EMERGENCY

Nicholas, G.; Hospital Scene; Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-scene-43150

At about 3:20 on Tuesday morning, the phone rang, and then rang and rang, piercing the silence and finally my sleep which was much deeper than usual. An unfortunate stroke of good fortune—my deep sleep, that is—because it took me a while to emerge from it.

This wasn’t a problem for my ever-vigilant husband who snapped into alertness and rushed to the ringing phone (we don’t keep one in our bedroom). I heard him speaking quietly and heard the seriousness in his voice.

He came back to our room and said, in French: “It’s your mum. She’s had a heart attack and there’s blood everywhere.”

His words exploded the quiet of night. But it still took too long for me to activate—precious, dangerous minutes for me to become fully coherent and functional. Mostly, as I struggled to get dressed and clear my head, all I could say was oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…Imagining terrible things. Unable to reconcile the cardiac event with the blood—why the blood?

John Bellany, Self-Portrait in Hospital; The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/self-portrait-in-hospital-233775

Because my mum lives so close by, we were there in a flash. It was a terrible time of transition and my husband drove too fast and not fast enough. With our own key to her house, we let ourselves in and there she was, lying on the sofa covered in a blanket, her bloody head on a smeared pillow.

Waiting for help.

This narrative ends well. I’ve no desire to build suspense. My mum had passed out twice. Falling to the ground in her kitchen, she’d hurt her face and ribs. She then made it to the bathroom and tried to wash the blood from her nose, her face, her hair—she’d lain in it. The second time she lost consciousness, the water was still running in the bathroom sink and soon spilled onto the floor around her.

Blood and water.

She woke up again and thought to turn off the tap, got herself to the sofa and waited till… (I can’t finish this: I can’t explain her reticence to call us asap).

And then she phoned us.

There was an ambulance and paramedics. Two women working in tandem like they’d always been a team, with very few words—spoken with equanimity—probing, observing, evaluating. And my mum answered every question with perfect lucidity. Out came the spinal board, the cervical collar and a long, narrow, dark oval wrapper that enveloped my mum like a giant synthetic canoe.

Carter, Grace; Miller Hospital; Greenwich Heritage Centre; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/miller-hospital-193755

My husband and I reached the hospital before they did. He went to park the car and I walked into EMERGENCY. It was a weirdly dissonant, anticlimactic moment. Except for a security guard behind glass in his booth off in a corner, the emergency waiting room was empty. I’ve never seen this before and don’t expect to ever see it again. Stranger than fiction. There was an aura of calm after a storm. I was thrown by the sudden deceleration.

The ambulance arrived without fuss, or flash, or drama. My mum was unloaded right in front of me. The medical baton passed from the emergency medical technicians to the nurses, one woman and two men, all working the last few hours of their night shift.

I stayed close, then was sent to an out-of-the-way corner to sit quietly, and then allowed back to be with my mum. All permissible because it was so quiet everywhere in triage. Pumped up on adrenaline, my husband just couldn’t sit still and so he was released to go back home and try to sleep.

Fox-Pitt, Douglas; Indian Army Wounded in Hospital in the Dome, Brighton; IWM (Imperial War Museums); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/indian-army-wounded-in-hospital-in-the-dome-brighton-6030

My mum and I had now entered the stall zone, an area of time existing only in hospitals, which probably feels like an endless succession of shifts to the medical personnel, but is a state of static, passive half-life to patients and those who love them.

With her preliminary examinations and tests done, my mum and I moved to spot 15, one space from the window at the far end of the Emergency ward and right next to where I had spent several scary hours at my husband’s side along with my sons, in December 2012, after he suffered a serious, amnesia-inducing concussion.

Being in Emergency stirs up all of those past memories—layer upon layer of emotional scar tissue: a child’s badly broken arm, a slashed eyelid, a gashed finger, a scary virus and more. Long days, long waits and feelings of helplessness.

Enough time had passed so that the ward had filled up again. When we’d first arrived, my husband had read on a monitor mounted on the wall that Emergency had operated at 211% of its capacity the previous day and into the night.

During the twelve hours that my mum and I were there together, I came and went, getting tea, getting food, walking through the rows and rows of people on stretchers as I exited and returned, realizing that my mum had lucked out, that she was in fact in a sweet spot in the ward. Because by midday, there were patients everywhere, filling not only the small spaces defined by curtains, but what remained in the aisles between them.

