Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Gladdest Game

(Written in memoriam to Annie Parmeter, who died 13 October 2009)

Kate,  in her tribute to Annie, told me the following:

"We shared a love of simplicity, of plants and of people which in Annie seemed to flow out of her overall gratitude for life. I remember very clearly her speaking to me (a few years ago) in tones of outrage, of her inability to understand how people could lack gratitude for the simple fact of being alive."

That sense of gratitude, even in her condition, reminded me of the story of  "Pollyanna". "Pollyanna" is often used in a pejorative way, for someone who is unrelentingly optimistic, but the story has far more depth than that, and also some resonances with Annie's condition.

Pollyanna explained how she came to play what she called "The Glad Game":

"Why, we began it on some crutches that came in a missionary barrel.  You see I'd wanted a doll, and father had written them so; but when the barrel came the lady wrote that there hadn't any dolls come in, but the little crutches had. So she sent 'em along as they might come in handy for some child, sometime. And that's when we began it."

Making the game up on the spot, Pollyanna's father taught her to look at the good side of things-in this case, to be glad about the crutches because "we don't need 'em!". And Pollyanna sets to work to tell other people in the town where she lives with her aunt how to look upon the flip side of misfortunes, how there can be something to be glad about in every situation, although it may be sometimes very hard for the person to see that. As Annie wrote in her notes:

"It is logically possible and certainly desirable to end the ancient habit of paying attention to distress, and replace it by a new attitude or posture of paying attention to interesting and rewarding concerns including the present situation. So I now decide to do this and will repeatedly so decide until the ancient habit is broken"

When Pollyanna is struck by a car, and loses the use of her legs, she is initially despairing, because there is no room for complacency, for any kind of the superficial optimism about her condition. Then the town people come and tell her of how she has changed their lives, by taking them out of their complacency, and giving them a different and better perspective on their lives, rather than just complaining about matters all the time.

And this resonates with me regarding Annie's heart condition. Despite all the problems it caused, she always managed to overcome that and reach out to people, and challenge them in all kinds of ways, and I am privileged to see myself amongst that number

I was also struck recently by the comments of Emma Restall-Orr, an English Druid, who was on Radio 4's "Beyond Belief" discussing religion and disability. She persistently refused to accept the designation "disabled" in referring to herself, and instead continually used the term "differently abled".

I think that is very much how Annie saw herself; she often asked me the same question - if someone had a magic wand, and could take away your health problems, would you let them? Her answer was that she had come to be whom she was with her heart condition, and she was concerned that she might lose all the things she had learnt, and her attitude to life, because of that.

"A continuing challenge in this area for me comes in the form of a fine long-standing co-counselling relationship with someone who also has a chronic illness. One particularly useful tool that my fellow co-counsellor brought to our relationship was a package of three questions.

.        Why did I choose this disease?
.        What can I learn from it?
.        Would I be without it?

At first sight these questions or their imagined answers might seem quite strange, but the consideration of them has provided a really valuable and powerful 'way in' to addressing some of the issues experienced by a person with chronic illness and it continues to be a useful and effective tool for both of us."

Here is Emma Restall Orr speaking on being "differently abled" (she is confined to a wheel chair, and has heart trouble as well), and much of what she says speaks to me of so much of how Annie also lived her life:

"One of the things that I need to work out every day is my commitment to living the day, so I can understand the story that you just told. And every day I do make that decision - to live through the day - and that commitment is a commitment to myself, to those who love me, to those I love, and to everything that inspires me, to everything that I give my life to. But also I think one of the important parts of that decision is that I don't do things, which are beyond my ability, my capacity - because my state of being 'differently abled' I suppose, means that if I push myself, I crash very quickly"

" I think 'happy' is a massive challenge and a word we can use too flippantly. I would say 'happy' is a broad and powerful word that I aspire to. But no, I wouldn't say my life is happy. I work very hard in order to live a fulfilled life and to have moments of serenity and of happiness. Life is too hard for me to say it's happy."

Moments of serenity and happiness, I shared with Annie. And also the times when I would try to help her, massaging her feet, or tapping my hands on her back with a regular beat as this would help with her pulmonary cough.

There were times when it was too much to bear, and she did weep, and cry about how hard life was, and how little other people appreciated what they had. Here's what Annie wrote about a bad day:

"It's like this... on a bad day the effects of this illness can be most debilitating rendering one not only physically weak but utterly lacking in emotional stamina, stimuli of any kind can be 'too much', noises, the phone ringing, someone walking past the door and the idea of having to interact with even one other person can be very daunting."

But even when she was down, her attitude was one of gratitude in life, because she was still alive, clinging on sometimes, it seemed, by her fingertips on the edge of a precipice, but still alive, and open to the joys of life. That came over very clearly in her counselling course, where she wrote the following notes on one of her classes:

"One of the first exercises in class this evening was for each person to ask 'Who am I? What happens when we continue to present to others and ourselves a somewhat jaded view of what should be at the very heart of our delight in life.our self and all its different facets and possibilities, a limitless reason for gratitude? Repeat something often enough and we'll all end up believing it, time to change the record I think lest we reach death with a nasty feeling of having been seriously underwhelmed by our lives. "

"Taking delight in the self is usually seen in our culture (although to a degree gender variant) as being boastful or narcissistic but it can be an enormously valuable tool for self-empowerment, unlearning all our patterns of self deprecation can be a lengthy, difficult and upsetting business and is not the consumption of substances such as cocaine and ecstasy the cheat's way to attempt it albeit with temporary results?"

"I once attended an Co-Counselling workshop themed on the idea of 'feeling good about ourselves' and 'giving up feeling bad about ourselves'. It's quite amazing at how much 'stuff' there is to shift in this area for just about everybody; most of it comes away in laughter as people start to shift embarrassment and fear often followed by tears of grief as memories surface of how others put us down, or punished and discouraged us from expressing our delight in ourselves."

In conclusion, I think this quotation from Emma Restall Orr, sums up a lot of how Annie engaged with the world, and what she taught us, and still inspires us with our own lives.

"We are all 'differently-abled' and if we work within those capacities then we're doing fine. If we can stretch and push, and aspire beyond them, that's wonderful - but really it's about each of us individually finding  our own inspiration that allows us to live well."

And when I look back on Annie's life, I find memories of a life that was certainly full of inspiration, and a friend and partner who certainly lived well - she lived very well indeed.

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