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.”

Okay.

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.

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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?”

Sigh.

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.

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What’s Working: Self Care

(Part of a series about things that are going right in my mom’s dementia journey.)

I overslept last Friday morning. There was nowhere I had to be, so I turned off the alarm and got back under the covers, figuring I’d sleep an extra fifteen minutes or so. I woke up an hour later. I guess I should have felt guilty, but I didn’t. Thursday was a long, hard dementia day, and I needed to recover.

Rest, recovery, respite — these are necessary ingredients of good dementia care. A person with dementia can read your mental state long after they’ve stopped reading the newspaper. You want to walk into their space free of the burdens that drag you down. You have to take care of yourself — for their sake as well as your own.

Early in this dementia odyssey, I found a book at the library called Caring for Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parents, by Claire Berman. This book was the first resource I found that acknowledged — on page one — the feelings of guilt and anger I was grappling with. Other books, like The 36-Hour Day, gave me tools for helping Mom. This book gave me tools for saving myself from the well of negative emotions that threatened to drown me.

It’s been so long since I read it that I can’t remember any specific advice from the book, so I recommend checking it out for yourself. But I can share some of the things I’ve been doing to keep myself sane.

Meaningful Work

Most self-care books recommend facials, manicures, and walks on the beach, and I am not about to argue with them. But honestly, a much higher priority for me is work. As an actor, I’m always on the verge of losing my job (if I’m lucky enough to have one) so finding new work in the theater is essential to my well-being. When I’m not acting, I try to line up work as an acting coach, teacher, or director. When those jobs aren’t available, I take lessons to hone my craft.  When all else fails, I sew, write, or threaten to renovate the kitchen. (Note to husband:  watch out, honey, I just closed a show.)

I realize that not every career doubles as self-care, but for me, working is healing. I feel like my true self when I’m making art.

Yoga

I love yoga. I’m not talking about five-day retreats or even ninety-minute Bikram classes. Those would be great, but I usually only manage a daily sun salutation and a few minutes of stretching. I try to make this part of my morning routine. It takes less than five minutes, and seems to break loose the tension lurking in my muscles and joints, making it easier for me to roll with whatever life brings. Of course, there are days when I forget to do it, or tell myself I’m too busy (which is a lie, but hey, I’m only human).

Exercise

Exercise of any kind helps me breathe more deeply and think more clearly. I try to set aside time for walks in my neighborhood on in a nearby park. Again, I don’t always get around to this, but when I do, everybody wins. I feel better, I’m more relaxed with Mom, and I have energy left for my family and co-workers. I’m not a big fan of going to the gym, but I know people who swear by it. My husband has been a happier person since he settled into a gym routine a couple of years ago. The calm energy he brings into the house after a workout reminds me that self-care really does serve others.

Letting it Hurt

For me, self-care includes grieving. I have to allow myself to feel the sadness of letting Mom go in this slow, protracted way. I can write about it, cry about it, or just allow my heart to ache — leave it alone and let it do its work.

Letting it Go

I know I keep coming back to this, but it’s so important:  I have to acknowledge my limits.  I can’t singlehandedly cure dementia.  My job, my privilege, is to love my mother just as she is, and simultaneously live the full life she envisioned for me. Whatever pressure I feel to overcome her dementia is pressure I am putting on myself. Life is too short for that kind of stress.

So by all means, find a form of self-care that works for you.  Get a facial, get a massage, have your nails done. Start a hobby. Listen to music. Read a good book. Run. Play with a puppy or a small child. Watch a funny movie. Hug somebody. (Definitely hug somebody.)

Whatever you do, take care of yourself.  You are not the only one who’ll benefit.

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Detail from a mural on the Atlanta Beltline

Out of Work

I have rejoined the ranks of the unemployed, and let me tell you, it would be easy to fall into the Pit of Despair right now. I’ve been glancing down into its depths since my last show closed.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’re aware that my life is a tightrope walk between domesticity and artistic fervor. Sometimes I’m a consummate homebody, as I was last week during our winter weather event, cooking and eating at an open hearth. Other times I make my home at the theater for days, grabbing food on the go and hoping there are enough frozen dinners at home to keep the family from starving. Most of the time I’m balancing between the two, walking the high wire, knowing there’s something wonderful at each end.

