Every Atom | No. 144

Lauren Gunderson

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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What arrests me about this phrase is its suspension. Here we wait, unmoving, gripped by a solid and silent pause as both “I” and “this mystery” stand together as potential energy on a precipice. The puzzling beauty of this line as Whitman paints it, is that “I” stands next to “this mystery” without a rush to solve or explain it. Any mystery has a gravity that pulls us curious humans into inquisition, but Whitman challenges us to stand with mysteries and be satisfied. Here we stand. Here we exist, suspended in curiosity, in attendance, in observation. Yes there will be an unfolding of events to come, but for now he marvels at the peace before the rush. Rush is a manmade state of mind. Haste is human. Whitman halts our human instinct to, quietly and bravely, be instead of know. 


Standing with a mystery is to witness it. To ponder. To wonder. There is of course great action in all of these seemingly passive states of mind, which makes “standing” anything but still. Standing with a mystery is to honor all that is mysterious in the human condition, all that churns below the surface of our consciousness. In this simple line Whitman paints the image of an “I” standing (facing? holding? leaning into?) the mystery (of existence? of beauty? contradiction? multitude?). They are held in each other's presence like actors about to speak the speech. 


I compare the feeling of this line to actors because suspended moments of mystery are my very favorite parts of theatre. These very same silent moments of tension and suspension between actors in plays are the reason I write theatre at all. The moment before the kiss or the exit or the argument. The moment before the decision, or realization, or confrontation. There is such richness and electricity and vulnerability in those spaces. This is the mystery of humanity at work. This is the mystery of theatre at work.  Heart rates rise in these moments, breath stops, eyes widen, what will happen next? Those moments—where the actors stand with the mystery of what is about to unfold—is the point and power of theatre to me. It's live, it's in front of you, it's really happening. In spite of it's fiction, it's very very real. What a mysterious power it has. 


Great actors know to not break that delicious tension, don’t walk away from the mystery, stand with it, stare back, engage, don’t let go of the mystery or each other. Stand and feel every part of that moment, of that mystery, of that humanity, of that art.   

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Lauren Gunderson is consistently America’s most-produced playwright, and author of the award-winning play, I and You, which features Whitman’s poetry. She is also a screenwriter and children’s book author who lives in San Francisco, CA. LaurenGunderson.com


Cover art by Libby Schwers


Photo by Kristen Lara Getchall