Curtois, Mary Henrietta Dering; Ruston Ward, Lincoln County Hospital; The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery);

Whether patients or loved ones, we all shared the same sense of unease. Emergency is a terrible place to be and while we’re there, we’re trapped—by our injuries, by disease, by the ties that bind us.

Nobre, Manuel; Hospital Scene; CW+; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-scene-178621

Emergency is the ground zero of health care and government bureaucracy, and everyone who enters knows this and feels the first tingle of fear. It’s a place of serious and possibly critical illness, trauma and pain. Sometimes, it’s just the first part of a long and harrowing passage toward death.

Every new person on a stretcher who gets wheeled into its corridors pushes every other patient that much closer to the indignity of anonymous suffering. Of being overlooked. Of being left alone for hours, exposed and vulnerable.

It’s a place where discretion and compassion must constantly be exercised. Women and men leave decades of conditioning behind and suffer constant assaults to their sense of personal modesty within view and earshot and smell of each other. Bodies are not beautiful in Emergency.

While I was there with my mum, I was struck by the number of older men who’d been admitted, having been fitted with oxygens masks or else tubes in their noses; many with COPD, diabetes, failing kidneys. Some with concerned and tired-looking wives by their side but too many, alone.

Such solitude is unimaginable to me.

Awan, Sara; Hospital 2; Durham County Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hospital-2-43866

My mother didn’t have a heart attack on Tuesday. For want of a better explanation, the most likely reason for the two periods of unconsciousness she experienced was a vasovagal reaction to a bacterial or viral infection. As her condition improved and my focus was able to shift a little, I abandoned discretion and began looking at faces. When you look closely enough, you can see the invisible walls that some have built around themselves with the intention, I think, of containing the scale of misery and worry they have to endure. It looked to me like most of the time, the wall builder was the companion, not the patient.

On most faces, you can read tension, fatigue, worry, restlessness and fear. Sometimes, submission. Sometimes, combativeness.

As I came and went and even as I stayed by my mum’s side, I decided to make eye contact and smile at people. That’s how I met 89-year-old Mr. Pilkington, his wife and youngest daughter, and that’s how I met the tiny, mischievous Italian woman who immediately took to calling me la bella signorina every time she stopped by on one her short and restless walking tours.

My mum was badly shaken, but has bounced back. She’s such a marvel. I didn’t realize how affected I was by it all until the following day, when it was all I could do not to cry when my thoughts slid just slightly sideways to her and how close she’d come. I was so tired.

Emergency is a reminder that our daily wellbeing is built on clouds and  can be undone by something as simple as  a night-time walk to the kitchen for something to settle your stomach.

It’s a place full of dangers, the very worst of which, in the tumult of medical care, may be the breakdown of human solidarity.

Pomeroy, Tim; My Old Men, Hospital; Art & Heritage Collections, Robert Gordon University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/my-old-men-hospital-105860

 

MAKING THE BEST OF THE WORST

It’s been a weird weekend.

Last Thursday, our passage from winter to spring took an unwelcome turn. A rainstorm washed in and dumped a record-breaking number of centimetres of water onto ground that was still frozen. That’s a rotten recipe.

From Thursday morning through Friday night, rivers overflowed their beds, sump pumps failed and hundreds, if not thousands, found themselves ankle deep—or worse— in water in their own basements.

We were among them, and that Thursday vigil by the submersible pump (borrowed from my saintly brother-in-law), in the damp and cold basement, was a long, lonely night.

Hardly the ideal circumstances leading up to a trimestrial Saturday gathering organized by my son Christian, this time named:

Best of the Worst (BOTW to the initiated):

AMERICA! DISSTOPIA/UTOPIA

From Megaforce.

Inspired by the fellows at Red Letter Media, Christian has made the event his own.

I’ve been struggling to remember how long we’ve been at this. At least four or five years by my count. Christian is a combination movie buff and collector of trivia and esoterica with an elephantine memory. Mix this with a tight group of friends who are each as nerdy, sharp-witted, good-natured and crack-me-up funny as the other, and you have the makings of a rosy tradition.

The basic formula of a BOTW evening is simple: Christian selects two films from the vast and shameless videosphere of intentionally, ironically or accidentally terrible movies that are so bad, they’re good. We watch them together, eat, drink and, when it’s over, vote for the “best” bad movie. The BOTW. More recently, Christian has added some pretty terrific Pub-night style movie quizzes that are the extra fun between viewings.