This time, as I perch on the domestic end of the wire, I’m finding it harder than usual to see the other side. I think it’s a universal truth that actors believe their last job really was their last. No matter what we’ve accomplished, we’re sure no-one is going to hire us again. It’s been fun, but it’s over. Time to buckle down to a Real Job. Or at least clean up the house.

What would that real job be, exactly? I have no idea. Theater is what I know and love. I’ve considered every other use of my talents imaginable, including teaching middle school math (no joke, really), and I can’t come up with anything I could do for more than six months without losing my mind.

Which brings us to the question of what to do “between engagements.”

I do voice over work. I teach the occasional acting class. I coach individual students. I do some dialect coaching. I don’t do film or television (yet); I’ve never really gotten the hang of keeping in touch with an agent and doing on-camera auditions.

But mostly I just live. I get up, I make tea, I do a little yoga, and I realize – again, again, again – that life is what you make it. I can be lonely and sad, or I can reach out to other people and give them a tiny smile of recognition. I can tumble faster and faster into my own well of doubt and depression, or I can look up and see how much I have to be grateful for. In other words, I can feel sorry for myself, or not.

I won’t lie; when I’m between jobs, self-pity is always a temptation. I can certainly justify at least a modicum of sadness over my mom’s dementia. But then I read something like this  and realize (again) that I am not alone, that other people are walking this path with me. I can worry about the job I didn’t get for this summer. But then I remember that nobody owes me a job, that, in fact, every job – every minute of life – is a gift.  What’s more, I remind myself, I do have other work lined up. I can choose to focus on the tasks before me instead of on the disappointments behind me.

Where does this leave me today? At home, in my messy kitchen, with time on my hands to go pick up Mom and do a little volunteer work for a small theater company I care about. At my computer, with internet access and the chance to schedule a meeting with someone who might have interesting work for me down the road. At my table, giving thanks for good food to eat and loved ones to share it with.

I am so lucky. The only question is how clearly I see my good fortune. And how well I keep it in focus as I step back out on the tightrope.

Opening Night

Ahh, the work-life balance.

I find myself at home on the morning of opening night of Hamlet at Georgia Shakespeare. Mom is at the ironing board, pressing her blouses, just the way her grandmother taught her to iron in the 1930s: collars and cuffs first, then shoulders and sleeves, then around the body of the shirt. Back then they didn’t have steam irons, so everything was sprinkled with water and starch. When I was a child in the 60s, I remember Mom still sprinkling Dad’s shirts with an old green glass Sprite bottle and a special perforated cork.

Bread making, Sept. 2013 016Now Mom sprays her shirts with Magic Size and irons them with a steam iron till they’re crisp and neat. “It takes a while, but I love the way they look when I finish,” she says. Ironing is a way for her to transform chaos into order; she is literally smoothing out the wrinkles in a part of her life. I understand that impulse; I feel it every time I wipe down the kitchen counter or make up the bed. There’s something satisfying about a smooth, clear surface.

For the past month, the cast and crew of Hamlet have worked to smooth out the wrinkles in our production, applying metaphorical heat and steam and pressure to the various scenes until they emerged as seamless parts of one complete work. The incomparable Joe Knezevich, who plays Hamlet, has spent much of the last year preparing for this process, and it shows.

Everything has come together beautifully. The result is as crisp and striking as a neatly pressed shirt – a tailored one that fits perfectly. To paraphrase my mother, great productions take a while to prepare, but I love the way they look when we open

I’ll drop the metaphor now lest I get even more carried away. The point is simply that domestic metaphors seem to fit my work life, and vice versa. Home is about relationships and tasks; so is the theater. By putting out an effort and attending to the details, we create lives filled with meaning, purpose, and beauty.

Happy Opening.

The Real Thing

The other day as I was getting ready to go to work, I hesitated whether to bring my camera bag. I lug a lot of bags to the theater: at a minimum a lunch bag, a backpack for my laptop and script, and a purse. Adding the camera bag means trudging in from the parking lot with enough luggage to pay airline fees.

I started to leave the camera at home, and then I heard the voice in my head:

“If you were a real photographer, you’d take the camera everywhere you go.”

So I took the camera. Just to prove to myself that I’m real. What’s up with that?

I remember a time when I used to sit in the dressing room, getting ready for a show, thinking I wasn’t up to the task but I’d just have to do my best until a real actor took over. You know, from New York. Where the real actors live.

It’s the same with singing, writing, teaching, you name it. I want to do something, I try it, I might even succeed at it, but in my mind I’m not the real thing.

