I read a story last week about a church in New Hampshire that responded to these difficult days by programming the church bells to play Monty Python’s classic, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” The story made me smile – briefly – while I wondered, “What bright side could there possibly be to all this?”
I’ve always tried to be an optimist
I’ve always tried to be an optimist, even if I haven’t always succeeded. One of my friends even told me I practice “resilient optimism,” so skilled am I in bouncing back, regrouping, and plotting a course forward no matter what life throws at me. Truth be told, it’s been my anxiety-coping mechanism of choice my whole life, almost like a role I know I have to play when others around me sink into panic and despair. But this? This is unlike anything I’ve ever dealt with and my optimism, heck, even my ability to fake my optimism, has been sorely challenged.
I manage pretty well during the day, when I can pretend life is almost normal as I work away at my little office in my finished basement, calling into meetings, mastering Zoom, drinking my coffee and listening to my music. My wife works upstairs, my daughter in her room. We meet at the end of the day for a walk and dinner, and everything seems almost ok.
It’s the evenings that challenge me. My daughter is a college junior now, finishing her semester through remote learning and, while she’s rising to the challenge, I know that spending her nights with two women in their mid-fifties who keep asking her to turn up the volume so they can hear the Jeopardy questions isn’t exactly her idea of a terrific evening. I can navigate my own losses, my own disappointments, but it’s when I think of what she’s lost that I crumble.
Nearly a full semester of college, potentially her plum summer internship, her friends, her community, her 21st birthday celebrations, and every day college moments have all been snatched from her while she spends her days in a two-bedroom town house with two old ladies who go to bed at 10pm and keep asking her “how she’s doing.”
When the weight of her situation hits me, that’s when you can find me crying in the upstairs bathroom hoping no one can hear me. Bright side? What bright side could there possibly be in all this? But the other day, in attempt to salvage my optimism and my sanity, I took a deep breath, and, at the risk of sounding like a motivational meme, decided to try to find at least one bright spot in the midst of so much uncertainty and sadness.
Remote learning for a theater major is a challenge
Who knew it would come in the form of a Shakespeare class?
My daughter is a theater major so the challenges of moving to remote learning were particularly great, as so much of her work happens in the intimate settings of the acting studio with her peers. I didn’t really think about how it might translate to an on-line platform until the day I heard the unmistakable sounds of acting warmups coming from her bedroom.
Her class was gathering on-line to begin their work and one of her friends was leading them in warm ups. I stopped typing and sat at the dining room table, afraid to make a sound as I heard, over the course of the next 90 minutes, Shakespearean monologues and scenes bursting forth from her and from her classmates “on the computer screen” in her bedroom a floor above me.
I heard applause, I heard laughter, I heard her professor offer his feedback, I heard students counter his advice with points of their own. I realized that I had been given something very rare– a glimpse into her everyday life as a student.
If things were “normal,” she might have told me class was ‘fine,’ or complained about a tough scene, but I would never have been in the ‘fly on the wall’ position I was in that afternoon. Over the following days and weeks, I caught the sounds of her in deep discussion with a professor during “office hours.”
As I was drifting off to sleep, I heard her laughter during a late night on-line gathering of friends, and one glorious night I heard tantalizing bits and pieces of the entirety of Richard II, when she and her cast mates performed the piece for directors and professors over Zoom, on what would have been their closing night. And I realized I had been so busy mourning all we were missing, all that had been taken away, that I hadn’t taken a moment to pause and look at what I had been given: a rare up-close-and-personal glimpse into her college life.
When you’re the parent of a college student in the performing arts , you get used to seeing their finished product-their performances, concerts, or recitals – but not the day-to-day work that leads up to it. One of my fellow Grown and Flown contributors confessed to hovering at the closed door to catch a few notes of her Musical Theater major daughter’s voice lesson, or to enjoying hearing the leaps and landings of the dance classes she was taking on line in their basement. These young artists had brought their work home and it was a privilege to witness their process.
The other night I sat with my daughter for a long talk as she was figuring out how to manage her time to get a few big papers turned in. She confessed that she normally would be taking her laptop and writing in the library, or the campus coffee shops, not in her room and she was trying to find her new normal.
I realized I had no idea how she managed her work at college and liked having this image of her tapping away at her laptop in the common areas of the alma mater we share. It turns out this forced togetherness was introducing me to someone new – not the little girl I had lived with before, but rather the complex, interesting, opinionated, thoughtful woman I was living with now.
So, as we continue to move through these uncertain days, when I feel my chest tighten with despair or anxiety, when I chafe at the confines of the world of our house, I’m going to try to slow my breath, look around me, and take in this unique moment in time when I get to literally watch my daughter live her life as scholar and actor right in front of my eyes.
And when this has passed and she’s gone again, I’ll remind myself how lucky I was. I’ll remind myself of the bright side.
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Katie Collins is a native Mainer who has called New Hampshire home for the past 30 years. A nonprofit development professional by trade, Katie also has over 25 years of experience in community and professional theater and in 2013 was awarded NH Theater Award for Lead Actress in a Drama or Comedy. She resides in quiet domesticity with her adorable wife, with occasional visits from her talented daughter, a college junior. Katie is a lover of musical theater, the original Star Trek, cheeseburgers, old Carol Burnett show reruns, and weekly lap swimming at the local YMCA. She tries very hard not to take herself too seriously.