Relentless Pursuit

When I put together my list of acting tips that apply to caregiving, I wanted to include the concept of motivation, or intention, or what Russian acting guru Stansislavsky called the “objective.” Characters in plays (like people in life) do things for a reason, and Stansislavsky chose the term “objective” for what drives a character’s actions at any given moment. He called the larger motivation for all of a character’s actions the “super-objective”, which is just a fancy name for an over-arching goal or purpose. The super-objective drives everything a character does . . . consciously or unconsciously.

Thus, the final item on my list of tips (yes, we’re wrapping up here) is:

  • Relentlessly pursue your super-objective

Let’s look back at Shakespeare’s King Lear. What’s driving our tragic hero? What’s his super-objective? It might be a number of things (I’ve never played Lear), but I tend to think King Lear wants to prove that he is loved. He certainly starts out asking for proof from his daughters, and over the course of the play, he learns through bitter experience who truly loves him — and who never did.

Remember Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, the faithful one? She does love her father, but her love is complex and nuanced.  When Lear asks which of his daughters loves him best, she refuses to flatter him:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

[ . . . ] Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

Cordelia has boundaries.

She also has a super-objective. What is it?  I’ve never played her either (and I’m too old now), but I believe she’s driven by a need to love with integrity. This integrity infuriates her father and gets her banished in the first act. But Lear and Cordelia reunite later in the play, and he sees the error of his ways. Of course, this is a tragedy, so – spoiler alert – they both die. (Almost everybody dies. Sorry.)

If you look closely, you will find that every character in every play has a super-objective. Caregivers have them too, consciously or unconsciously. I find it helps to be conscious about this, so I came up one of my own.

My super-objective with Mom is to have no regrets – to carry neither guilt nor resentment with me after she dies. I don’t want to feel guilty because I didn’t give her enough of my time, and I don’t want to resent her for taking me away from other things that matter deeply to me.

That’s my goal, every day: to love her, to care for her, but also to maintain my own work life and my other relationships. This is what she modeled for me with her mother, and it’s what I want to model for my child. I make daily choices based on that super-objective – when to visit, when to take breaks, when to give myself over completely to her needs. That way, I know I’ll be able to live with myself when her dementia journey is over.

And there you have it — a simple list of tips for caregiving, gleaned from my life as an actor. I hope it helps. Adapt it as you will. Or seek your own creative path. Theatre works for me, but your path might lead you through music, poetry, painting, glass blowing, basket weaving, writing (obviously I use that too), or a host of other creative ventures.

Art goes deep. My life as a theatre artist has enriched me and kept me connected to other people throughout my mom’s dementia.  It’s allowed me to express strong emotions and acknowledge both the joys and agonies of human life. It’s given me a way to speak the truth about things that really matter, and to give some dignity to suffering.

For example . . .

As hard as it was for me to perform King Lear in front of my mother, I still love the play. I have done two productions, and I could do it again and again. It speaks powerfully about the need to care for those who are fragile, confused, or lost. There are noble characters in the play who do prevail, even though many others die.

One of those noble characters is the duke of Albany, Goneril’s husband.  When war breaks out, he takes the side of Lear, and though he can’t save the king’s life, he honors him in death.

I’ll end with his simple speech, which helps me keep my own feelings and my mom’s courage in perspective:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

June at Little Creek 2017

Parallel Perfection

Somewhere out there, in a parallel universe, is a version of me who has it all figured out. She’s perfect.

This person works 40 hours a week at a well-paying job. She’s an exemplary employee who regularly wins awards for her innovative contributions to her company, a Fortune 500 corporation making major strides in social justice, arts, and environmental protection. She never gets frustrated or bored, never gives up on a project, and knows exactly what she’s doing at all times. She never doubts herself. Her work matters, and she knows it.

This version of me keeps a clean and tidy home that was once featured in a magazine with a name like Urban Cottage or Eclectic Nest. There’s an organic garden out back, or – why not? – out front, landscaped into the front yard, with perennials blooming along the curb and free tomatoes for neighbors taking their evening stroll.

She’s healthy and strong, gets plenty of exercise, and eats only nutritious food, except for the occasional exquisite dessert, which she savors with her best friend on the sun-dappled patio of a trendy coffee shop.

She sings well. She plays a musical instrument. She can tap dance.

She’s a writer, of course, who blogs regularly on important social issues and shares insights that change people’s lives. She always has brilliant ideas for her blogs, and never wonders if she’s only putting out drivel to feed her own ego. Her writing serves others. She doesn’t care that blogging takes time and pays nothing, because she’s above money, and anyway, she has that great 40-hour-a-week job at that great company, so who cares if she spends her free time tapping away at her laptop instead of working?

This person, this alternate self in a parallel universe, lives to taunt me.

“Why is your house such a mess, Carolyn?” she demands. “You were going to clean off the kitchen table two weeks ago; why is that pile of papers still sitting there? What is in that pile of papers? Bills? Tax documents? Invitations? What have you forgotten to do this time?”