So who decides? Who gets to say what’s real and what’s not? I write a blog, but am I a real writer? I’ve put enough time and energy and money into singing lessons to consider myself a singer, but not a real singer. (I do consider myself a real actor, after more than twenty years in the business, so that’s something.)

Enough is enough. I don’t know what external forces are at work here, but I’m ready to face up to the internal one. I don’t want to listen to the voice in my head any longer, not if it’s going to shame me into believing that my passions are hobbies, that the arts I pursue – acting, singing, writing, photography – are beyond me. That I will never be more than a talented dilettante.

It doesn’t matter whether I take the camera everywhere I go. When I pick up a camera, I’m a real photographer. When I sing, when I act, when I write, I’m really there, practicing my craft. Nobody is going to show up from New York and take over my artistic life. It’s mine.

I am real.

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I live in an artists’ colony.

Actually, I live in an ordinary middle class neighborhood, but I like to think of it as a collection of artists’ studios, and I’m not exaggerating much. I’m an actor; my next-door neighbor is an artist and yoga instructor; another neighbor does graphic design, builds fine furniture and plays in a band; his wife is a retired ballerina . . . the list goes on.

My daughter's spinning wheel

My daughter’s spinning wheel

We also collect artist friends from other neighborhoods. Besides the usual suspects (my theater friends), we know dancers, musicians, glass blowers, and painters. My sixteen-year-old daughter has introduced me to the worlds of leather craft, blacksmithing, and fiber arts. (She is the proud owner of a spinning wheel. When she needs beautiful yarn, she rolls her own.)

So I should not have been surprised when one of our friends showed up at the door with a Ziploc bag and asked if she could harvest our lichen.

Lichen??

Paula is a brilliant hand-spinner and natural fiber artist who teaches workshops all over the country. She had spied lichen growing on our old wood pile by the driveway and broken off a few pieces to try in a dye mixture. She liked the results so much she wanted to make more batches, with different acid and base contents, just to see what she could create.

I was fascinated. Paula is the kind of person who comes up with a way to spin fiber from kudzu, which ought to win her a Nobel prize for land reclamation. I was game for any project of hers. I found myself out in the yard plucking handfuls of lichen from old firewood and looking around the yard for more. I became captivated by the beauty of the lichen itself, so I brought out the camera and took some shots. The artistic possibilities were endless.

Sky, Lichens, Skybax Costume,  August 2013 030b

 

Sky, Lichens, Skybax Costume,  August 2013 028b

People often talk about “the arts” and “arts education” as if they were separate from real life, as if they were an afterthought: a bonus, perhaps, but not essential. I think we forget that art is everywhere, that beauty is inextricable from life, that nature is showing us her finery and inviting us to create something exquisite in response.

Singing back to the birds, spinning yarn from the sheep’s wool, telling stories by the fire: these are arts as old as human civilization. They are what bring us together and change us from lonely individuals into lively communities.

Like my neighborhood.

Domestic Bliss

I’m about to begin a new project.  For the next week, I’ll be working with Out of Hand Theater and playwright Steve Yockey on the beginnings of a new play.  I am super charged to be working with these people.  I haven’t done new-play development in ages, and these artists have a creative approach that kicks down brick walls.

Which is pretty terrifying.  I mean, this requires intelligence and commitment and risk-taking and vulnerability, and all that other artistic rigmarole that I love so much it scares my socks off.

So, just to keep the artistic/domestic relationship in balance, I’ve given myself over to domestic pursuits for several days:  gardening, cooking, cleaning out a closet, eating ice cream sundaes with my daughter . . . you know, the whole June-Cleaver-meets-Earth-Mother thing.

Bear in progress

Bear in progress

Today it was sewing.  My mother and I belong to a chapter of Newborns in Need. I discovered this group when I was looking for activities to do with Mom.  As her cognitive abilities change, she can’t do elaborate embroidery anymore (and believe me, her needlework was amazing).  

She can, however, hem baby blankets and stuff little fleece bears, and it makes her happy to be useful.  So we take our handiwork to the chapter meeting once a month.  It feels like an old-fashioned sewing bee.

Sewing with my mom, playing with the cat, riding bikes with my husband, putting dinner on the table.  Such was my day of domestic tranquility.  I think I’m grounded enough now to go out on an artistic limb.  And saw it off behind me.