Back to School

Freshman Dorm

One room: two beds, two desks, two closets, two large squares of cork board covered with colorful squares and smiles, tacked in place by plastic push pins. By the window, the ultimate convenience invention: the microfridge.

Plastic crates are stacked under the desk and by the microfridge, holding notebooks, pens, pencils, textbooks, and Hot Pockets.

Somehow, within a few square feet, I have squeezed my high school bedroom into this new shared space.

I’m looking out the window, overlooking the quad, seeing the families unloading their minivans; daughters and sons carrying their laundry bags and Doc Martens.

East Halls, Penn State University, my new dorm.

Freshman year.

My parents drive away and I walk to the dining hall with my roommate and friend across the hall, and it begins to sink in.

I’m here.  I made it.

 

I was the first class of the Musical Theatre BFA at Penn State University.  They called us the “guinea pigs” because every semester they were trying out curriculum on us, and our feedback was the deciding factor on keeping the course as it was, or adjusting it to better serve the program and the following year’s students.

This made for a very adventurous experience, and also our input was deeply appreciated.  Our successes and challenges were not only important for our personal artistic growth and craft, but for the development of the program as a whole.  We were the sounding boards.

My time at Penn State was rich and full.  I graduated with top-notch skills in my dance, acting, and singing.  I had a book full of audition songs, a well written resume, and professional headshots.  I had choreographed extensively during my time on campus, both locally and professionally, and enjoyed football games, deep friendships, and love.

I had the tee-shirt, the hat, and the Nittany Lion Roar, “We are PENN STATE!”

I was blue and white proud, and ready for my career, marriage, and post-collegiate life to begin.

Look out NYC…..

 

I returned to Happy Valley in 2001, three years after I graduated, to choreograph Pennsylvania Centre Stage’s summer production of Little Shop of Horrors, and loved being back in the theatre building, and a part of the arts scene there.  Campus hadn’t changed much since my graduation, and I knew a lot of the cast members.

And then a long time passed, a lifetime.

I didn’t return until the fall of 2013 and the surroundings had deeply shifted.

The HUB, or center building on campus had expanded out immensely, undergoing renovation and add-ons.  The building was new, enormous, and offered tons of dining choices, more space for students, and a larger main bookstore.

Streets that used to go though the middle of campus were now just walk-ways to accommodate the growing student body, and I lost track of all the new buildings rising from the once barren grasses.  The actual scope of the campus had enlarged, taking over a golf course, and fields.

I had rented a car to visit the campus, and drove on new roads.

There was so much that had been added, and as I drove all I felt was loss.

I was driving alone now, where for 15 years I had navigated from the passenger side of my marriage, changing the radio and enjoying companionship.

That companionship had begun here, within the blue and white cheers, and theatre parties.  Here I had fallen in love.

I had come into town to see my mentor’s one-woman show and dreamt that night of a massive flood, the waters washing me away.  I was held by a guardian angel and friend who wiped my tears, but I wondered when or if I would ever return.

There was so much change to process. Everything was so new.

 

Last week, I was camping with my parents and brother’s family at Little Pine State Park, over an hour outside of Penn State.  My brother and sister in law also grabbed their cap and gown in Happy Valley, so we planned a day trip to re-visit.

The morning of, I could feel the memory of my last visit forming a knot in my heart, so over breakfast, I looked at my mother and said,

“I’m scared to go back to campus today, and may need your support.”

She grabbed my hand and we both began to cry, as she reassured me she was there for me and always has been.

Just saying the words out loud released the tight ball, and in giving permission to feel it all, I exhaled and scooped a forkful of homemade quiche into my mouth.

Maybe I was going to be ok.
Maybe this visit would be different.

There had been heavy downpour that morning, and as we drove to campus, my parents windshield wipers worked feverishly back and forth to clear my father’s sight.  In the back seat, my mother and I laughed over emails and Facebook posts.

