Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Tempest: Why we all need shelter from the storm

When it rains it pours.  Until recently I never paid much attention to that phrase or to what it really meant because after all, it’s merely a platitude, right?--an overused sentiment that has lost all substance, a convenient cliché we often utter when trying to understand the tiny tragedies that befall us.   

But lately that phrase has taken on new meaning for me as I’ve begun contemplating the phenomenon of storms.  The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a storm as “a violent disturbance with strong winds and usually rain, thunder lightning or snow.”   Webster’s New World College Dictionary adds that a storm is “a strong outburst of emotion, passion,  or excitement” as well as, “a strong disturbance or upheaval of a political or social nature.”  The words “disturbance” and “upheaval” seem to capture the essence of my current plight, but what is it that set this storm in motion?  

A couple of days ago I woke up to a sea of gray skies and grumbling thunder in the distance and out of the blue the word “tempest” seemed to roll into my thoughts like a cumulonimbus.  It may just have been the weather that lead to that thought, but I think it was more my state of mind at that moment, which, for lack of a better term was becoming “tempestuous.”

I looked out the window and said to myself, “I need to read that play; I need to read  Shakespeare’s The Tempest” so I moseyed on over to the bookshelf in my living room, scoured the shelves for my Norton’s Anthology and started reading.

What intrigued me most about this story is the fact that the titular “tempest” is man made.  Prospero, a duke that has been ousted from power by his ambitious brother, uses magic to conjure a storm that causes a shipwreck, leaving his brother and other conspirators stranded on the island to which Prospero has been exiled.  The storm permeates the characters’ dialogue, causing them to seek shelter from violent winds, turbulent downpours and stentorian thunder.  But while these characters seek shelter from the storm, they believe that it was borne of the supernatural, not a fellow human being.  The possibility of a man-made storm, so powerful as to wreak such havoc, does not even occur to them.  

The storm in the play is manufactured as a means of righting a perceived wrong, but Prospero is not without his own guilt--his own culpability in attempting to play God by toying with people’s lives and manufacturing fate. Hmm. Why does that sound familiar? Cold-hearted, power-hungry administrators, maybe?  

Seriously, the parallels to my life are infinite, but there is one theme that truly resonates with me:  The theme of free will versus fate--personal determination versus destiny--continues to haunt me as I seek shelter from the storm that has enveloped me.

“I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be passed.” -Trinculo, from The Tempest

It used to be that when a storm was imminent, I would embrace the coming rain, the cloudy skies that hang low like clotheslines drooped heavy with wet.  There used to be something contemplative about the grayness, an opening up of possibility that I found soothing.  

Now, though, the grayness portends gloom, and I’m finding it increasingly more difficult to see my way through the darkness.  Now, instead of taking comfort in it, I just take cover.  

Maybe that’s because everything is falling apart.  I lost my job, developed a medical problem I couldn’t pay for, my television broke, my car is on its last legs, and my father’s illness is becoming too much for my mother to bear.  My mother is someone who I would always turn to when I was in trouble, and she always knew what to say to make me feel better.  Now, though, I can’t bring myself to burden her with my tale of woe, knowing that she’s coping with one of her own.  

People never really talk about the burden placed on primary care givers.  My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about eight years ago, but it wasn’t until recently that my family and I began to notice a significant change in my mother’s behavior.  

As of late, she seems more frail to me, not physically but emotionally.  She called me up the other day and said, “I just needed someone to talk to.”  The loneliness is what gets to her, I think.  People don’t realize how cruel a joke Alzheimer’s is:  the person diagnosed with the disease is still alive and present physically, but mentally, emotionally, spiritually, that person is dead.  When a person dies, we weep, we grieve, and then we bury that grief in six feet of dirt.  When a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, grief becomes a way of life.  Grief walks around the house searching for the coffee maker he can no longer locate in the kitchen next to the microwave. Grief is what we’re greeted with when we look in my father’s eyes, now vacant and confused by my stranger’s face. 