There’s real artistry behind Christian’s soirées. It takes a deft touch to get the balance just right: to create an atmosphere in which hilarity offsets mockery, and in which a genuine sympathy for endearing cinematic intentions gone horribly awry prevents the mix from souring. At his BOTW evenings, scripts and scenes are usually in such awesomely, spectacularly poor taste and effects so cheesy, that you just can’t help but deride them with glee and genuine affection. It’s often hard to hear the movie over the guffaws and running ribald commentary of the BOTW gang.

I get to attend because this house is still the only Daoust venue big enough to hold and host everyone who has now been drawn into Christian’s and the event’s orbit.

Last evening, while Megaforce and America 3000 were filling the darkened space, I surveyed the room, and it struck me how unlikely a bunch we were, and how many mutations this group has experienced. The tight nucleus of Christian’s college friends, which also drew in his brothers—especially Simon—now exerts an unpredictable gravity.

Among those packed like sardines into my living room were Cindy, who was first the friend of a friend of Simon’s, but who is now, well, family, and who arrived with Raouf, who in the beginning was her lodger and is now her friend, having come to Montreal all the way from Egypt to complete his MBA. This was his second BOTW evening, and he was better prepared for the mayhem.

Then there was Thomas, in Montreal from the Maritimes to start his first job eighteen months ago, who was originally my French student but integrated my sons’ lives first through sheer necessity and then, in amity. He’s now a BOTW veteran.

John Wells, Near and Far

There were Pat and Patricia, the world’s most convivial couple, who both work and teach at the same college as Simon, and fill every room they occupy with joy and energy. They get along with everyone.

There was Alec, who grew up in the house on the corner but alternates between two different living spaces, miles apart, and whose presence is both constant and sphynx-like, though his knowledge of movie trivia is spotty.

There was Saran, a former student of mine and wonderful person. Now in Montreal after studies in London, England, Saran works in I.T. He was very brave to accept my invitation. He couldn’t have known what he was walking into but then, he is an explorer at heart.

Last time, my son Jeremy was able to join us and this time, it was my daughter-in-law Anne’s turn. Their integration was seamless.

Network, by Steven McDade

Our evenings have seen couples come, go, and reappear in new configurations. They’ve welcomed every new person one of us has wished to include. The only limitation is the size of my living room.

Among Christian’s friends, the regulars: Rainforest, Owen, Danieli, Pavlo, Li, Stephanie (and now Marco), there’s an understanding, I think, that BOTW evenings constitute the beginnings of a tradition—a promise to be kept as often as possible—a means of acknowledging the depth of friendships and solidarity in this world.

As always, change is imminent.

Thomas is leaving in a few weeks for Sudbury, Ontario, to begin a Master’s degree in Geology and find a new life path;

Rainforest, one of Christian’s original college friends, is in the process of choosing the university where he will next begin doctoral studies in Game Theory. His options include California;

Alce Harfield, Swans Flying Together

Raouf received his degree and has just found work, which means he’s now officially a Montrealer. He’s here to stay—we hope;

Christian will leave Montreal at the end of July to take up a three-month posting at an inlet on Baffin Island;

Owen is just about to become a Fine Arts graduate and head into his school-free future;

I don’t know how long we’ll be able to keep Saran in Montreal, but as long as he’s here, he’s a BOTW alumnus with an open invitation.

The world has become a much smaller place, and few of us dare to scrutinize the horizon. Instead, we turn to each other seeking companionship, friendship, a port in a storm, meaningful connection and best of all, the bonds of laughter.

The Best of the Worst gang, most recent version.

ARRIVING

Greig, Neal; The Mists of Time; Queen’s University, Belfast

Last week marked the 60th birthday of someone very close to my heart.

There’s a familiar pattern and flow to “milestone” birthdays. Hitting any decade sticks out like a signpost against the backdrop of our lives, and feels weightier, as though somehow, thirty were more substantive than twenty-nine or thirty-two; fifty any different than forty-eight or fifty-one. Invitations are emailed, phone calls made, a reception room reserved, photographs collected and scanned. This is the ritual.