She prowls the self-help and business shelves at the library and watches TED talks about self-improvement. Then she calls me, from the sun-dappled patio of the trendy coffee shop in her parallel universe, and questions my choices:

“Why don’t you make more money, Carolyn? Don’t you realize you have a good education and marketable skills? And don’t give me that ‘I work in the arts and change lives’ nonsense. That’s no excuse for a sub-par income. Haven’t you ever heard of doing well while doing good? Get a real job, and do your little frou-frou artsy thing on the side.”

She’s not impressed with my theatre career.

“Well,” she scoffs, her voice becoming ever-so-slightly shrill, “if you’re not going to get a real job and make more money, are you at least developing as an artist? Have you practiced a musical instrument today? Have you read any new plays? Do you have any auditions coming up? Projects you should be prepping for? Are you marketing yourself aggressively? What about that cute little theatre company you’re pretending to run? Done anything about that lately?”

She sighs and turns on NPR, or networks with an activist friend, then calls to check on me:

“What are you doing for the world, Carolyn? Don’t you think it’s time to choose a social issue and put some muscle into solving it? And no, that little monthly contribution to the homeless ministry is not enough. You need to get out there on the front lines and do something, or admit you’re a social justice coward. And by the way, if you made more money, you could contribute more. Real Job. Just saying. Think about it.”


This weekend, I took up her last challenge and went on a volunteer trip to El Refugio in Lumpkin, Georgia, a hospitality house for people visiting loved ones at Stewart Detention Center. Oddly, Parallel-Universe-Me didn’t come along.


She might have realized she wasn’t needed. Or maybe she dropped in briefly, got bored or depressed, and left. Because there in Lumpkin, life slowed almost to a halt. I had no cell phone coverage, no television, and spotty access to the internet. There was not a trendy coffee shop within twenty miles of the place, and it didn’t matter. All that mattered were the people who stopped by and the stray cat in the back yard, struggling to nurse her kitten.

I had a quietly powerful weekend. I didn’t make any money, create any art, or change any lives. All I did was cook meals, make up beds, offer hospitality, and feed that poor cat, even though I probably shouldn’t have. I visited a young man in detention. I met an immigration attorney doing his best to get people out, against almost impossible odds. On the way home, I left my wallet at a truck stop and had to go back and retrieve it, and I didn’t care; stuff happens. Compared to what people were dealing with at Stewart, my mistakes and inconveniences seemed insignificant.

Monday morning, I logged on to the internet to see what had happened while I was gone, and realized I’d missed the Tony Awards, the signature event of the Broadway theatre season. I don’t really care; I can catch clips on youtube. But Parallel Me thinks I should care, and sees my failure as proof that I’m not taking even my frou-frou arts career seriously. Sure enough, a voice cried out from the parallel universe:

“Oh my God, Carolyn, you missed the Tony Awards? You didn’t even realize they were on last night? What were you thinking? What kind of theatre person are you?”


I will never be good enough for her. Never. She can taunt me till the end of time from her sun-dappled throne in the sky. I will never do enough, earn enough, succeed enough, or create enough to satisfy her.

But that’s okay. I don’t live in her world. I live here, in the real world, where stray cats and human beings struggle to survive, where ordinary people do ordinary work and always fall short of perfection.  This will have to do.


Writing Through Doubt

I promised myself I’d blog for seven days in a row. Though I missed my goal, I have in fact written seven blog posts in just over a week, and I feel a sense of accomplishment. Of course, there are plenty of people who blog every day, 365 days a year, but for me, a week of daily posts was enough to learn the value – and the difficulty – of disciplined writing.

I gave myself the challenge of posting every day because I was falling into one of those dark moods, where you feel like your soul’s been tossed to the bottom of a rusty bucket and kicked under the porch. I knew I had to do something, so I picked one negative voice in my head – the one that tells me I’m a failure for not blogging regularly, but comforts me with the assurance that it’s okay because I don’t really write well enough to be published anyway – and set out to prove it wrong.

Here’s what I learned: writing takes time. You have to sit down at the keyboard and open a channel from your heart to your fingertips, and then leave that channel open long enough for messages of more than 140 characters to come through. You have to be patient when those messages are garbled or slow to arrive. You have to accept all incoming messages, no matter how irrelevant, and trust that real truths will show up if you wait for them. When you have gathered enough of them on a page, you have to put them into groups and let them talk amongst themselves, until they finally sort themselves out into paragraphs and form a little community of words that’s willing to speak to a reader.

It’s been a valuable experience, this waiting for the words. It absolutely erased the self-doubt I was feeling about writing. Quality aside, I know I can at least produce writing in quantity, and that’s reassuring.

I’m going to take a break for a few days now and ponder what to write next. I hope to be back at the blog soon. In the meantime, I’ll be singing, reading, taking long walks, loving my family, and holding on to the satisfaction I feel when my soul peers out from under the porch and glimpses light again.