When he was healthy, my father was full of life--always the life of the party and full of passion for the art that he created.  It was that passion and charm that drew my mother to him when they first met.  But Alzheimer’s has erased the man my father was, replacing him with an empty shell devoid of memory.  My father spends his days doing word search puzzles, most of the time holed up in the bedroom that has become his comfort zone.  My mother is always trying to take him places and keep him active so as to stimulate his cognitive abilities, but my father always ultimately retreats to that space.  It’s as though in the recesses of his mind, there is a storm of a different sort, a disturbance of his organized thoughts, an upheaval of memory.  

When I visit my parents these days, I often walk into their bedroom to see my father sitting on the edge of the bed, leaning toward the lamp, stooped over his book of word searches.  He looks restful and snug, as though he, like the jester Trinculo, has found shelter, trying to “shroud [himself there] till the dregs of the storm be past.”  

Of course, my father’s storm is here to stay, so as a family we continue to try to weather it.

The Dylan Effect

I can relate to the desire to seek shelter.  Whether my new routine of retreating to the comfort of my laptop screen, or listening to music that reduces me to tears, I gotta do what I gotta do to get through this.  

The other evening, my boyfriend Adam put on Bob Dylan’s greatest hits.  He was sitting on the hardwood floor in our living room, adjusting (as he always does) some technical element of his stereo that had to be adjusted in order to produce optimal listening conditions.  When “Shelter From the Storm” came on, I, of course, started to cry and I walked over to him, leaned down, and kissed him while Dylan serenaded us:

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail,
Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail,
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn.
Come in, she said,
Ill give you shelter from the storm.

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair.
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns.
Come in, she said,
Ill give you shelter from the storm.

I kissed him while I cried, and he let me cry until I was ready to stop.  He looked at me and said, “Oh, Smith” and then we laughed.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sound and Silence: What to do when life's cacophony turns quiet

“Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.” -proverb

Ever since my TV remote went on the fritz a couple of weeks ago, preventing me from being able to change the channel, I have had the distinguished privilege of watching only one station:  the one that broadcasts that gem of investigative journalism called Cheaters.  The novelty of this program soon wore off as I quickly realized I had no desire to watch cuckolded husbands disintegrate under harsh fluorescent lights while strangers gawked in fascination.  I knew I was wandering down a dangerous path when one day I noticed that I could not peel myself off the futon, as my brain had melted like a birthday candle, affixing it’s remains to the cozy canvas cushion beneath it.  

So I turned the television off, and off it has pretty much stayed.  

The mornings have been the hardest.  At first I felt restless, not knowing what to do with my coffee cup if not hold it while watching the morning news.  And what about Regis and Kelly, Oprah, The View?  Without my morning routine of watching famous people talk to other famous people--or simply listening to them when I would get up to wash out my cereal bowl and brush my teeth,--everything was much too quiet.  After all, the television chatter had become my life’s white noise, the constant, comforting buzz in the background that made me feel like I wasn’t alone.  What would I do without Joy Behar’s witty repartee?  Without Regis’s face-in-the-camera-for-emphasis wild gesticulations?  And then it hit me.  Maybe, just maybe, I could embrace the morning silence, and start to listen--not to famous people I didn’t know--but to the people I did know, the people I cared about, and the people who cared about me in turn.

I haven’t always been a good listener; in fact I think I’ve always been a terrible one, much too self-centered to stop thinking about myself to truly hear the thoughts, fears or joys of someone else.  So that’s where I would start. In an effort to embrace the new silence in my life, I would begin to get in touch with old friends with whom I’d lost touch.  Instead of combatting the quietude with aimless activity, I would resolve myself to reaching out, to doing something that wouldn’t be entirely about me. 

The Price of Selflessness

It was a lovely surprise when a teacher friend of mine--one I’ve known since grammar school --called me up a couple of days ago.  We had a lot of catching up to do as we hadn’t talked in almost two years (the fault of that grad school Ivory Tower that causes anyone outside it to cease to exist).

