Friday, November 25, 2005

Prisons and burlesque

KD would like to take entertainment away from her students for a few days. No computers, no TV, no movies, no books (not that they read actual books very often), no video games, no clubs, no music. She realizes, however, that they would call home complaining to their parents when they went into withdrawals – which would be severe and immediate. And then there would uproar in the Dean’s office. The Brittanys, the Joshuas, Daniels and Tiffanys are used to thinking of their particular university as a service industry in which they are privileged clients. The university, in 2000s style, is encouraging this corporate view of education.

KD mentions Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. We talk a little about Buddhism and retreats too. She shares a quote which goes something like, “There are two ways to make a cage. Build a prison or build a burlesque.”
(KD please correct this quote?)

Unfortunately, she’s their professor and not Queen of the Universe (or a major cash donor to the university.) It is unlikely that the Dean would understand her point. And besides, she teaches Mass Communication - advertising, for those of us who aren’t up on the terminology. So if she could carry out this exercise, the students might discover the extent of their addictions and the actual evils wrought by the very industry where they are aiming their career aspirations. This would not be the brightest career move KD could make, even though it might wake a few souls.

I hang up the phone and begin to think of my own experiments with shutting down the circus.

In 2000, I lived on my own for the first time in over 20 years. I moved without a television, by choice. I had a radio, which I tuned to CBC 2 – mostly classical music, and that was my only entertainment. I did have a computer, and used it to write and email the coyote, who was the only person I really communicated with for the first four months. I rarely called people, not even my closest friend. I had left a marriage, I had burned a lot of bridges – and I was trying to figure out where I was in my life, and who…

Somehow, I knew this required silence. The first months were awful. I began to hear the voices in my own head – the voices we rarely listen to because something else is always distracting us or engaging our minds. The voices got loud and they got crazy. The coyote told me he’d rather leave town in a one-eyed ford than hear the voices in his head, and I can’t argue with him. It’s not easy.

It is terrifying to lose your identity. I wasn’t partnered anymore. I had thought when I left that I’d really get down to writing, and I was producing some very creative work on the subject of slowly going mad, but otherwise had a writer’s block the size of the Great Wall of China. My job was a job, hardly an identity. My ambition to do anything, start anything was at rock-bottom. I wasn’t sure I was a very good person, either. All the mirrors were gone. Nothing reflected me back to myself.

Everything felt acutely uncomfortable and unfamiliar. I missed my cat. Living with a view of another square brick building, the twin of my own, I cried for the loss of the pine tree in the back yard of my former house and the birds who visited the feeder. One day, during an afternoon nap, I dreamed I heard my husband coming up the stairs and woke up crying, knowing I would never hear that sound again. But I had chosen to leave, and I believed I’d chosen correctly.

I stuck to it, grimly. I cried every night when I came home from work and shut the door behind me. I cried Saturdays and Sundays. The coyote sent me writing exercises when I was careening off the edge of sanity. “What color are your socks? List the contents of your fridge. What sounds do you hear?” Whether he knew it consciously or intuitively, he made me practice pulling myself back into the present. Except for correspondence with him, I did not ask for help or comfort. My weight dropped by twenty-five pounds. I believe I may have cried it off.

I was fifty-two, alone, a formerly strong, ambitious person who suddenly had absolutely no idea who she was or where she was going. In the quiet of my apartment, the voices in my mind babbled and shrieked, nagged and accused, until finally, one day, some deeper, stronger “I” found the strength to tell them to shut up!

After that time, silence and being alone ceased to be bogey men. Often, after a day out in the dizzying pace and noise of the world, I could hardly wait to shut that door behind me and let the noise go away. I started to carry the silence with me, inside.

It was the closest I could come, having to work for a living, to forty days in the desert. My desert retreat took place on evenings and weekends. I stayed until I let go of most of what falsely reassured me and much of what was destroying me, as well.

Since then, I take mini-sabbaticals. Days when I don’t talk on the phone, don’t see anyone. I think of it as dropping back in on myself, finding what I’ve misplaced, misidentified, ignored or neglected.

I feel concern for people who can’t be alone. Because, sooner or later, it will happen to us all. And for all the difficulty involved, it is a great gift to know how strong you are when you lose what you think you need.