyes. And sometimes they got so big maybe “plate eyes” would be appropriate. They could totally take over her face. And they could speak volumes.

Sometimes she would give me the “stink eye.” This was the look that told me I was in deep doo-doo. It was often accompanied by “Charles Gordon.” The times she spoke my first and middle name together were almost always accompanied by the stink eye. It was a look that said, “I know what you did.” Where my dad might raise his voice to reprimand me, all my mom had to do was give me “the look” and I was busted. And it had power from a great distance. Mom insisted that I sing in choir at church. It was not something I always wanted to do. Clayton and Jim were the singers, I was the actor… but if I tried to play hookey and hide out in the back pew on a Sunday morning, I could feel the presence of “the eye.” I would look up and see that eye and like a magnet it would pull me all the way up to the choir loft. No words were needed. Amazing, powerful eyes.

It was her eyes that encouraged me. I think every child wants the approval of their parents and there are many ways to express that approval–with words and gifts of course–but it was the look in her eyes that I wanted. The look that said, “I love you and I am proud of you.” I never stopped wanting that and needing that. Those eyes communicated love, deep love for her husband, her children, grandchildren and the family and friends she cared for so deeply through the years.

Those eyes were closed daily in prayer. Mom believed in prayer and was a fervent prayer warrior. I will miss her prayers.

There was a transparency in her eyes that filled in the blanks. I don’t like telephone conversations too much in general, and with Mom, I never felt I got all the nuances over the phone that came with a face-to-face conversation. She said as much–maybe more–with her eyes than she said with her words. In the long battles with her health these last few years it was often the words “I’m okay” combined with the eyes that said “I’m not doing so well.”

Living on the other side of the country and coming for visits I loved the “welcome home” look in her eyes and so dreaded the saying of goodbye as those eyes were always, always filled with tears.

If the saying “the eyes are the window to the soul” is true, then when you looked into my mother’s eyes, I believe you could see her soul. The soul of a mother who lived a life of love for family and an unshakeable faith in her Lord and Savior.

My theology is uncertain on whether or not our loved ones in heaven can see us while we are here on this earth. It is a nice thought… although I am not sure I want to feel her “stink eye” when I do something of which she would not approve. But I do believe her eyes are full of joy at being together with my dad, and my sister Loretta, and all the others who have gone before her. And I am confident her eyes are full of wonder and awe as she is able to gaze into the face of Jesus. The eyes, ah yes, the eyes have it! I will miss her eyes.

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