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

The Joy of Not Knowing

I’m about to start a new acting project, and I’m scared. This is par for the course; I never start a new project without getting nervous. I always believe this will be the one that reveals, once and for all, that I don’t know what I’m doing.

Truth? I really don’t know what I’m doing. And that’s probably a good thing. Lately I’ve chosen to accept the gift of not knowing. The truest words I can find to describe how I’ve gotten to where I am are “I don’t know.”

Over the last five years, I have been involved in friendships and medical situations and even business ventures that ended differently from the way I wanted them to, the way I knew they should. I prayed weekly for three friends who had cancer, and within a year, all of them died. I struggled to find the best possible care for my mom’s dementia, and came to realize that what I wanted for her may not exist. I worked with a team of devoted volunteers to save a non-profit theater company from going under, and it closed anyway.

To my surprise, this didn’t make me want to stop praying. It didn’t make me want to give up on Mom’s care. It certainly didn’t destroy my commitment to theater. But it did all hurt. It did confuse me. It did leave me wondering, for a time, what’s the use? Where do I go from here? How can I be helpful in a world where my best efforts seem to fail?

The answer is, “I don’t know.”

I’ve always been a hard worker. Sometimes I think I work too hard. In the craft of acting, that’s called “pushing” — doing more than you need to do, so you’ll feel like you’re really making art. When a performance seems forced or strained, the actor may have the best intentions, wanting to give the audience a magnificent show. But his very brilliance can outshine the role, masking what was meant to be revealed.

This past summer I took an acting class that challenged me to simplify my own work to the point where I felt like I was doing nothing. I resisted, of course. I’ve been acting professionally for twenty-five years, and I have some habits that have served me well in that time. The instructor, Rob Mello, was asking me to strip all of them away and start fresh: in other words, to forget what I know, and trust what I don’t know.

I’ll never forget the night my resistance began to break down. It had been a difficult week with Mom, including a trip to the emergency room (she was fine, but I was shaken). I was feeling tired and defensive, and I had no energy for the night’s exercise. So I just did it, as simply as I could, and Rob said to me, “That’s it. You think you have to do so much, Carolyn, but you don’t. When you just let go and be present, it’s beautiful.”

Well, thanks.  And . . . ouch.  I mean, I’ve spent decades working hard. I thought I knew my craft. But he was right, and I’ve come to see the value in his words, far beyond the walls of an acting class:  “Let go and be present.”  They apply to relationships, to goals, to work, and — deeply — to dementia care, where being in the present moment with your loved one is the greatest gift you can give.

Someone has been posting hand-painted signs around Atlanta for several years now, a kind of folk-art graffiti written on wooden planks and nailed to telephone poles in seemingly random combinations. There’s one near my house that says “Donkey” on one plank and “Food” on the other. I don’t get it, but it’s cool. There used to be one in an area where I sometimes work; it said, “We Live on a Broken Street.” I don’t know if it’s still there, but it spoke to me.

My favorite, by far, is high up on a utility pole, next to the stop sign at the end of my mom’s street. We stop beside it every time we go from her assisted living to the shops and restaurants nearby. It’s a guidepost for me, a mantra, a reminder of how to live, how to approach each new project, including the one I’m about to start.  Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing.  Maybe I don’t have to.  Maybe, not knowing is the key.

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Word of the Week: Creativity

There are times when I think my most creative work is what I do with Mom. I am not always happy about this.

I work (when I can) in a creative field – theater – and I miss the work when I don’t have a job. Acting is deeply fulfilling for me, for reasons I don’t actually understand and probably never will. I only know that I feel like I’m tapping into my deeper self, or doing what I’m supposed to be doing, or living at the intersection of my passion and the world’s need (as my sister puts it) when I am acting.

But acting jobs seldom grow on trees, and when they do, they require a great deal of care and tending. Hence, there have been long periods in the past four years when I’ve either failed to get an acting job or chosen not to seek one because I felt overwhelmed by the time and energy it would take to do a show and grapple with Mom’s dementia.

Sometimes, in those non-theatrical periods, I find myself channeling my creative energy into care-giving, as if it were an open rehearsal for a new play: focusing on my scene partner (Mom), listening to her dialogue, entering into her reality, improvising scenarios that enrich her personal drama, even dealing with props and wardrobe (the glasses, the hearing aid, the endless laundry).

Of course it’s not really a play we’re enacting. It’s real life. But it’s a life infused with the fictions her brain serves up, so it feels like a concoction of some sort. What is it that she and I are creating together?

