Saturday, February 26, 2022

Wilmette Notes: Normal

     The question of who are strangers and who are "us" is perhaps the fundamental issue of all human societies. One we see constantly reflected in many, if not most, of the issues we confront every day. Saturday correspondent Caren Jeskey, writing at this fraught time in international affairs, brings a keen, compassionate eye to the issue. Her report:

By Caren Jeskey

     So, let us be alert—alert in a twofold sense: Since
     Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And
     since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.
            — Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
     My friend Stacey and I have a history of laughing at inappropriate times. Nervous laughter is an automatic way for the body to regulate when a person feels an emotion they’d rather not feel. So please don’t judge us for cracking up at a dinner table in a home outside of Kumasi in Ghana, West Africa back when we were in our twenties. Our well intentioned host reminded me of Mrs. Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. She seemed unable to see us and be present, and instead was offering us a performative experience of the home she wanted us to perceive. The problem was the absurdity of the situation in her home, and the practiced way she was treating us. (Though I must add that I am very grateful that she had us, and tried).
Akan memorial head,
Metropolitan Museum of Art
      Stacey is a black woman and I am white. When we got to Ghana one of the most surprising things was that we were both called obruni, a word in the local Twi language for white man. When we’d step off of our tour bus, people would gather and point with an unabashed curiosity and call out “Obruni! Obruni!” My black companions balked. “Why are they calling us that word?” Some of them voiced that they thought they’d feel more welcomed home upon their arrival to their Motherland. Instead, they found that they were considered just as much outsiders as I was and as a white man would have been.
     I have since learned that obruni means white man in Twi, but it also means foreigner, depending on the dialect. It might be said in an affectionate manner, or it might be said distrustfully— as in “don’t trust the outsider.”
     Stacey’s and my host for the week was a Ghanaian woman who ran a local restaurant. She had a white Jesus posted prominently in her living room, and she seemed to have a thing for me. Instead of treating us equally, she made eye contact with only me, not Stacey. When she knocked on our door to let us know a meal was ready she’d address only me. “Caren! Breakfast is ready!” Stacey and I would reel at the rudeness, and then laugh our butts off from behind the closed door.
     There was a pregnant teenage girl sleeping on the floor of our host’s home, and being treated as a servant.  Stacey and I were already on edge, and as we sat at the table eating one day, the skinny teen bowing and scraping and serving us, we just lost it. We laughed so hard we cried. Our host thought we were insane, and we could not explain. The next day the trip coordinators found us a new host home where we felt more comfortable. 
I truly hope this woman and her baby fared well.
     Lately, memories have been flooding back to me, as though I am watching my life flash by through the window of a train.
     This was the week I decided to venture out into a public event for the first time since "Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!" at Harris Theater last October. I was invited to the opening of the Frida Kahlo immersion experience at Lighthouse ArtSpace on Wednesday evening, vaccine cards and masks required. I put on a dress for the first time in ages. It felt good. Normal.
     I welcomed the exposure to art and music, and the sheer beauty of the space, but it did feel odd. It will take a while to feel OK about being in the world again. I got to spend time with Sylvia Puente who had received the invitation, and kindly asked me along. When I picked her up I got out of the car for a long, heart-to-heart hug with the dear friend I was seeing for the first time since last summer, due to my extreme COVID hermitism.
     Tragically, the next day we awoke to terror in the air with the Russian invasion of Ukraine adding a new level of helplessness to the world. I decided, that day, to reach out to Stacey since she is one of the few people in the world with whom I am sure to have a good laugh of two. It’s a gift to have people who help us feel seen, understood, stimulated, humored, safe, and loved.
   Yesterday, Stacey and I had our first phone call in years, and it was as refreshing as I knew it would be. Her words, as always, were powerful and comforting. Stacey is a high school teacher. I was moved to think of the good fortune those young people have, with such a steady presence as their teacher.
     Listening to Stacey speak is like being in a pool of natural hot spring water at just the right temperature—the sun peeking gently through a canopy of trees, a cool breeze rattling aspen branches and prompting songbirds. The timbre and cadence of her voice, as well as the wisdom that spills out of her, is a testament that the deepest calm can come without the use of mind altering substances.
     Stacey also works with organizations to improve their group dynamics, and recently added her expertise to the team at the Chicago Greater Food Depository. She guides people to “realign and redesign existing relationships within and beyond the organization to co-create believable, relevant, measurable organizational change.”
     In this world of too many dilemmas to sort out, our best recourse is what Dr. Victor Frankl, who spent three years in his late 30s in four Nazi torture camps, is to “find meaning in life, and free will.” (I am quoting and paraphrasing from Wikipedia). This can be done “by making a difference in the world, by having particular experiences, or by adopting particular attitudes.”
     In order to focus on one’s purpose, the background noise of anxiety, self-doubt, depression and fear can be tamped down by what Frankl teaches in his logotherapy practice. We can use paradoxical intention where we learn to overcome obsessions or anxieties by self-distancing and humorous exaggeration, through dereflection, which draws our attention away from painful, debilitating symptoms since hyper-reflection can lead to inaction, and via Socratic dialogue and attitude modification; asking questions designed to pursue self-defined meaning in life. If a man whose mother and brother were murdered by Hitler's minions, and who spent four years interred, can put one foot in front of the other, heal, grow, and thrive in some ways, I believe we too have a chance.

                 When we blindly adopt a religious,a political system, 
                  a literary dogma, 
                  we become automatons. We cease to grow. 
                                                                            —Anais Nin


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