I’m resistant to the milestone birthday concept and have been for as long as I can remember (except maybe number 18, which opened so many new doors). Marking the passage of years and then decades seems like self-brainwashing—like self-inflicted neuro-linguistic programming:

You’re __ years old and thus, you must feel (THIS) way.

The higher the number of the milestone birthday, the greater is the focus on looking back and taking stock: Look at where I’ve been; look how far I’ve come; look at everything I lived through (and survived!). Here, my wedding day; there, the births of my children, the deaths of loved ones.

 The surgeries, the summer trips, the mundane biographical moments caught on camera that have meaning only to the handful of loved ones who were there, and even then, will recede in value as their subjects age and fresher memories are made by younger people.

A list of events seen through a nostalgic lens: It all went by so fast.

Clayton, William J. M.; Time to Remember; Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

I’m not a great fan of nostalgia, though every now and then, I’m gripped by a sudden and intense longing to re-experience feelings from the past, to excavate sense memories like the softness of the tops of my children’s heads against my fingers and the curves of their fragile skulls when they were babies; the feel of their bodies against mine when they were in my arms; their tiny hands settled in my palm with such trust when we went walking; the experience of feeling crazy in love with their father and knowing only joyful optimism…

There are times when I feel like I would give anything to hear the young voices of my sons again, their distinctive speech, and watch their small faces that were full of sweetness and innocence as they spoke—in which not a glimmer of the sharper bones of manhood could yet be guessed at.

A thing as banal and lifeless as my kitchen floor is a doorway into the power and cost of memories. It was there 34 years ago—freshly installed by the previous owner—when we bought this old house. It was ugly even then. There used to be a tiny corner table in the kitchen, and it’s where I bathed my infant twins every morning, warm water splashing onto the floor as they kicked and thrashed. Through the years– from high chairs to kitchen chairs–chunks of spaghetti, splotches of applesauce and crumbs of everything edible that entered the house formed temporary mosaics on its surface, miraculously disappearing into its ugly pattern. When we eventually removed the corner table, we left behind the holes in the linoleum, undisguised. With no porch space between the kitchen door and the world outside, we tracked all of the grit of the outdoors back into our house and onto the floor. New appliances we brought in, making fresh indentations on its surface next to the old ones. I cooked thousands of meals over it, slopping and spraying ingredients onto it as I went. I still get down on my hands and knees to wash it.

 

I hate that floor, but the story of why it’s still there is also telling. It speaks of the modesty of our means, especially when we first started out. It speaks of harder times when the boys were older and there just wasn’t enough money. It tells of a terrible, painful time when our baby died and a pall fell over the house that I had, until then, thought of only as a safe cocoon, and which I began to love less. It documents the abandonment of certain dreams, and an exhaustion, a turning away from what, to me, was no longer desirable.

In spite of how intensely beautiful some remembrances are, I would never want to go back in time. My memories are a laminate composed of innumerable experiential layers. They’re what’s made me stronger and more human and I know that they can’t be peeled apart and separated one from the other. They can only be added to.

Phillips, Norman; Hewing out; National Coal Mining Museum for England;

 

Time travel has no allure for me.

How could I go back into the past without losing most of what I’ve learned and come to understand over time? It would be like trying to fit myself back into size 5 clothes. It would mean being painfully reduced.

Time seems to be passing more and more quickly as I grow older.

 This is said and heard so often that we accept it as canon.

I understand why most of us feel this way. It comes as we begin to brush up against our mortality.  My lifetime went from being counted in years to being counted in decades, and those are piling up. The sense of the end of my days is no longer a vague and amorphous thing hanging somewhere out there in the ether.

But I honestly don’t feel that time is speeding up. And I don’t feel like the days were endless when I was a child (though summers sure seemed to be). Something altogether different is happening. In recent years, I’ve begun to feel squeezed by time.

Schober, Helmut; Time with No Beginning 2; Bury Art Museum

My problem is one of perception. It seems to me that for the first thirty-five years or so of my life, all I did was keep my eyes on the horizon because there was always something out there I was after: every project, every choice was about moving forward and building the future I would inhabit with my family. And everything else flew by, just like the scenery did from the back seat of the car when I was a child.

And then, not long ago, my foot came off the accelerator, and I began to see that I’ve arrived. I’ve reached the place where I want to be. All of the pieces seem to be here. There’s family, closeness, love. There are the new sprouts: my grandchildren. There’s friendship, deep and intimate. There’s work that it took me years to find and that’s a little like standing in a stream that brings the whole world to me. There’s art and science and travel and learning, as immediate and accessible as this laptop. There’s reading and there’s my writing.

