Thursday, February 25, 2010

Becoming free

Finally, some paying work. I exit the subway train at Columbus Circle and enter Central Park. This is my way of getting in "nature time" en route. The last vestiges of Winter continue with snow on the ground even as birds return and chirp in the crisp morning air.

I quickly move on, making my way east and hop on a downtown 6 train. I'm headed to a midtown hospital, where I'll be providing "coverage" as a "per-diem" clinical chaplain. Today, I'm going to a required training about caring for patients who are deaf or hard of hearing. Our instructor tells us that there is a difference between "deaf" and Deaf," in that the latter word defines a culture of identity in which sign language speaks to the present tense and a particular way of storytelling becomes the foundation for all interactions. 

As I listen, I'm wondering, "how much of this is generalizing?" Even so, I'm fascinated enough to stay open. She tells us that if you ask, "so, when did you first notice the pain in your shoulder?" a Deaf person might sign, "Well, three days ago, Joe calls me up." Then the person becomes Joe and signs, "Hey, want to meet at the gym and lift some weights?" and so on. Only after the story is told this way, does the moment of "pain in your shoulder" get communicated.

Then she adds, "You have to be patient. Also, know that an interpreter's job is to as precisely as possible become the person telling the story." She tells us that a translator is someone who works with written words, bridging one written language to another. An interpreter works with spoken language or sign language. This means also expressing the nuances and expressiveness of body language. If a patient is angry, the interpreter's job is to voice that anger, in the first person. A patient might be saying, I'm furious that I've been pushing this call button for an hour and no one's responded!

Just then, a nurse in our training class asks the instructor, "you mean if a patient's screaming, you'd scream?" Our teacher responds, "no, though you can communicate the urgency and tone at a lower volume."

As I listen, I begin to wonder about how this might differ from acting. What I'm really asking is, "what does it mean to become another?" and below this, "what do I mean by becoming?"

My mind shifts to a moment a few years ago. I'm visiting a man dying in a hospital room. His friends and mother are sitting nearby. One friend suddenly gets up and walks quickly out of the room, her face filled with agitation. I slowly follow her out and offer support. She tells me, "I can't stand this anymore." I say, "looks like you want to scream." Her eyes widen and she says, "I really do."  I invite her to join me in a nearby empty room and ask, "how about a silent scream?" 

She looks at me, intrigued. I continue, "Picture where you want to be right now, about to scream." She immediately replies, "Oh I know exactly where that'd be." I ask, "where's that?" She says, "right in the middle of the road!" I'm aware of the nearby city streets being filled with cars, busses, and trucks whizzing by. I say, "OK, now watch me." I close my eyes, clench every muscle in my face and then release, my whole body focussed in this one action of open mouth shaking itself outwards. My face is flushed by the effort." I stop and turn to her, "now you." She closes her eyes and screams, soundlessly, her whole body shaking. After a minute or so, she stops and opens her eyes. She smiles. I meet her in that smile. Then she turns and opens the door.

Riding home lately, I encounter a lot of screaming. Sometimes it's a homeless man reeking of urine and booze, pleading for "anything you can spare." Sometimes it's the woman whose refrain is forever etched in the minds of fellow travellers, "It ain't no joke. I'm broke." She shouts this out to the monotonous beat of her makeshift drum, a round plastic container.

Every few minutes, the conductor's voice reverberates at a deafening volume, announcing, "if you see something, say something,"  followed soon by, "Passengers, please be advised. Backpacks and other large containers are subject to random search by the police."

Riding to work, it's somewhat different. Fellow passengers find ways to cope. Orthodox Jewish men and women read from Psalms (Tehillim) in Hebrew. A woman holds a rosary while across from her another reads from a small Bible. Kids turn up their mp3 players, some playing games on small screens of cellphones. A man pulls out his macbook and types away.

Then there are the ones reading books and newspapers. Hard to tell fiction from non-fiction. 
A few carry on conversations. A few eat their breakfasts, sip or slurp from plastic and paper cups. Occasionally, someone's carrying a mug or a sandwich from home. I notice the little kids. They're the ones who don't know the rules. They're the ones twirling around poles or turning around in their seats to watch the underworld whizzing by.

At night, it shifts. At night, the rules are known and ignored. Rules become meaningless. Survival is the basic instinct. Freedom is the undercurrent. Creativity becomes its driving pulse. 

I'm tired. I notice those who are too. Tonight, two men get on. They're carrying big drums. They begin to play. At first, I'm irritated, my shoulders tense up. As the beat builds and sounds fill the space, my shoulders release. One of the drummers says, "we're here to bring joy." The other adds, "it's time to smile." 

They finish with a strong crescendo. They stand up and move around, holding out an upturned hat. I check my wallet. I just gave away my last dollar bill. All I've got is a bit of change. I look up. I hear one man thank a woman saying, "God bless you." He sees me. He smiles. I smile. I give him some change.

Tired as I am, I say the only thing that seems to matter, "Thank you." He nods his head, acknowledging this simple heartfelt gesture. He gathers his drums and joins his friend as they quickly find their way out. 

The doors close. The train moves on. 

I glance around the car. For an instant, our eyes meet. We see one another. The train picks up speed. The train arrives at the next station. The doors open. Some people get out. Some people get on.

I close my eyes and listen. The rumble shakes me loose. I still feel tired. Only now feeling tired feels free.