Suddenly Stricken

There’s lots to catch up on: For example, I moved. From England to America. TO WISCONSIN. I returned to academia. I bought a house. FOR THE FOURTH TIME. More on that in the days to come. However, let’s start with now. . .

Saturday, I was suddenly stricken, but not with the assaultive love found in a pulpy romance novel, but with debilitating shoulder pain. So it was like Fabio stabbed me in the back with a kitchen knife, rather than a sweeping story of love and regret and happy endings.

imageI don’t recall ever having been in so much pain, so quickly–without injury or warning. Some friends kindly took Z for the afternoon, and my husband took me to Urgent Care. (I just moved here, so, of course, I don’t yet have a GP, and doubly OF COURSE, this all happened on a Saturday.) At the Urgent Care, when I checked in, I thought I was playing it cool, but the receptionist said, “We’re going to triage you. We’re going to see you next.” This is not what you EVER want to hear when there’s a waiting room full of folks at the Urgent Care, because the translation is, “Lady, there’s a lot of sick people here, but you are the sickest!”

Let’s just say I was offered an array of modern pharmaceuticals to manage the pain–one of which caused an extreme reaction which required MORE pharmaceuticals. (The result? I can cross “Alma Garret” and “Mary Tyrone” off as role models.) The diagnosis is cervical radiculopathy, which essentially means that I have a compressed disc or nerve (or both!) in my cervical spine that is causing the pain. I was referred to a physical therapist, given prescriptions to manage the pain and sent out to the car in a wheelchair. I spent the rest of the day focused on getting through the next 60 seconds, then the next 60 seconds, then. . .

The thing about pain is that it’s all consuming. Your world shrinks and becomes about no one but yourself, and even if you’re aware of this myopism, you can’t to anything about it really, because, well, all you’ve got is the pain. A friend of mine recently had a flare-up of a painful illness, and he was able to make some connections between his pain and living under social, cultural or racial oppression. His thinking was along these lines: When you’re in pain, you just want it to stop and you’d do anything to get relief. In the same way, when you are oppressed, you are in a kind of painful state, and your actions from the outside may appear extreme, but from an internal perspective, your actions are motivated by the very human desire to preserve the self and to live free of pain (or oppression.) In this, it is a very human desire, need and right to be MORE than our pain. I respect him greatly for this insight and his compassion. I, however, found no such great lessons. For me, the lessons were perhaps also myopic:

I’m teaching a course in verbatim theatre this fall, and in the first couple of weeks, as we defined what theatre is, we started with the basic equation: Actor + Idea + Audience = Theatre. For verbatim work, a bit of tweaking creates something a bit more accurate to the genre: Technology + Actor (the body) + Text + Audience = Verbatim Theatre. In its purest form, verbatim work has great faith in the power of embodied communication to communicate truths–emotional truths over intellectual truths. The body as the means of transmission (rather than as a tool of the actor’s art) becomes of supreme importance. The body can hold paradoxes and contradictions in ways that lead us to unique parts of being human (in ways that are often counter to factual conclusions or intellectually-based arguments.)

It’s troubling work, of course, because the body is messy. It never does exactly what you want it to, and as a means of transmission, it is both the richest medium around and completely unreliable. That’s my body these days–full of information that is hard to read and painful to decipher.

As a theatre maker, I’m always trying to listen to my body (and to those of other artists.) “The body never lies,” is something often tossed around in the rehearsal room as you search for physical truths. The body gives away a false statement readily if the actor isn’t committed, but the thing about pain is that you can’t commit to anything else. Your truth is only pain, and it’s embodied, and it’s without an idea, and it cares not for audience, and it equals nothing.

To better days and to release for all those who suffer.

Perhaps there’s a lesson about compassion in there after all.


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