Thursday, September 24, 2009

Meeting Ourselves

Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.
--James Joyce, Ulysses


As I planned this week's theatre games for the women at the overnight shelter, two thoughts dominated the process.
Less silliness, for one: last week proved the women are willing to open up about deeper issues. A little fun is needed to get us to that place--it's tough to get a critical mass on their feet right away--but they're ready to talk, and I need to honor that.

And two, why? Why am I doing this week after week? There's no question I've come to know and care for the women, and that some good always comes of what happens. No doubt my hand must stay in this sort of theatre--when it's not there, I'm a sculptor without clay. But the competent facilitator in me butts heads against my introverted side, and each week I ask myself the big questions. Why am I good at something that's so trying on my psyche? Why does good only come when I've pushed myself to my limits?

These larger existential questions are not strangers; they sit with me as companions on the ride to the shelter each Monday night, have coffee with me on Sunday afternoons. I am so accustomed to their presence I hardly would have thought to mention them had there not been a constant refrain Monday night:

What about you, Amy?

When I walked into the shelter, a few women immediately made sure I knew things were calmer this week than last. The dynamics had changed yet again--a handful of faces were new, though most of the women were familiar to me--making for less hostility.

We began with a few easy exercises. The Entrance Game's hint of silliness ("walk into the room as a cheerleader") led directly into deeper issues, in my version. Walk into the room as someone you admire. As your childhood dream: what you wanted to be when you grew up.

As you at your lowest point.

Shellie, the director, left her office and crawled in front of the others, searching the floor for a speck of crack that may have dropped. Another former crack addict took the stage as well. Kim revisited the day she came home from school and found her mother gone; she and her siblings wouldn't see her again for five years.

As you five years from now.

MJ, who is pregnant, led what we could see was a young child into the room, and began whipping up some eggs. She motioned toward another person to help her out with this sweet but exasperating young one; that person eventually had to leave, and she reached up to kiss him, and waved goodbye as she watched him leave.

What about you, Amy? Jessie asked. Nah, I said, suddenly a bit shy. I'm here for you! Jessie smiled. She's always smiling.

I asked MJ to build on what she had done by using a classic sociodrama exercise called The Empty Chair. This chair is you now, I told her. You are still the you that's five years out, the one from the scene. Tell her, I said, motioning to the chair, how to get to where you are.

Girl, listen, she began, to the chair. You need to get off the streets. You need to marry that man and get your act together. See what we have over there? It can be yours. As she coached herself the group was really with her, except for a pair who couldn't handle the seriousness and were giggling. MJ--as aware an actor as any I've ever met--worked that in. You won't have to deal with people like that anymore, she told herself aloud. We laughed as if it were a joke, but I'm not so sure it was.

Themes always form as I plan out these nights, and I trust they're meant to be for some reason I can't know. Who Are You was tonight's. I told them we need to figure out who we are before we can move ahead, stressing that I'm no therapist but I can help them start thinking. That's all I can do.

Who are you and what do you want? Jessie helped me hand out paper and pens. Write three answers to each question. Don't sign your name.

As everyone sat staring off and thinking about these simple yet difficult questions, Jessie looked at me. What about you, Amy?

Earlier in the day while planning this exercise I had tried to think of answers to these questions, but the second one stumped me. It was as if I didn't want to know what I wanted. As if... I couldn't actually be as vulnerable as I was asking these women to be.

Nah, Jessie. I'm here for you!

Who are you and what do you want? I read their answers aloud. I'm a mother. A grandmother. A loving person. Respectful. Caring. I want a job. A home. Peace of mind.

One woman's complete list read this way:

Drug Addicted
Alcoholic

Homeless


Mother again

Recovering

With God


Another woman wrote: "I need to feel like I belong somewhere in this lifetime. I need understanding about why I don't have nothing."

Kim made a chart of the answers on a large piece of paper. I asked the women to come up, choose a word from the list, and become a statue of that word. This sculpture ended our time and became our closing prayer.

After our meetings, the women are free to shower and do laundry. Tonight, Kate was caught stalling in order to avoid Shower #4, which is the handicapped shower and requires extra cleanup as it has no lip to catch water; too, there's nowhere to hang your clothes to keep them dry. Kate got a verbal spanking for holding up the line.

Who am I? I'm someone with a lot to be thankful for.

Shaniqua answered an affirmative Yes! when I asked if she got the job she was hoping for; Jessie will hear on Wednesday about hers. I told Kathy I had looked for the video she suggested on YouTube last week, but with no luck.

I am a person who is comfortable around people whose circumstances make them straightforward, direct.

Shellie caught my eye. "Amy! Great meeting tonight. I'm lovin' this. Lovin it! You keep coming back, okay?"

I am someone who is good at what I do. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was little. My lowest point came on a night when I went to sleep thinking it didn't matter if I woke up the next morning. I want--

This place. I want to come back.

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