We had a great conversation, during which she mentioned that her classroom was still not ready for the first day of school.  She casually asked if I would like to help her get things organized, as she really needed the help and knew that I really needed to get out of the house.  I readily agreed because I did need to get out, but mostly because I wanted to help a friend.  I hadn’t done much in the way of reaching out to any of my friends the past couple of years because of that self-centeredness I alluded to earlier, so I was excited about seeing my old friend as well as her classroom.

After hanging up the phone, my excitement about our upcoming visit suddenly halted the moment I looked in the mirror and noticed some things.   

“My roots are black and these damn grays are uncontrollable!” I said, pulling my hair up in a vertical stretch.  “I can’t leave the house looking like this!”  Then I leaned in closer to examine my eyebrows, only to conclude that they were now so bushy from lack of attention that I would need something akin to a weed whacker to tame them.  The silence of my surroundings seemed to amplify these voices in my head: “You look like a full-blown recluse!  Where’s your beard and ragged clothing?”

Upon examining my upper lip for signs of the beard, the voices grew louder and more critical. They convinced me that I had fallen apart at the seams and that my friend would obviously notice.  These were the shallow thoughts that pervaded my mood for the rest of that evening.  My friend hadn't seen me in a very in a long time, and this is what she was going to see?  I was so disgusted and depressed that I poured a glass of Gascon Malbec, walked out onto my deck, and proceeded to brood.  

By the time I’d finished my second glass, my mood had begun to improve slightly.  While I was brooding over my lack of grooming, I also perused some of the writings I’d done recently about the things I’d been going through since I lost my job.  Surprisingly, I read things that I agreed with, that I believed in, things like wanting to be a better friend and not consumed by material possessions.  After re-reading some of those writings, I decided I was going to wake up in the morning, do my best to look presentable--eyebrows and all--and enjoy my visit with my friend.  

Back in the Classroom Again 

Because of the flat tire on my car that I had no money to fix, my friend graciously agreed to pick me up.  When I opened her car door the next morning, she smiled, gave me a hug and didn’t utter a word about my eyebrows.  Instead, she complimented me on my hair, and we picked up right where we had left off a couple of years ago.  In short it felt just like old times, two girlfriends giggling about boys, jobs, and the crazy world we live in. 

The work we did in her classroom that day was tedious but ultimately meaningful.  My job was to sort through boxes of classroom books and organize them into a genre-based library.  My friend teaches third grade, so as a junior high and high school teacher, I was utterly charmed by such titles as The Case of the Sneaky Snowman, Ice Cream Cones for Sale, and my personal favorite Sit!, which featured on its cover a smiling, tutu-clad elephant sitting daintily on a tiny stool (I joked with my friend that if I ever got a teaching gig again, I wanted that book for classroom management purposes!).

By the end of the day, her classroom had started to look, as my friend expressed while leaping girlishly in the air, like a classroom.  Talking to my friend that day, between gulps of cold coffee and mini jam sessions (she has the BEST taste in music!), I couldn’t believe the passion that she still possesses for the work that she does.  I mean, she really loves to teach.  I listened to her tell stories about some of the students she’s had who have touched her life, and it was so obvious that she is someone who belongs in this profession.  Wow, I thought.  There really are some people who were meant to be teachers, and clearly, my friend is one of them.

Enjoying the Silence?

After spending the day with my friend, talking, laughing, and yes, listening, I felt like my spirit had been boosted.  That evening, the familiar silence that permeates my apartment was more pronounced when punctuated by a train whistle in the distance, a dog’s bark, or my refrigerator’s intermittent hum.  These sounds are the new soundtrack of my life, as I grapple with a future that is unknown to me.  But I’m learning to kind of like the quiet.  I can’t quite say I’m enjoying it, but I am starting to appreciate it.  

So while my TV is still on the fritz, and there is no Oprah and no Regis and Kelly, there might just be a little joy.