Instead of looking far off into the distance for the future I want, I now too often find myself straining to find large, open spaces of time, like gaps in the calendar, that I can stretch out in, where I’ll be able to write more, read more, travel more, experience more.

More than a Game, Brightmore, David;  St George’s, University of London;

 

 

 

 

BETWEEN THE REGIONS OF KINDNESS

I write at the urging of the voice inside my head, the Great Narrator of my small life, the one that seems to never shut up but which I trust doesn’t indicate mental illness.

I don’t know that it ever stops to rest, but I don’t mind because I know myself well enough to recognize that without it, I’ve lost a powerful way of functioning in the world, of processing my experiences and understanding my life. Of understanding LIFE. I’m no longer sure that I could find my way without it.

Shields, Frederick James; Man Repels the Appeal of Conscience; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/man-repels-the-appeal-of-conscience-57014

It’s crowded here, in my head, because there’s a second voice. It’s a smaller, primal, timorous voice that I imagine living in the dark, and that I know for sure dates back to the beginnings of me, because it’s embedded with some of my first memories. Its utterings are uncomfortable and seem to always come at a cost— to be the result of an inner struggle.

It’s the voice of my conscience.

When I was a child, it felt like my conscience spoke from a pulpit.

I eventually figured out that it was being egged on by the voices of my parents, my teachers, most adults in fact, and my peers. It felt like its principle aim was shaming. Which is why it penetrated me so deeply.

Pacquette, Elise J. M.; Protecting the Heart; Bethlem Museum of the Mind; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/protecting-the-heart-192960

I carry inside me a list of memories of my worst childhood moments. It’s the doing of my conscience, which still spits back up, more often than I’d like, mini-documentary remembrances of me being mean, petty, ugly.

Some of these go back to when I was barely five or six years old, but most evoke minor events that marked my passage through grade school and high school. Moments when I betrayed a friend; a moment when I tormented a classmate who was already marginalized and insecure; moments when I spoke against another for no other reason but malice and competitiveness; multiple episodes of schadenfreude.

(It’s hard not to write shameful here)

As I grew up, I often replayed these mini docs in my mind and then imagined myself atoning for them. In my daydreams, I still sometimes conjure up the person I harmed and try to express my regret.  What’s interesting is that over time, the reactions of the victims in my dreams have shifted and now, they don’t seem to remember any of it very clearly: like it’s just water under the bridge. Does this mean that I’m beginning to forgive myself? If so, I still have a long way to go. If I met any of these people in the street today, I feel sure that I would still want to dredge up the memory and apologize.

Sims, Charles; Crowds of Small Souls in Flame; Bethlem Museum of the Mind

My conscience has kept a precise ledger of my UNKINDNESS. When I was a young child, my failures of kindness were more often lashing-out impulses than anything premeditated. As those moments unfolded, it felt like nothing could override them.

I was powerless before my unkindness. And then less so, and then less so still, as I grew up.

Kindness is a beautiful word that’s strangely hard to pin down. In French, it’s said to mean a mixture of goodness—bonté—plus a blend of gentleness-kindliness-warmth-sweetness- generosity referred to as gentillesse.

Perhaps it’s simply goodness and benevolence in action.

Kindness of strangers, abstract by Blenda

I aspire to be a kind person. A kinder person. But I’m not at all sure that I am. What I feel certain of is that the wellspring of both unkindness and kindness is pain.

That explains its grip over me in childhood. Kids absorb pain without any of the filters life experience provides. They can only take so much of it, raw, into their small bodies, before it starts to splash back out in ways we and they don’t always recognize and can’t always control.

In adulthood, more is expected of us.

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is a wonderfully mnemonic line that resonates, whether or not we know its origin. It’s a beautiful, terrible statement about our worst fears—abandonment, loneliness and dependency—and the starker truth that it’s those we love who hurt us most.

Raising my children, working in schools and now in companies, it almost seems as though the last two decades of my life have been an immersion in the lives of strangers who first are “others”, then become acquaintances, and then, often, friends.

Mostly, what this process has done is helped me to realize how quickly a stranger can become someone to discover, to know and to care about. More often than not, someone to love.

