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.

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