We parked in the Creamery Parking garage, and made our way in under umbrellas to partake in a college tradition:

Ice Cream.

Celebrating it’s 150th anniversary this year, the Penn State Berkey Creamery housed our family as we licked our spoons around the white circular table.  I didn’t even consider another choice, and eagerly asked the server to scoop my favorite into the cup, Bittersweet Mint.

Outside, new students were moving into East Halls.  Families were helping their sons and daughters carry their belongings and laundry bags into the stone and brick buildings.  Convocation was in two days, and the parking lots were full with suitcases and bins.

Much like years ago.

East Halls stood exactly the same, the same square lines and buildings.  What changed was who was entering them.

I savored each mouthful, remembering countless times I would buy ice cream after tap class or after rehearsal, and always the same flavor:  Bittersweet.

 

We left and the skies cleared, as our feet stepped through puddles on the concrete. We closed our umbrellas and began to see blue peeking through the dark clouds above.

In the clearing we took fun pictures on the Nittany Lion statue.
In the clearing we reminisced stories looking at our classroom buildings.
In the clearing I was able to visit with a friend who is now a professor, and hug that guardian angel who held me so tight two years ago.
In the clearing we went to the bookstore and I bought a new hat and long sleeve tee.

The clouds returned again, and rain poured down the slanted sidewalks towards the traffic lights on College Avenue.

I looked around at the students, the teachers, all preparing for a new school year and all the lessons ahead, and I felt the rain soak my skin.

I’m here.  I made it.

Back to School.

Kissing Nittany

The Dance

Photo Rache Bennett

I am beyond honored this week to have the beautiful and glorious Rachel Bennett of Rachel Bennett Yoga as the Guest Writer.  Rachel is a dancer who teaches private yoga and meditation in NYC and is a very talented writer.  She speaks to connecting movement with breath and finding the silence within.  Namaste, and enjoy.

 

In the winter of 99’ I moved to New York to become a professional dancer and actress. I arrived with what the Buddhists call “Beginner’s Mind.” I knew nothing and in that nothing state, everything was possible. My mind was like an empty rice bowl.

But, then my life changed. Six months later, my father lost his job and without health insurance was diagnosed with cancer. My parents lost their house and all their savings. They had no choice but to move down to DC to live with my Dad’s brother and his wife. My father received chemo treatment at John’s Hopkins while my mother worked Full Time and took care of him in the evenings. But my Dad’s cancer didn’t respond to the treatment and on October 21st, 2000, he passed away.

I was a senior at Hunter College.

Loss and suffering are odd. They work on us in ways we don’t always understand until later, marinating inside us, changing us into deeper vessels. The price we must pay is pain. But, the psyche finds ways to numb and cope, so as not to be obliterated by sorrow. We find ways to keep going and mine was movement.

Dance.

After my Dad’s funeral, I returned to New York, but felt numb. I was exhausted from watching my father turn into a skeleton. Grief makes us tired. There are some things we can’t be prepared for, only lived through. I remember the Spring following his death, walking to class, when I noticed flowers coming out of the ground. I was infuriated. I had the visceral desire to crush them under my feet.

I said silently to the colorful buds, “How dare you bloom with such life when my father is dead?”

But, I continued to dance. I landed a gig in Japan and some summer stock musicals, pushing through my grief. On visits home to my mother, I embarked on another loss: Her mind. She acted strangely. Dropped things, kept tripping, couldn’t remember where she’d put something. Eventually, she was fired from her job. Her boss told her, “I’m sorry, Shaunna, but you don’t make your deadlines and you can’t stop crying at work.”

My mother – the one who’d published a newspaper, championed women’s rights, taught Chaucer and Shakespeare and fought for equality of all kinds – I now found sleeping in the middle of the day covered in candy wrappers.

Our dialogue went from talks of art and my life in New York, to something like this:

“Rachel, have you seen my purse?”
“No, Mom. I haven’t. Where did you last have it?”
“I don’t know.”