With each new class, with each new room full of strangers, I’m reminded that my openness to others is as simple as a smile (well, many, many smiles, whenever possible), grounded in my empirically supported faith that there are few human beings on this planet with whom I cannot find points of connection and kinship.

In this context, kindness comes easily.

Banksy, Kindness

Where I find myself failing is where most of the pain is: among the people I love most, if not always best. I’ve discovered that I have limits that are real and firm, and that I’m capable of a coldness that I didn’t think possible.

My coldness is a pain response that I’ve watched gain strength over time. It’s taken me years to figure it out, but I think it kicks in when I feel unsafe in the company of someone close to me. That can happen when being with a person feels like being invaded; when everything about an interaction with this person shuts me down and makes me feel like I want to hide inside myself.  It can also happen during periods when being with a person infects me with negativity, anxiety, or a sense of being controlled or pushed around. Sometimes, it’s simply that someone else’s pain is overwhelming my ability to cope.

 

In those instances, I can be so remote. I’ve cut people off for weeks and months at a time. It’s unkind, and it comes from pain and causes pain. But it feels like self-preservation, and I think that’s probably why I don’t feel as remorseful. The wellspring of my unkindness is my own pain.

And then, unexpectedly, the very real, stripped down pain of someone I love, or someone I don’t yet know, can pull me close once again. That’s the gravity of kindness.

* * *

These are unkind times, when under the guise of self-preservation, many of us now ignore the pain of others and reject kindness, condemning millions to a place Naomi Shihab Nye calls the desolate landscape between the regions of kindness.

It’s a place where none of us are meant to live.

Ernest-Pignon-Ernest-Untitled
Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Untitled

 

 

NOTES ON A SATURDAY MORNING

It’s foggy and soggy.
It’s weirdly, unnaturally warm.
I have one son on a train, Toronto bound, meeting up with his past and his future;
Another in his apartment, taking it easy (I hope so: he comes by rest so rarely);
And the other son—his voice full of worry on the phone—nursing a sick child, my darling grandson, back to health.

Already this morning, the internet has brought me images of pain, violence and terrible drama;
Of heroism, courage and grace.
My feelings have moved up, just under my skin;
The world is Pain and the world is Love.
And I have the time this morning, precious and priceless, to witness it all.
To know that I’m happy. To know that I’m afraid. To know that I love.

Watts, George Frederic, 1817-1904; Love and Life
Watts, George Frederic; Love and Life; Tate; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/love-and-life-202765

 

 

 

 

THE PERSON INSIDE

My son Christian’s life as an emerging actor has already taken him to places I would never dare to explore. One of these is the McGill Simulation Centre, which is an integral part of the medical education of many health practitioners in Montreal. He works there part-time.

Sometimes, Christian’s only job is to offer up almost every inch of his body so that med students can learn ultrasound techniques. At others, the full range of his acting skills is tested, as he works with other actors to bring to life scenarios for young student MDs and even seasoned practitioners, simulating situations that are designed to test the maturity, knowledge, technique, resourcefulness, empathy, interpersonal skills and even just plain resolve of the caregivers.

The McGill Simulation Centre
The McGill Simulation Centre

Listening to his stories has made me realize how difficult medical training is and how much is expected of the students who are often only in their early twenties. It’s helped me to understand how much thought is put into the training of physicians, nurses, occupational therapists and everyone else who passes through there, and helped me to see that acting at its purest is the art of compassion.

 

Guy, Alexander; Crib; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/crib-84339
Guy, Alexander; Crib; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/crib-84339

Last week, Christian was given his biggest challenge yet. He was asked to play the role of a young adult with cerebral palsy whose symptoms include spastic diplegia and spastic dysarthria. In this especially long and multi-scene scenario, his character, Pat, is fighting to maintain an independent life in the face of increasing pressure to place him in institutional care.

A few days into his preparation, I asked Christian if he could show me how he was coming along with his character. In seconds, Christian transformed himself right before my eyes. His body shifted until it had assumed a strange, distorted angle on the couch. His head twisted backward in a way that exposed his neck and made his chin protrude oddly, as though pulled leftward by a painful force and constraining him to look at his interlocutor from an obtuse angle.

