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

 

 

EXPRESSIONS OF RESISTANCE

I arrived home yesterday depleted. That’s really the only word for it despite the fact that it was a good day. Wednesday is my hardest and longest teaching day. Paying such close attention to people who are nestled so closely around me for hours on end may, in fact, draw out of me more than it does some of my colleagues. Perhaps more than I’m really able to give.

November Sunset, photo by me
November Sunset, photo by me

At the end of such a day, it makes sense that I just wanted to head home to lay low, to have several cups of steaming tea and soothe my vocal chords.

I dropped all of my bags, set the kettle on the stovetop and opened this laptop. I do this to reconnect with the world that I’m drawn away from by my work and my absences. I move from my email inboxes to Facebook, seeing what I’ve missed (or briefly caught on the screen of my IPhone before it flitted away).

It’s a highly interactive but quiet world that is both a highway of engagement with others and one of my favourite places of retreat.

November 17th, the sun through my kitchen window
November 17th, the sun through my kitchen window

I discover brilliant sites online that I subscribe to happily and which now fill my Inbox every day with notices. I skim through the online papers though there are too many.  I visit the surface of the lives of the people I care about, wanting to see the evidence, through pictures, posts and messages, that they’re well, that they’re still there. I’m apprehensive about letting any of them fall through the cracks of my awareness.

 

When I got home yesterday, Christian and my husband were sitting together watching something on Netflix. Everything about the scene and the feeling in the house was benign and calm, except me.

Victor Hugo, La Pieuvre

I couldn’t bring myself to go sit with them; it was too soon. So I opened up this laptop. And scrolled. And scrolled. And scrolled. And was inundated by posts about the Trump presidency. Facebook’s algorithms saw to it that all of them—from the most considered and balanced to the most polemical and shrill—were unrelentingly distressing, worrying, disturbing, depressing and alienating. This stream was magnified by the posts of friends and their friends from both sides of the border who are, as I am, in agony.

 

This election year in the country of my neighbours to the South has filled me with a sense of dread. There’s a darkness in the world that has revealed itself and that clings to me.

I know how this sounds. But I also know that I’m a healthy and emotionally balanced, level- headed, very intuitive woman and I trust what I’m feeling.

I’ve been alerted.

Warned.

I feel the breath of something that wills ill. Something that’s tearing the social fabric in an unendurable manner. Something that it may take decades to heal from. Something that seeks to separate us from each other and divert us from what we must do and become.

More immediately, it’s a dark energy that will envelop and endanger the people I love: my students from all around the world, my children and grandchildren who will be more wounded than I because they’re still headed into the biggest portion of their lives.

There are so many voices crying out these days. Some of them (many?) screaming painful, ugly, vile things that infect everyone. But many, too, yelling out like sonar beacons in search of kindred minds and spirits and the reassurance of these connections. People of kindness and conscience.

I don’t feel that there is an US and a THEM.

This dark thing that hovers over us all is about inequality, despair, fear, tribalism, malice, innocence, ignorance, corruption, rapaciousness, cynicism, greed, misfortune, selfishness, the degradation of modern life, insecurity, exploitation, and a sociopathy that normalizes and institutionalizes everything that breaks down the connections between us and the planet which is our shared home.

Surveillance, by Levalet

Facebook has hugely amplified my bewilderment and sadness in the wake of the rise of Donald Trump and his entourage. It’s true. Sometimes, what I read there makes me queasy.

I think maybe that’s part of what was happening to me yesterday when I sat down after work. I just felt sad. It was a heavy and cold feeling. It was that longing for a good cry. It’s what creeps in when my energy is low.

In recent weeks, I’ve come to understand that maybe suffering is part of what I’m meant to experience. When there’s little else a person can do to effect immediate change in the face of a terrible wrong, owning the suffering that emanates from that darkness is something. It’s a valuable first step.

This seems to be a shared sentiment because, beyond the unrelenting stream of post-election news online, there are the cries of many voices expressing pain and distress. And also a desire for something good and just and universal.

Melancholy, by Alyssa Monks

From the pain comes resistance. I’ve felt this too and I watch its myriad expressions and modulations appear online every day, especially among artists and writers.

I’ve recently been invited to join other writers searching for a means to combine their voices in an expression of resistance to the darkness, certainly, but also, hopefully, to build pathways of understanding and unity between us.

I want to be part of this movement, but I know that I’m not a political writer. I hope I’ll be able to find a way to contribute something that’s meaningful and useful even though it’s personal.

On the table yesterday, I found a package from Amazon addressed to me (most of them are and most of them contain books). Inside, I found three volumes of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Lean, lovely books that weigh nothing in the hand but somehow have such import.

I opened the smallest one first, A Thousand Mornings, and read one poem after another. At first, I thought that I would break down and cry—her work is so beautiful—but I couldn’t stop reading. There was such grace and truth in the short poems I pored over that I felt them lifting my spirits almost immediately. I can only describe this as a moment of quiet bliss.

The ones I found most beautiful are the ones that spoke to the pain inside me yesterday. Who knows which will resonate in a week or a month from now.

Here are two of them:

 THE MORNING PAPER

By Mary Oliver

Read one newspaper daily (the morning edition

is the best

for by evening you know that you at least

have lived through another day)

and let the disasters, the unbelievable

yet approved decisions,

soak in.

I don’t need to name the countries,

ours among them.

What keeps us from falling down, our faces

to the ground; ashamed, ashamed?

 

POEM OF THE ONE WORLD

By Mary Oliver

 

This morning

the beautiful white heron

was floating along above the water

and then into the sky of this

the one world

we all belong to

where everything

sooner or later

is a part of everything else

which thought made me feel

for a little while

quite beautiful myself.