Taking Breaks: Why Everyone Needs a Stage Manager

Actors, especially young ones, would gladly rehearse endless hours to make a performance beautiful or a director happy. When the work is so important to you that it feels like a calling, you’ll knock yourself out to make it good. Unfortunately, knocking ourselves out destroys our health, exhausts our spirits, and ends up being counterproductive.

Fortunately, there are stage managers to save us from ourselves.

God bless the stage manager, who keeps an eye on the clock, tells the director it’s time for a break, then utters the magic words, “Ten minutes, everyone!” Like Pavlov’s dogs, we answer on cue, “Thank you, ten!” and drop what we’re concentrating on to stretch, grab coffee, check messages, hit the restroom, whatever. We know that in exactly ten minutes the stage manager will say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re back!” and the work will resume.

A number of years ago (a large number; I am no longer young), I had the honor of playing Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire. During rehearsals, I took my breaks to the next level – I literally went outside. As soon as I heard those magic words, “ten minutes,” I was out the door, down the stairs, and out in the bright summer sun. I needed those breaks for my sanity, because Blanche lives in a very dark emotional place, and I had to remind myself that (a) I’m not Blanche, and (b) despite her emotional darkness, the sun is still shining.

I also need breaks from my mother’s dementia. I need to take walks, do yoga, be alone, write in my journal, play music, see other people, and generally get on with my life.

As an actor, I was willing to give myself over to Blanche. It was a privilege to play her. As a caregiver, I’m willing to give myself over to my mom’s needs. It’s a privilege to help her through this phase of life. But that doesn’t mean I don’t need breaks. What I really need is a stage manager to remind me when it’s time to clock out. Lacking that luxury, I build respite into my calendar.

I’m part of a family team, and we’ve learned to spell each other so that noone gets burned out. My sister Juliana and I are the front line in mom’s care; our cousin Terry is the angel who swoops in once a week and takes Mom out to dinner; and my brother David and sister-in-law Andrea travel long distance on a regular basis to take over for a few days and give everyone a break.

Believe me, I know how lucky I am to be part of this extraordinary group. The credit goes to Mom for raising us well and inspiring such devotion; she really was a terrific mother. But this level of cooperation also comes from our willingness to be honest with each other about what we can handle and when we’re burning out. We all understand the need to stop and rest.

If Mom were living in one of our homes, instead of in assisted living, breaks would be even more essential. In her excellent book The Spectrum of Hope: An Optimistic and New Approach to Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, neurologist Dr. Gayatri Devi stresses the importance of downtime:

“The trick for each caregiver is to find out what makes them tick – what offers them pleasure and relaxes them, what restores them – and schedule time for it. I’m a big believer in caregivers taking not just the occasional vacation but breaks every day, so they have restorative time for themselves on a regular basis.” (The Spectrum of Hope, p. 197)

One more point about breaks, in theater and in life: they’re not just good for you — they’re necessary to the work. Acting and caregiving require intense mental and emotional energy, and that has to come from somewhere, some reservoir of calm and peace.

We don’t become better at acting or caregiving by hunkering down and trying harder. We have to let our minds wander, and I mean this in a very positive way. We need to amble down quiet paths – physically and mentally – and see where they lead. It doesn’t take much. Even a short nap or a walk in the afternoon sun can restore us.

Let’s listen to our inner stage manager. Ten minutes, everyone.

June Sparks and Andrea Sparks, Majestic Diner, 2018

Mom out on the town with my beautiful sister-in-law, Andrea.  Photo by David Sparks. 

 

The Act of Caregiving, Part Two

(This is part of a series of posts about how working in theater prepared me for caregiving. You can find the first post here.)

Do Your Homework:

One of the things I love most about acting (besides getting to play dress-up for a living) is how much I learn. Every play teaches me something new. Of course, all that learning doesn’t happen by magic. In theater as in life, if you want to do the job right, you have to do your homework.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to work on Donald Margulies’ play, Time Stands Still. My character, Sarah, was a photojournalist grappling with wounds — both physical and psychological — from an IED explosion in Iraq.

I know my way around cameras and I’m married to a journalist, so I was okay on those fronts. But I know next to nothing about warfare. I’ve never been in the military; I don’t even like war movies. Time to hit the books. I studied war photography and watched films with graphic battle scenes. I had never wanted to take in that much violence, but I simply couldn’t do justice to the play without witnessing the blood and gore and horror of war, at least on film.

Here’s another example, from King Lear. When actor Simon Russell Beale played Lear at London’s National Theatre, he heard about a theory that Lear had Lewy Body dementia. Beale made it his business to learn more. He worked with a medical consultant to understand what might be happening in Lear’s brain and what his symptoms could be.

Research is no substitute for acting; it’s just a base, what my mother the math teacher would call a ‘necessary but insufficient’ part of the craft. I wasn’t writing an academic paper about war photography when I played Sarah; I was portraying a human being who lived in relationship with every other character in the play. But without the research, I couldn’t have done Sarah justice. Knowing what she had been through gave me a solid foundation to build on.

Research helps in caregiving as well.