Thomas, Joseph Henry; Representing Bodily Pain from the Passion; Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/representing-bodily-pain-from-the-passion-153526
Thomas, Joseph Henry; Representing Bodily Pain from the Passion; Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust

And then he began speaking. And there was no more Christian. Everything that makes Christian himself had been stripped away and what was left was a thin, monotone and laboured voice, struggling to express itself. Every word seemed to come at a cost to him. Only his eyes were steady. And distressing.

He didn’t make me uncomfortable or embarrassed: he shocked me. Being with him and paying attention to what he was saying, I realized that despite the clarity and intelligence of the thoughts he was expressing, my own mind wanted to reduce him to so much less than he was.

And it became painful to watch my son this way. And it made me cringe, because I know, now, in a way that I didn’t before, what the suffering of this person Christian had briefly become must be. And the struggle. And the injustice of being locked inside a body that cannot come close to expressing the expanse and the dignity of the person inside.

And the vulnerability.

Carriere, Eugene; Maternity (Suffering); Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/maternity-suffering-160108
Carriere, Eugene; Maternity (Suffering); Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

When he came home after his performances that day, Christian told me that he knew that if Pat had any chance of avoiding institutionalisation, that he would have to make every health professional in the scenario like him—fall for him—and begin to root for him.

This is beautiful work.

Every time Christian becomes Pat, even for just a flash, my eyes well up. He does it because he knows he’ll be playing him again soon and he wants to keep him vital and true. And because he cares about him.

This all coincided with a period of sickness that rolled like a wave through my family. One of my sons had fever for three days, recovered for a week and has just relapsed this weekend. His twin was also intermittently feverish and eventually wound up with bronchitis, while Penelope and Graeme, his children, were treated for tonsillitis, otitis and bronchitis. Then it was my turn. Two weeks in, I’m still coughing, but at least my strength has returned.

Until this recent family epidemic, I hadn’t been ill for several years. Sick with fever last weekend and feeling weak and wobbly, I felt vulnerable and diminished and a bit scared. I couldn’t be sure that I’d be able to work the following week. I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t incubating pneumonia. I couldn’t know for sure when I’d be able to go get groceries, or clean the house or do any of the mundane things that make up daily life.

All this brought about by a simple virus. Everything happening out in the world took a back seat to the necessity of recovery. To bringing my body’s affliction to an end.

Sims, Charles; My Pain beneath Thy Sheltering Hand; Bethlem Museum of the Mind; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/my-pain-beneath-thy-sheltering-hand-192943
Sims, Charles; My Pain beneath Thy Sheltering Hand; Bethlem Museum of the Mind

These past few weeks, I’ve been schooled by life.

Actually, I believe that this should be a daily occurrence, as constant as sunrises and sunsets. Every day should be about gathering in more learning and seeing more clearly. But there’s something about human consciousness that’s flighty and inconstant and it causes us, me, to check out or else be diverted.

At the same time, reliant as I am on the stream of information pouring into my life through the mushrooming screens that have become my most used windows on the world, I’m not growing wiser. My representations of life are hardening around ideas and actions that test the strength of my connections with the world, that wipe away understanding and compassion, and fuel fearful, anxious feelings.

Recently, I’ve felt more like a greyhound on a track than a sentient, mature woman.

And then there was Christian and Pat.

I marinate every day in news about wars, walls and the billions in currency it takes to make each happen; about mass migrations and refugees and camps on almost every continent that have become lawless dead ends where violence and starvation have set up permanent residence; about immigrants, both legal and illegal and about how, for some, living off the radar without status is the brightest option; about national greatness and sovereign borders which seem to depend more and more on turning inward and away. About Others. Aliens. About Them and Us. More recently, about white-nationalism and just this week, an anti-egalitarian, anti-democracy movement skittering behind the scenes and referred to as Neoreaction or NRx.

 

Currie, Ken; The Troubled City; National Galleries of Scotland; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-troubled-city-211226
Currie, Ken; The Troubled City; National Galleries of Scotland

It’s a swirling vortex of what’s worse about us. Its clamour is drowning out the calls of our better natures. It’s smothering our compassion with darkness. It’s making us blind.

I think that our civilisation needs retraining. I think serious intervention is required to help us see what’s behind our outer shells, to understand every individual’s struggle, and to embrace the expanse and the dignity of the person inside each one of us.

I think it needs its own simulation centre.

