It was becoming a bad situation. I had been a live-in caretaker for a dear woman with dementia for over a year when I began to experience an increasingly short temper and inability to complete the other part-time work I engaged in from home. The repetitive questions my charge bombarded me with each day were driving me to distraction. It reminded me of the incessant questioning my son had engaged in as a two-year old and the recurring “why” my friend’s son with autism chants like a mantra as he taps his palm in a tick he is compelled to repeat. No matter how simple the question, any answers I might give any of them were fleeting and insufficient. In their minds, the questions were always unanswerable.
A songwriter friend brought me abruptly back to my own simple questions recently when I asked him about the source of his prolific creativity. We had been instant messaging online about his music career when his dial-up internet connection bumped him offline. In the mere minutes it took for his system to reconnect, he wrote a song and sent me the words. As a writer who struggles with her own muse, I was duly impressed. “How do I plug into that wellspring?” I asked him with sincerity. “It usually starts with a simple question or observation and just moves from there,” he replied. I knew a bit about his writing, had watched him go through periods of intense composing. It was a sight to behold, reminiscent of demonic possession and religious bliss all rolled into one. I wanted to know more, so I shared with him my tendency to pass over the simple questions because they are so mundane and unanswerable. I am always gravitating towards some new, complex problem to work on. Complexity has always seemed so much more satisfying, more intelligent, more productive. He told me a story.
As a young man he had worked in an experimental program in Austin, Texas that brought Alzheimer’s patients and children in daycare together for activities. He said the one thing that struck him most poignantly about the experience was how similar the questions his charges asked again and again were to his own, and how equally unsatisfactory the answers were. “Am I alone?” was one woman’s mantra. “No, I’m here with you,” my friend would answer. “Am I alone?” she would repeat moments later. “No, your daughter is coming soon,” he would say in hopes of assuaging her fears with the familiarity and comfort of her child. “Am I alone?” she would query again. “No, God is always with you.”
I deeply felt his point, so I began thinking about simple questions. It occurred to me that despite the seemingly vast number of variables that go into the living of each life, we are all moving and crying and reaching for the answers to the same simple questions. Read the newspaper. Listen to your family, friends and neighbors. Beneath every convoluted story you will find them. The who, what, where, when, and whys we can never truly answer. We’re stuck with them. Yet unlike my comrade who turns them into song, most of us hide the unanswerable in layers of complexity.
As my day continued after that amazing conversation about creativity, more examples of how we run from the simple questions popped up. Another friend stopped by to chat about a book he was reading and offer news of a mutual friend with early onset Alzheimer’s. We talked about how the elderly can sometimes reinvent the truth and create a new reality. How they may come to believe things that couldn’t possibly be true. My friend and I discussed ways to help individuals with these kinds of brain issues-dementia, Alzheimer’s, autism, even the tendency to misinterpret reality- wondered if they could be trained to stick with acceptable answers to their questions, to recognize reality, and eventually stop asking their questions all together.
Mulling all these ideas, I went back to my work when he left–a set of interview questions for an author’s press package I was compiling. His book is about using the discoveries of science to illuminate the spiritual journey. The author’s basic premise is that quantum mechanics has now proven there are different planes of existence, and while the body fully inhabits the physical plane, the “soul” originates from a nonphysical plane and can only interact with the physical world by means of the brain. He contends that through this brain-body association, the soul forgets how to be aware of the nonphysical planes, yet through specific practices the soul can regain its awareness. The author believes we are able to experience all levels of existence by circumventing the “goings-on” of the brain.
I paused when I finished writing the set of intricate interview questions. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “What questions are each and every soul asking again and again in this quest to wake up to the source? Could it be as simple (or even simpler) as ‘WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY?” I sat a bit stunned, considering the differences between me and the elderly I had been discussing, a young child, or my friend’s son with autism. Perhaps it isn’t an organic inability or failure on their part to receive and understand the answers to the most basic questions. No. Could it be that they are giving us a real-time glimpse into the struggle of the soul? The physical world is an illusion, a puzzle, an enigma to the part of us that has emanated from the nonphysical plane. Those of us with “normal” brains are stuck between physical and nonphysical realities. Our disorientation is represented by those recurring, incessant questions that have no satisfactory answers. And we are embarrassed by them. Proud. Busy. Too smart. Disbelieving. It is only through the “malfunction” as experienced in dementia or autism or through the transcendence of our brains gyrations can the questions and their unanswerability be allowed or accepted. People with certain brain issues don’t know they are asking the questions and not getting any satisfactory answers. They must allow and accept because they have no mechanism to avoid. They are compelled to ask what their souls demand openly and incessantly. The rest of us however, wrap ourselves in involvedness to hide our lack of answers.
So when the elderly lady I live with asks me yet again “who is that?”, “what do I need to do?”, “where is my cat?”, “when is my appointment?” or “why am I so sleepy?”, I sigh and remind myself that we are all straddling different planes of existence each time we breathe–that the “answers” are in the space between our heartbeats and the pause between our thoughts. Instead of running from or resenting the simple questions, we can love them, live them, and understand the awesome opportunity we have to experience the whole of life through them. We can stop asking and be the questions. And that’s how a “bad” situation turned into something “good” for me. It’s really just that simple.