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

 

 

Words for November

The month of November tests the resolve of most Northern populations.

It feels like a slow and relentless withering away of life and light.

This morning, for instance (November 30th), the sun rose at 7: 13 a.m. and will have disappeared by 4: 12 p.m. A scarce nine hours of daylight in which to go about the business of living.

Which is why we wait for the snow and its moonlight & sunlight-reflecting whiteness and sound-dampening cover ; and for the festivities and gatherings that buoy our spirits.

Since November 13th, many are also living in a state of «What next?» wondering what can possibly follow the horrors of the Paris attacks.

November sunrise in West Vancouver, BC (photo courtesy of Marie Payette-falls)
November sunrise in West Vancouver, BC
(photo courtesy of Marie Payette-falls)

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:2)

These words are read every year, at this time, by Christians and Jews alike, and are familiar to many more.

But it was thoughts of millions of refugees, worldwide, that just brought them to mind. What must it be like to exist in a state of anticipation so acute and so desperate that it leaves almost no room for living?

Here are some of the quotes I gathered this month. They all touch some part of my personal credo. In some way, each shrinks the distance that separates me from the world around me. They evoke passion and compassion.

*******************

a) «In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks.»- Ceridwen Dovey, «Can Reading Make You Happier?»

(From: http://www.newyorker.com/…/cul…/can-reading-make-you-happier)

 

Gaunt bookstore, London, UK.
IMG_1552
Inside Gaunt Bookstore

b) From Eduardo Galeano’s Children of the Days

«DECEMBER 20TH

 The Encounter 

The door was closed :

            «Who is it?»

            «It’s me.»

            «I don’t know you.»

And the door remained closed.

The following day :

            «Who is it?»

            «It’s me.»

            «I don’t know who you are.»

And the door remained closed.

Then the following day :

            «Who is it?»

            «It’s you.»

And the door opened.

—From the Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar, born in 1142 in the city of Nishapur»

c) Rachel Elizabeth Griffiths,  Excerpts from a PEN.org interview:
language« Every time I sit down to write I dare the universe. I dare my own death. I dare my 26 horses into syllables and we take off. I’m aware of the risks—everything that my silence would keep hostage rears before me.»

« Language is such a fire. It’s difficult and necessary and maiming and magnificent. I don’t have its wings, but through literature  I have experienced  flight over and over. Words and vocabularies also graze my body with wildfires that have taken years to extinguish.»

d) From Voltaire:

« Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers. »

e)  Dang Thuy Tram :

«Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.»

 

A fiery November morning sky over my neighbourhood.
A fiery November morning sky over my neighbourhood. The trees are leafless.

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f) From Eduardo Galeano’s Children of the Days: 

«OCTOBER 12th

This World Enamored of Death

Today, International Day of Nonviolence, let us recall the words of Dwight Eisenhower, who was not exactly a pacifist. In 1953, as president of the country that spends the most on weapons, he acknowledged:

«Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.»