When I realized that Mom was showing signs of dementia, my actor instincts kicked in and took me straight to the library. Books like The 36 Hour Day helped me understand what was happening in Mom’s brain and how to support her as the disease progressed. Since then I’ve attended conferences and found a wealth of other books and resources: Memory Bridge, the Dementia Action Alliance, Validation Therapy, Music and Memory, Person-Centered Care, the Eden Alternative, Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s. . . the list goes on and on, and the field is growing. Almost ten years after Mom’s diagnosis, I’m still learning.

I’m not researching and writing an academic paper. I’m crafting a relationship with a human being, someone I love and respect. Doing research and reading books is no substitute for spending loving time with Mom. It’s a ‘necessary but insufficient’ step in dementia care, a way to gain insight into her experience and find ways to improve my own. But I like it, and it helps me, so I do it — and I get a kick out of the notion that I’m doing homework for the very person who taught me to do homework.

I was raised by a teacher, after all.

June Coloring, June 2017

This picture of Mom coloring reminds me of all the years she spent grading papers. She loved her students!

The Act of Caregiving

I like to say that actors are the luckiest people on earth, because we get to play for a living.

I’m not saying my profession is all fun and games. Acting takes a lot of work — learning the craft, mastering technique, using your voice and body effectively, auditioning, getting rejected over and over again, and then — if you’re lucky — getting cast, rehearsing, memorizing lines, crafting a performance, and pouring your heart out for an audience night after night.

This work takes focus, energy, and a willingness to live in the moment. It’s similar to sports or music — you can prepare and practice for years (and you’d better, if you want to be any good), but when you’re in the middle of a performance, you have to turn loose and play. Nothing matters but what’s happening right now. You’re prepared, yet flexible; grounded, yet utterly spontaneous.

Actors never forget how to play. Even as adults, we hold onto our childhood ability to pretend, explore, and experiment. We embrace the full range of human emotions. We don’t judge the characters we play, we relish them — the villains as much as the heroes, the clowns as much as the tragic victims. Our job is to step into someone else’s reality and behave as if it were our own. We imagine what it’s like to live in another person’s skin, to deal with their frustrations and celebrate their joys. We learn to give ourselves over to their truth, while never completely losing sight of our own.

Does that remind you of anything? Maybe dementia caregiving?

If you’re a caregiver, I don’t have to tell you it’s not all fun and games. It’s a lot of hard work — learning about the health care system, dealing with doctor’s appointments and hospital stays, taking care of a loved one’s physical health, struggling to understand their cognitive and emotional needs, feeling rejected over and over again, and pouring your heart out day after day. That’s work.

But I’ll bet most caregivers have a story to tell about a time when caregiving was fun and creative, even playful – when they’ve been able to let go of grown-up concerns and just embrace the joy of being with another human being. As caregivers, we try hard not to judge the people in our care. It’s not always easy, but we try to love them — the villains as much as the heroes, the clowns as much as the tragic victims. We try to step into their reality and respond to it as if it were our own.

Does that remind you of anything? Yeah, I thought so.

I didn’t see the parallels between acting and caregiving at first, but I realize now that being an actor gave me a natural head start on Mom’s dementia journey. I made myself a list of rules for acting that I think apply to caregiving. I’ll elaborate on one today, and the others in future posts, but here’s the whole list if you’re curious:

• Acknowledge the Given Circumstances
• Do Your Homework
• Learn Your Lines
• Improvise
• Take Breaks
• Relentlessly Pursue Your Super-Objective

Acknowledge the Given Circumstances

The famous Russian acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski taught his students to look, first and foremost, at the given circumstances of any play. These are the facts that the playwright has given us to work with: location, century, time of year, time of day, economic, political, and social condition of the characters, etc. An actor ignores these given circumstances at his own risk.

Take Shakespeare’s King Lear, for example. The setting is a royal court. The characters are rich and of high rank. The title character, Lear, is old and tired of governing. He has three grown daughters, two of whom are married to rival lords. The third is being courted by a duke and a king. Lear gathers them all together and announces a plan to divide his kingdom. Stakes are high, because power is on the line.

The actor playing Lear can’t suddenly decide to portray a young, virile commoner without a care in the world. He can’t pretend away the trappings of rank or the ravages of age. He must deal with the circumstances Shakespeare provides. Lear’s wealth, power, rank, age, and emotional unpredictability are essential to the story.

If I’m in a production of Lear (or any other play), I need to deal with the facts on the page. I want to deal with them; they’re going to inform every decision I make about how to move forward.

Same goes for caregiving.

Caregivers need to grapple with given circumstances – lots of them. Who am I caring for? How old is this person? What’s her diagnosis? If she’s 85 and diagnosed with mid-stage dementia, it does me no good to treat her as if she’s 70 and has no symptoms. That’s called denial. If, like my mother, she’s always loved to sew, had a rich volunteer life, played classical violin and hated Bingo, it does me no good to invite her to sporting events and Bingo games. I need to work with the person in front of me, not my idea of who that person is supposed to be.

