April 2018

Friday, May 31, 2013

Fear Circling Hope

Last night, my partner Ann and I attended the one-acts at her school. I worked as an English teacher in schools for 26 years, and in that time I attended lots of sports events, celebrations, and plays, but I never attended the student-written one-acts. With generally 180 teenagers in my classes, I felt that I read enough of their writing, and I needed a break.

When Ann suggested that we see the student written "Fear Circling Hope, I was excited to go.

I don’t work with teenagers any more, and I miss them and their writing. Besides, I’m pretty sure that Laura Ferri, the theatre teacher at Ann’s school, is brilliant. Six springs ago, when I was teaching in a high school with many students who were poor and immigrants to this country, Laura and I had briefly discussed having our students work together. Though I was nervous about bringing my students together with her more privileged students, I believed that the exchange could be life-altering in some good way that I could not yet envision, and I believed that my students had the right to work with someone as talented as Laura, so Laura and I started dreaming.

When Laura called at the end of April 2007 to start work on some real planning, I had not yet told anyone outside of my family about my tumor, and I said to Laura, “This isn’t a good time for me to work on this. I’ve just learned that I have a brain tumor.” Laura scrambled to get off the phone, and I learned that I needed to practice telling people about my tumor as I would practice a part for a play. This would be a performance.

When Ann told me Wednesday that the ensemble would be performing “Fear Circling Hope”, an act that they had toured in San Francisco hospitals—a play inspired by the journals of 100 teenagers in intensive care—I wanted to go. I was not just willing, but eager.

I love teenagers, and I’m fascinated by people’s experiences with life-changing health conditions, so the play would be perfect for me.
There were four one acts that night, and we planned by-pass the first three and to arrive in time for “Fear Circling Hope.” 

Fortunately, however, we got there earlier than we intended. The second one-act was just ending, and we could hear lots of laughter. We settled in for the third one-act, “Philadelphia,” a short and clever play written by the professional writer David Ives and directed by faculty member, Ellen Graham. The play was about a young man lost in the metaphysical black hole of Philadelphia, a horrible place where you can never get what you want and can only eat Philly Steaks. Another fellow was in metaphysical LA, which was much sunnier, and a waitress was somewhere else.

What made the play good was the clever script and the Abbott and Costello delivery. I laughed, and it wasn’t the laughter of aren’t-these-teenagers-clever. It was that-was-funny laughter.

After “Philadelphia” and an intermission, “Fear Circling Hope” began. This play began with the sound of a heart beating—hands thudding against chests—and then the heart stopping. Students were alternately teenagers in hospital pajamas and doctors in white coats. Every now and then a character personified an emotion: grief, for example, wore a black mask and did not have a face.

This play was not funny, and I had not expected it to be, but I hadn’t expected to work to hold in my sobs. Though I was not a teenager when I was in the hospital for neurosurgery and recovery, I had experienced so many of the scenes I saw, and I had asked so many of their questions: Would I get better? How much better? Who would I be now?

When one character went to the hospital after a car accident and was surrounded by a bevy of people in white paying attention to his body but not to him, I remembered my own car accident and my own bevy of white-gloved hands.

Towards the middle of the play, a character who was paralyzed hallucinated that she was tap-dancing with her doctor and nurse. Since the people playing the characters were real, they tapped an impressive lightness on the stage.

As they tapped, I remembered my own hallucinations—not so cheerful and a bit bizarre: in the Intensive Care Unit, I was teaching a class and needed to give them an assignment before the nurse could change some tube. In my room, I thought a party of colleagues had come to see me, but it turned out just to be my mom and Ann. Another time, I thought I was in the crematorium. That sounds grim, but it wasn’t. It was frustrating with its ineffective supervisor and my flame-retardant pajamas.

The tapping lightened the tension for me, and I recovered my sense of distance from the play: I was again an audience member, not a patient.
With the characters, I returned to my life of wonder. I marveled at these teenagers’ poetry and all they must have learned. I was humbled by how important art is and how little I knew that before. As one spoken duet said:

Sometimes I wonder,
what the world would be like,
if it cracked itself open
and learned to fly.
I wonder sometimes,
what it's like to be free.

Today, I am able to breathe normally again, and at the play last night I even composed myself in time for the lights to come up, but I will not forget how intense my response to this play was. The students are right: grief does not have a face. It is nestled between my bones and only emerges when it’s invited by some unbidden memory. But the grief is always there.

My life is joyful. It’s true. And part of that is because grief is a part of me now. It is a part of who I am.

One character quoted Albert Camus: "In the midst of winter, I found in me an invincible summer."

In my winter, too, there is an invincible summer, and in my summer there is an indomitable winter.

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