Her psychiatrist told me her behavior was just grief from losing my Dad, but my gut told me there was more. I left the city to care for her. I thought I could save her, but the more I tried, the more I got pulled down under. She was an endless pit of tears, sorrow and questions and I found myself drowning under her weight.

Sometimes we must leave to survive.

So I returned to NYC, got a job waiting tables and entered what would become a decade of surviving and care-taking. I moved twelve times and secured five different homes from my mother from 2002 until 2008.

Then the phone calls from her room mates:

“Rachel, I’m sorry but your mother doesn’t flush the toilet and leaves milk out on the counter all night. I keep reminding her, but –I think it’s time you find another place for your mom to live.”

“Your mother parks the car half in the driveway, half in the road. I’ve reminded her several times, but – “

So I’d start looking for another home for her.

I kept the acting/dance game going best I could. I earned my SAG and Equity Cards, auditioned for managers and agents, but my mother was sobbing in dark rooms, her hair uncombed. I made an appointment to speak to her psychiatrist, seething.

“She can’t put a key in lock. She can’t find her purse or her lipstick or her notebook. She forgets things I tell her.” I tell him, venom in my voice.

“What is going on? Do you have her on too many drugs? Is her anti-psychotic mixing badly with her rheumatoid arthritis medicine?”

One night, my mother turned the water on in the kitchen sink and then went into the living room to watch TV.
“Mother, you left the water running. You need to turn the facet off.” I said impatiently.
“I don’t remember how.” She said.

I made an appointment with the head of the neurology department at Albany Medical Center the next day. After many written and verbal tests, an MRI and CAT scan, Dr. Zimmerman and I walked down the hall together and he said to me, with a clipboard under his right arm, “I’m sorry Rachel, but from the tests it’s very clear that your mother has early onset Alzheimer’s. It’s primarily in her parietal lobe, which monitors spatial relations, but will soon encompass the frontal lobe as well.”

She was 55.

By this time I’d stopped the dream of performing. Or perhaps the dream stopped me. I’m not sure which.

Pre-Alzheimer’s, my mother was vibrant. When she laughed, mountains shook. When she was mad, sparks seemed to fly from her green eyes. But, when she was happy, the world seemed to glow.  At different times throughout my mother would tell me,

“Rachel, there will be pain in life. And deep sorrow. But, there will also be joy. Remember that when you have the chance to dance, Rachel – DANCE. Always. Whenever the opportunity arises.”

And we did. Over the years we danced in the kitchen to Rod Stewart, at picnics and weddings. When my dad fished in the river, my mother and I danced on the bank.

My mother doesn’t dance anymore. She lives in a nursing home in the Bronx where she sits in a wheelchair, waiting for meals. Waiting for someone to wheel her to an activity. I visit on Sundays and when I do, I put music on, and swirl her in her wheelchair. It’s our new way of dancing. Last week we danced to “Moon River.”

“Rachel, wait!” my mother screamed at me.
“What mama? What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Do you see it? Over there!”
“What mama? I don’t see anything.”
“There! See, there!”
She now points to things that I can never see. “Delusions” the staff psychiatrist tells me.

I wonder if she sees my father’s ghost. Or perhaps she sees us dancing together when I was five years old, heart ribbons in my hair, in Barnstead New Hampshire. She’s in a realm now that is not held by time or space.

Then she proclaims loudly, “Rachel, I’m here! I’m here!”

“Yes, mama you are! And so am I.” I tell her.

Mama Rachel photo Bergen Reginonal Medical Center June 2014

Her words are a declaration, a prayer, an offering, and the highest expression of gratitude I’ve ever heard.

We are here. Now. Each word, plié, brush stroke, or kiss is our way to say, I am here.

If you listen in silence, with all the desire in your heart to hear, you will hear that proclamation spoken by anyone who ever lived, swirling in the cosmos. I am here. I am here. I am here.

What will your offering be?

Rachel Bennett NYCB 2