Then there’s location. Where does my caregiving happen? Act one of my mother’s dementia drama was set in our family home. In act two, she moved to an independent senior-living apartment. Now we’re in act three, which takes place in assisted living. Do I wish she could have grown old and died at home? Absolutely. I know that’s what she wanted. But wishing won’t change the circumstances we’re in now, so I need to understand how her assisted living works and learn to navigate their system.

I also need to be realistic about my own given circumstances. Do I have a job or serious volunteer commitments? Do I still have a child at home? (When Mom moved to assisted living near me, the answer was yes, and my kid’s needs mattered just as much as hers.) Are there things about my mom that get on my nerves? (I plead the fifth!) I can’t ignore my own reality any more than I can avoid my mother’s. It’s not possible for me to suddenly become a saintly, full-time caregiver and still keep up my other obligations. How can I find a balance?

Accepting given circumstances and facing reality can be hard. You have to let go of what used to be true: My mom was so smart, such a good teacher, such a positive person! Why did she have to change? You go through a very understandable period of grief and anger. But even while you’re grieving, it helps to pay attention to given circumstances. Stanislavsky advises actors to write them down and refer to them through the whole rehearsal process. Caregivers can do that too.

When I faced up to Mom’s situation, when I stepped out of denial and acknowledged our new reality, I was able to see a way forward. I realized that her cognitive abilities may have changed, but her soul hasn’t. Armed with that knowledge, I can tackle my caregiving role with more confidence and help her live a more meaningful, less frightening life, right now.

No matter what the circumstances may become.

June on Medlock Path

Mom’s world is different now, but still beautiful.

 

Dementia, Fear, and Shakespeare

About eight years ago, not long after Mom had been diagnosed, I was in a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. I was still living in fear and denial, still mentally fighting the disease. Needless to say, it wasn’t working. Quite the opposite: it was interfering with my work.

If you don’t recall the story of King Lear, it’s basically this: a powerful king is getting older, maybe a tiny bit impulsive, and decides he wants to have all the perks of being a ruler but none of the responsibilities. He’s going to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, and visit each of them in turn, letting them wine and dine him while they do the work of running the country. To determine how the kingdom will be split, he calls everybody together in a big family meeting and drops a bombshell:

Tell me, my daughters . . .
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?

Yes, you heard right. The king is giving out valuable territory and pitting his daughters against each other for the biggest parcel. Clearly this is not going to end well.

The oldest daughter, Goneril, is happy to exaggerate and flatter her father, and she’s rewarded with a large slice of the kingdom. The middle child, Regan, out-flatters her older sister and gets an equally grand inheritance. Only the youngest and most faithful daughter, Cordelia, insists on telling her father the truth: she loves him as much as she should, and she’s grateful for everything he’s done for her, but she won’t flatter him.

Lear explodes, banishing Cordelia. Then he divides the kingdom between the Goneril and Regan and stomps off in a rage. The whole family, the whole kingdom, is turned upside down. And it’s only act one. I won’t go into everything that follows, but let me assure you . . . it’s not pretty.

So.

It’s eight years ago. My caregiving journey has barely begun. I’m doing King Lear. My mother has early-stage dementia, my sister is bringing her to a matinee, and I’m playing Goneril, who is about to (a) betray her parent’s trust and (b) descend into a vicious, fatal rivalry with her sister.

I’m a nervous wreck. With my mother and sister in the audience and Mom’s dementia constantly on my mind, I struggle to concentrate, literally shaking through some scenes. The whole play seems to be about sisters and demented parents. I hear myself (as Goneril) saying to Lear what every frustrated, impatient caregiver-in-denial wants to say to a parent with dementia:

Come, sir,
I would you would make use of that good wisdom,
Whereof I know you are fraught; and put away
These dispositions, that of late transform you
From what you rightly are. . . .
I do beseech you
To understand my purposes aright:
As you are old and reverend, you should be wise.

Later I hear Regan use her father’s disease as an excuse to strip away his dignity and agency:

O, sir, you are old.
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine: you should be ruled and led
By some discretion that discerns your state
Better than you yourself.

And finally there’s our father, King Lear, at the breaking point, cursing both of us in desperation:

You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall–I will do such things,–
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep;
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!

I shall go mad.

There it was: everything I feared for my mother — for myself — captured in four little words.

I made it through that performance, somehow. I’m pretty sure I skipped an important monologue. Thanks to my brilliant fellow actors, the audience still got a powerful show, but I was wrecked. Something had to give. I had to stop living in fear.

Eventually, six years later, I had enough distance and perspective to use that disaster as the basis for my first conference presentation, about how my work as an actor had in fact prepared me for caregiving. I’d like to share those thoughts with you, so I’m adapting them for the blog. I’ll put them out in sections over the next couple of weeks, while I keep working on my next presentation. (I’ll also publish info about the conference for those who are interested.)

As Shakespeare would say — more anon.

Carolyn, King Lear, 2010

A conniving Goneril in Georgia Shakespeare’s 2010 production of King Lear, with Tim McDonough and Chris Kayser. Photo by Bill DeLoach.

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.

IMG_20170611_132423604

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.

IMG_20170611_132241514_BURST000_COVER_TOP

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.

IMG_0505

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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