Lazy Sunday

(I’m trying to blog daily for seven days. This is day three.)

I wrote a blog post for today, but it turned out to be too personal and self-involved, so I didn’t post it. (You’re welcome.)

Instead, here’s the view from the living room rug, where I spent most of the day curled up with a good book.  May your Monday morning be as warm and comforting as my Sunday afternoon . . . .




It’s Electronic Recycling Day! We’ve been scouring the house for old equipment that shouldn’t be here but definitely shouldn’t go to the landfill. My husband unearthed enough relics to fill a respectable cardboard box or two, and in the process he turned up an old-fashioned computer keyboard and set it beside my laptop. I just found it. OMG. Christmas!

An old-fashioned keyboard! The kind with sticky-up keys! So that I can actually feel the keys when I type! And hear them go clickety, clickety, clack!

I am suddenly transported back to 11th grade typing class, where we all learned to type on manual typewriters before we could graduate to the sleek new IBM Selectrics at the front of the room. Clickety, clickety, clack, an hour a day – perfect preparation for either (A) a college career typing term papers (and possibly getting paid to type other people’s term papers, because not everybody could type) or (B) a secretarial job that would tide you over until Mr. Right came along. Or both!!

I did both, by which I mean, I (A) went to college and typed my own papers (many of which were in French, and required me to go over them with a ball-point pen, adding accents and cedillas because there were no foreign-language characters on my keyboard), and (B) supported my acting career by working as a secretary, office assistant, receptionist, and many other jobs that required typing (on a sleek new IBM Selectric, always), until personal computers took over the world and typing for a living became obsolete.

Obsolete. Like this lovely old-fashioned Dell keyboard that is now hooked up via USB to my Toshiba laptop. I love it. Next thing you know, I’ll be asking Santa for Liquid Paper . . . .


Dangerous Territory

I try hard to stay positive about my mom’s condition, which, if you don’t know, is some form of dementia. I try to focus on how easy my situation is, compared to other people’s – people who are watching their life partner slip away, or people whose demented parents have moved into their homes for full-time care. Compared to them, I’m golden.

So why do I feel so angry?

You may not want to answer that, screams my internal editor, suddenly on high alert. Stop typing now! Get up and make another cup of coffee, or wash the dishes, or put away the laundry that’s been sitting on the sofa since Sunday. Play with the cat, for God’s sake. Do anything but write about anger.

I need to write about it. I think about it all the time. I question it. I wrestle with it. I can’t make it go away. But I’m afraid that if I admit to it publicly, in my sweet little blog with the pretty pictures and the fond memories, you’ll think I’m a bad person. And that’s what matters, right? What other people think?

Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Girlfriend, you better stop right now. This is dangerous territory.

Yes. Yes it is. And we’re going in.


Career Inventory

I did one of those quizzes on Facebook where you answer seven or eight questions and determine what Star Wars character or Muppet you are, or where you really ought to live. This one was “What Career Should You Actually Have?”

I got writer.

So I figured I’d better get back to the ole blog.

I don’t usually do those quizzes. I don’t need to know what city I should be living in, because I live here, in Atlanta. I have planted tomato plants in a new garden space right outside the kitchen window, and I’m not going anywhere until I get some big fat tomatoes. I can already taste the tomato sandwiches on homemade bread. No, I’ll be staying right here, at least until mid-July.

And I don’t want to find out that I’m Princess Leia or a Muppet. I spent most of my late teens believing I could have done a MUCH better job than Carrie Fischer, thank you very much, so let’s not open old wounds. (Love Carrie Fischer now, by the way, but at seventeen I had an imaginary film career to defend.) And the Muppets? In my heart, I am all of them.

But that silly quiz about the ideal job snagged me. I clicked on the link and answered a short list of questions about what matters more in an office environment (“Coffee maker or co-workers?”) and how I relate to a boss (“I have no boss”). A few more clicks of the mouse, and voila!


So here I am, at the keyboard, periodically glancing out the window to see how my tomato plants are doing. I’m not about to embark on a writing career (she said, with false conviction), but I do love to write. I’ll hand it to the folks who do this for a living: it’s hard, it’s lonely, and when your work is staring you in the face and refusing to cooperate, it’s damn frustrating.

But it’s a privilege to put words on a page, physical or virtual, and send them into the world. The internet has granted me that privilege (along with endless distractions to lure me away from the task of actually writing.) I accept the gift.

Why not? I know what my real ideal job is, and I’m not doing it right now. Might as well join the ranks of those who put metaphorical pen to paper and stir the imagination with their words.

Yeah, I’ll do that. Right after I water the garden.

Be right back . . . .

Saint Francis keeping watch over the pansies and marigolds.  The tomato plants are behind the stump.

Saint Francis keeping watch over the pansies and marigolds. The tomato plants are behind the stump.