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

 

 

CARRYING YOUR CHILDHOOD WITH YOU

Alexander Milov’s “Love”

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.” 

Abraham Sutzkever

 

I came across this quote one morning.  Scanned it in a flash. It felt so familiar. Almost toss away. A well-worn reference to being young at heart, or to the importance of cherishing my inner child. Trite.

 

And then I read it a second time, and noticed that where my eyes had registered child, they should have read childhood.

It was early and I sat staring at the screen, bothered by the way that word altered Sutzkever’s message.

What did he intend? What does it mean to “become older” ?

I looked him up, and learned that he was a great Yiddish poet and survivor of the Holocaust. Born in Belarus in 1913, he later lived in Lithuania and was sent to the Vilna Ghetto during World War II.

And I thought: well of course, he was 26 when the war began. Memories of his childhood would have sustained him; he would have drawn deeply from that well of familial love, protection and relative innocence—and then the words “you never become older” : those foundational memories acting as a talisman of sorts, warding off the damaging effects of disillusionment, cruelty, suffering and despair in a world made by adults.

Alexander Milov’s “Love”

I’m not sure of any of this. I don’t even know whether he wrote this or spoke it. And so, what I have is what his words mean to me and might mean to anyone else.

I’m puzzled by the phrase.

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.” 

IF ?

There’s no if. We all carry our childhood with us. What matters, then, is only whether its weight supports and grounds us or instead burdens us—and if so, how heavy the burden is.

If I polled a bunch of people asking them to list the distinctive elements of childhood, what would they come up with? Maybe something like:

 

It’s precious because it’s over so quickly;

It’s the most carefree period of a human being’s life;

It’s usually the healthiest period, too;

It’s when humans change the most rapidly;

It’s when we’re most curious and able to learn;

When our minds are most plastic;

It’s the only age of innocence;

It’s when everything seems possible.

 

A positive list. But few of those elements can be carried forward into the future because time runs out on them.

I’m bothered by statements like Sutzkever’s that are predicated on the notion that childhood is the space-time of optimistic possibility from which we slowly but surely lose our way.

I’m bothered by the unintended pessimism of it.

Władysław Wankie. Alone in the Park. ca. 1900

Childhood is frequently the place of our deepest wounds and traumas, and when this is so—especially when this is so— it  becomes either the crushing burden that stunts us for life, or else a powerful agent of resilience; of growth through experience.

I resist the implications of Sutzkever’s message and others like it because I don’t believe that a happy childhood is a sine qua non for a happy life.

I think it’s probably true that:

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

The wryness of this makes me smile.

I see childhood as a crucial period of growth on a lifelong transformative continuum.

Penelope and Graeme, photo by Anne Hildebrand

We speak of childhood as an idyll, but I think that our vulnerability in childhood is one of its most poignant dimensions.

Watching my grandchildren Penelope (four), and Graeme (two), grow up is a daily reminder of this. While I feel all kinds of strong impulses to protect and shelter them, I believe that this same vulnerability  is childhood’s precious bridge to adulthood. From our places of shelter and support, we learn to go out into the world and live fully.

Why wish to never become older?

Just a few months ago, as her father—my son Jeremy—was putting her to bed, Penelope had a moment. Lying above the blankets, her lovely eyes welled up and she turned to her father and said:

“I miss myself when I was a baby.

Oh papa, I’m so tired.”

Imagine that.

Maybe she felt old that day.

Maybe she has already begun to understand that she’s leaving her childhood behind a little bit every day.

The next morning, she woke up rested, happy and looking forward to what the day might bring. Four years old and fresh as a daisy.

She and her brother do this every time they go out into the world and gather experience, as they, like their parents, constantly reinvent themselves and grow older together.

Penelope and Graeme looking for the squirrel, fall 2015, photo by Anne Hildebrand

 

Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along―the same person that I am today.”

― Orson Scott CardEnder’s Game

A note about the photos of Alexander Milov’s gorgeous sculptures:

Gripping Sculpture At Burning Man Reveals The Harsh Truth About Adulthood

Published sept. 2015

“This year, the “Burning Man” festival in Nevada featured its first artistic piece from Ukraine. Alexander Milov’s “Love” was the first Ukrainian piece to receive a festival grant in 30 years. The sculpture consists of two hollow, metal frame human silhouettes, one man, one female, sitting back to back. Sculptures of children touch inside of them (and light up at night).

“It demonstrates a conflict between a man and a woman as well as the outer and inner expression of human nature,” Milnov explains. “Their inner selves are executed in the form of transparent children, who are holding out their hands through the grating. As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives.”  “