The hallways of the nursing home were specific to certain sorts of patients, I soon discovered. By the end of the first week, I’d been assigned as a permanent volunteer on the dementia ward. I didn’t take this as any sort of personal offense. I liked it there. These patients never had visitors, and seemed to enjoy my engagement with them via laughter, or a long held grasp of my arm, or merely a nod would do in the feedback loop. I was eleven. I did what I was told, and danced and sang while I did it.
Is it madness within, that enables one to engage with madness without ?
Due to physical issues, I couldn’t drive myself to an early morning medical appointment 20 miles away. I scheduled a social services van to pick me up, and took the seat behind the bus driver. He told me we’d be picking up a passenger who also chooses this seat, but not to worry. The young man was about 15, handsome, and seemed non-plussed that I was sitting on his two-seat bench. We proceeded to pick up other passengers with various mental or physical ailments. I contemplated the compassion and patience of the van-driver ~ a retired teacher. I noted how the passengers signalled their recognition of each other as each one climbed aboard to their daily routines. The young man took my hand and held it to his chest, chortling when I made a comment to our driver about something or other. Within that 30-minute space in transit time, he accepted me, and thereby the rest of the passengers accepted me, and I was tearfully honored by their simplest recognitions of me within their ritual space: that I had been held, and not feared by a group of humans with immediate source to heart and intuition.
“Outside the aquarium they sit together squeezed onto two long benches. It is a brilliantly sunny spring day. There are seven of them, four men and three women, nine including the two women watching over them. Five of these people appear to have Down’s Syndrome, judging by their similar faces. The other two are all strange herky- jerky movements and facial expressions– they smile then frown then smile again within seconds. They can’t keep their hands off one other. They stroke each other’s hair, try to steal a piece of sandwich or water bottle when it is brought to someone’s lips, snoop in each other’s backpacks… One of them turns to a guardian and says “The shark in there was *small*! I thought it would be BIG!” One of his companions says BIG several times in exactly the same way, very fast: BIGBIGBIGBIG. A few of them laugh at that. Then like a flock of birds flying in perfect choreography around the sky in the evening, all of them, all, turn their faces to the bright morning sun and eyes closed, grin.” (Jonathan Carroll)
At the grocery store a somewhat mad-man from our town steps into line behind me. I turn to address him “Aziz, how’ve you been?” He’s stunned, then recalls how I know him, punked out on meth’ trying to get a drink at closing time at my bar, many times. “You, lady, are one of the classiest women I’ve ever met” he said. It’s because I looked him in the eye and met him there, rather than running in fear to call the cops.
Who are we, reflected by others as our mirrors ? Are our hearts still open to love and the grief that may bring ? Are we living out some mythic destiny from a previous lifetime that infuses us with engagement, or deflates our spirit in fear?
Stopping to smell the roses is sound advice, if they’re around. Having the temerity to step into the ditches of humanity and run some time in those trenches is equally valuable. Yet each of these experiences is avoidable, if we maintain our insularity from others, and never examine that “other” in the mirror, who is also me.
Is it madness to live eye to eye, seeing what words often won’t speak ?