A story, perhaps? Something like a fitting end or a final chapter to a life well-lived?

Or is our creation more like a quilt, patched together with whatever scraps of memory and humor and frustration we have on hand each day?

Or maybe a piece of music, sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant? Or a dance? I don’t know. I only know it helps me to think of dementia care as a creative act. Because otherwise, it’s just about getting through the day.

Again, this doesn’t always make me happy. I don’t want this to be my most creative work. I don’t want to sacrifice what I might be creating in other fields, just to live up to some self-generated ideal of perfect daughterhood. Nevertheless, her condition pushes me to think in entirely new ways about the human brain, about relationships, about inventing life in the present moment.

Dementia care is an invitation to live creatively. I wish I hadn’t been invited. But as long as I’m here . . . .

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Helping

I ran across a quote from Anne Lamott recently, and I love her, I really do, but this one puzzled me. Here it is:

Do you mind even a little that you are still addicted to people-pleasing, and are still putting everyone else’s needs and laundry and career ahead of your creative, spiritual life? Giving all your life force away, to “help” and impress. Well, your help is not helpful, and falls short.

It’s a great quote, dealing with addiction and “people-pleasing” and abandoning – or avoiding – your own creative and spiritual life in order to impress other people. I get it. I agree. We shouldn’t destroy our inner selves just so people will think we’re “nice,” and we absolutely must not throw our life force away. There have been times when I needed just such a kick in the pants.

But as I get older, I find that I must put other people’s needs ahead of my own, more often than I ever dreamed possible in my ambitious, individualistic youth. I think there are times when taking care of other people is the right path, even if it isn’t pleasant. Sometimes people need help. With all due respect to Anne Lamott (still one of my favorites), I believe that my help is helpful, that it does not fall short, and – here’s the point – that it doesn’t hamper my creative or spiritual life.

My inner, creative self and my outer, helpful self are both housed in the same body. They pay the same rent and use the same utilities. I can’t lodge one and evict the other for long. With a teenager at home, a husband who works full time, and a mother with dementia, I am in no position to stop helping other people and be “creative.” Conversely, I can’t imagine putting down all my artistic endeavors for a life of full-time “helping.” Either way, I’d be dead in six months.

I have to merge my creative pursuits and my ordinary, slog-through-the-housework-go-to-the-day-job responsibilities into one cohesive life. Each part feeds the other. I have been assuring myself for four years that my mother’s dementia is teaching me deep truths about human nature that will pay off in my acting. And I know, beyond a doubt, that my work in the theater feeds and nurtures me, making it possible to show up day after day for my mother without burning out.

I don’t know how these two parts of my life will interact in the future. I only know that they are going to have to work and play well together. No running with scissors. No cutting my “helpful” self away from my “spiritual” self. They are one self.

For example:

Mom is struggling right now, teetering on the edge of depression. She’s genuinely convinced that her gifts were stolen – everything she bought to give, and everything she received. This is the second Christmas she’s had this delusion. Last January, the only solution was to increase a medication that I didn’t want to increase. It turned out to be the right decision, but I don’t want to go down that road again. So I’m watching, and listening, and comparing notes with my sister. I don’t know how this will end.

But I do know this: she needs help. I need to help her.

To help her, I need to breathe. Detach. Stay calm. Listen to her feelings. Feel my own feelings. Invent ways to redirect her energy. Play games, hold hands, take down the Christmas ornaments. Sing. Laugh. Trust that a solution will come.

That’s what I must do in order to be helpful. That, and keep doing the dishes. Keep finding beauty in the ordinary.

And if that’s not spiritual, if that’s not creative, I don’t know what is.

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Working Girl

I am coming to the end of a long period of under-employment, which is good news for my household. Around here, a working Mommy is a happy Mommy, and a happy Mommy actually enjoys keeping house.

Though I’ve worked as an acting teacher and dialect coach for various theaters this summer, I haven’t been on stage since February. For me, going that long without a show is like crossing the Sahara in flip flops: blistering. In more ways than one.

Let’s skip the professional blisters for now and focus on the domestic ones. Without stimulating work to pull me away from home, my housework loses its urgency. It’s always there, and I always have time for it, so it never gets done, or it gets done begrudgingly.  I love hearth and home, but I don’t love vacuuming.