Cauchi, Carmel; The Touch of Comfort; George Eliot Hospital Chapel; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-touch-of-comfort-55804
Cauchi, Carmel; The Touch of Comfort; George Eliot Hospital Chapel

 

 

HOPE DIARY

I finished off my previous post with the word HOPE.

When I typed it, it felt like the only way to end a piece that was otherwise defeating. It isn’t in me to be bleak. I can’t bear pessimism for too long before I’m torn asunder, and I couldn’t bring myself to pass the despondency along to you.

But my God, in the week since the MARCH IN JANUARY, the news coming out of the United States has drenched us all with such vile and gut wrenching ugliness that the effect of reading it has been emetic.

It’s reconnecting me with my formal academic training. I am (or was) an historian by trade and the dark clouds emerging over the United States and spreading beyond its borders to parts of Europe are reminiscent of so many sinister periods in history that only the ignorant or the malevolent can ignore them.

This week, an unbridled Trump and his men did as much as they possibly could to shred the social fabric of their vast and beautiful nation in order to maintain the privilege and status of their small, coagulated, self-interested cabal.

The effect of this week on millions of people has been galvanizing.

How good it feels to know that it’s Trump’s executive orders targeting refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority nations that has just caused the pot to boil over in the country’s metropolises for the second time in one week.

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Watching the crowds, live online, at Dulles,  JFK, SFO and Logan airports yesterday chanting for hours and hours, selflessly and righteously in defense of the rights of ALL, got my pulse racing and overwhelmed me with an emotion that’s too complex to name.

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The day ended with a temporary victory as a federal judge granted the American Civil Liberties Union’s request for a nationwide temporary injunction that will block the deportation of all people stranded in U.S. airports under President Trump’s new Muslim ban.

NO BAN, NO WALL, SANCTUARY FOR ALL!

 NO HATE, NO FEAR, IMMIGRANTS ARE WELCOME HERE!

 NO BAN, NO WALL, NEW YORK CITY IS FOR ALL!

These were the chants in America’s big city airports—and the entreaties in countless hearts.

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As I watched my Facebook feeds, I imagined others, just like me, all over the internet, bursting with a desire to join those crowds, seeing a petite Elizabeth Warren’s face and hearing her clarion voice urging the echoing crowd: “Let’s make our voices heard all around this world”.

Elizabeth Warren at Logan airport, January 28th 2017
Elizabeth Warren at Logan airport, January 28th 2017

I know many of us were listening and watching, and checking in at regular intervals. I expect that many of my immigrant students were. I thought of my former student Nima—a lovely Iranian man who has settled in Montreal but has hopes of living in Boston someday soon—being made to see himself as something odious in the eyes of the Trump administration, and what that must feel like.

I was moved when a childhood friend of my sons—a boy who arrived in Montreal (Dorval) at the age of eight, speaking “only” Farsi, German and English, but who was fluent in French by the time he was thirteen, went on to med school at McGill and is now a practicing neonatologist in California—wrote this on his Facebook page yesterday:

I have always abstained to post political comments as I am aware that nothing I have to say will be influential. Those, including myself (maybe through denial), who were encouraged to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on what type of president he will be once elected in office, can now rest assured that all doubt has been removed. To live in a “democracy” and yet fear that my parents (Canadian citizens) may be denied entry into the US to visit me because they were born in Iran is frightening.

After having been spat at by the White House, he remains, in my opinion, far too polite, far too gracious for his own good. Still, if the measure of a man is in how he expresses himself in difficult times and what he contributes to society through his work, then the man in the White House doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as this bright, young “immigrant”.

Volunteer lawyers at JFK preparing petitions for detainees, January 28th 2017
Volunteer lawyers at JFK preparing petitions for detainees, January 28th 2017

It means something more, that all of these expressions of resistance and human solidarity occurred the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day; that they happened on the Chinese lunar New Year.

The world has become as accessible as the closest internet connection. No borders can obviate the fact that on this improbable, beautiful blue planet, WE ARE ONE.

Learn this lesson quickly, Mr. Trump.

If a man is to shed the light of the sun upon other men,  he must first of all have it within himself. -Romain Rolland

Addendum, Monday January 30th:

 I awoke this morning to the news that a twenty-seven year old Québécois university student entered a mosque in Quebec City last evening and started shooting. Six people died and 8 were injured. In a searing piece published in The Guardian, Nesrine Malik speaks of Islamophobia having burst its dams.

I start this day fearful of the waves ahead.