Now, though, with acting work on the near horizon, I suddenly have energy for housework and cooking. Saturday night I made a delicious dinner of grilled chicken, corn on the cob, and tomatoes fresh from the garden – a southern feast that should by rights have ended with peach ice cream or blueberry cobbler, or both. (Alas, I wasn’t feeling that domestic.)

I am motivated to cook dinner and tidy up the house because my domicile is about to be restored to its rightful purpose: workshop, studio, creative cocoon, home for character study and line learning, blessed retreat after long days of rehearsal. Artistic home base.

The transformation is already underway. My daughter and her best friend are furiously preparing for Dragon Con, so the dining room table is covered with patterns, fabric, paint, stencils, serger, and sewing machine. When I sit there to study my script, I feel like I’ve stumbled upon a fantastical tailor’s shop, or an altar to the gods of cosplay. Meals have moved to the back porch. Thank goodness for mild weather.

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This is our home. For me, as for most people I suppose, the impulse to keep house is bound up with the lifestyle that house is meant to nurture. As long as I’m maintaining my home as a haven for creative work, the tasks get done. But the minute I start playing Suzy Homemaker, keeping house for duty’s sake, I’m doomed. I will sabotage myself at every turn, because the role does not fit me the way it fit, say, my mother (emotional baggage, anyone?).

Still, I’m conflicted. I want a nice house, yet I resist having one.  I love to look at the pictures in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, but I am wary of those Better Homes. I fear entrapment in a personal hell of gracious (but empty) living. I even resent the title. Better Homes than whose? Mine? Really? By what standard?

I’ve realized that I want a beautiful home, a home that nurtures all who live in it, a home that welcomes visitors and fosters lively conversation. But I don’t want the creation of that home to be my life’s work, as it was for so many women in the past. I keep coming back to a sense of entwined priorities, where the work I do outside the home invigorates my home life, and vice versa.

In other words, I gotta get out of this place and into a theater, or I will surely die. And that won’t help anyone.  Dead women don’t keep house.

Crafting a Life

I think I’m in love with variegated yarn.

If you don’t knit, you may not have experienced this miracle. It is essentially a long strand of different-colored fibers, spun together into one continuous thread. It’s lovely, rolled up in a skein, inviting you to imagine it as a shawl or sweater.

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But the real delight is in knitting it and watching colorful stripes emerge. You do nothing to plan or force the pattern flowing from your needles. You simply stitch and it appears, a new fabric with a design of its own. And that design flows seamlessly from one color to the next, with no sharp lines dividing it into sections.

I see a metaphor for my life here. (I know, I know, domestic handicraft as life metaphor; here we go again. But stay with me. I really like this one.)

Lately my mom has been reminding me, with characteristic generosity, that she shouldn’t come first in my life. She says, “Remember what I always tell you,” (as if I could forget, I’ve heard it so many times). “Your family comes first, then your career, then me.”

She means well; she wants to reassure me that I’m doing enough for her. She may even worry that she’s going to wind up as ornery and ungrateful as her mother was in the worst stages of dementia. So she’s trying to rescue me in advance from the guilt I’m bound to feel, and release me from any guilt I already carry around.

I appreciate her effort, but it backfires. I chafe at statements like these. I want to tell her I don’t need her to order my priorities, thank you very much. I can choose my own rules for living. And if I want to place her needs first every now and then, that’s my business.

I even dislike hearing (repeatedly; did I mention that I hear this repeatedly?) that my family comes first, then my career. Of course my family comes first. But my career doesn’t come second. My career is integral to who I am. I work in the arts. I am fed by that work. My husband and daughter can tell when it’s been too long since I’ve done a play. (Hint: it’s been too long.) Even if I wanted to stop working altogether and focus on my family’s needs, I would fail. For me, work and family are inextricably meshed, there is no line, because Carolyn the artist is a better family member, a better wife, and a more interesting mother than Carolyn the dutiful homemaker.

My life doesn’t break down into neatly delineated blocks. It’s variegated. Work, art, family, parenting, caregiving, friendship, downtime: for me, these are colors in one strand of yarn. Knit together, they become a life with distinct shades and patterns, but no sharp lines.

Mother probably understands this. She probably understands more than I give her credit for. I shouldn’t chafe at her wisdom; she’s telling me to live my life. But like every daughter, including my own, I want to choose my own priorities.

I see changes coming in the way I order my days. Maybe I will begin to spend a little less time with Mom and a little more on new artistic projects. Maybe my husband and I will travel more. Certainly my daughter will keep growing up.  All I know to do is keep knitting, literally and metaphorically, and let a new pattern emerge.

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