What Is Going On Here?


“What is going on here?” A tiny, heart shaped face with a halo of white fuzzy hair looks up at me, eyes big with the question. A pale and withered hand reaches shakily up, imploring me to stop. Me, I am briskly walking down the hallway of the nursing home with my guitar at my side, trying to make it out of the building before the evening traffic starts, thinking about the groceries I need to pick up on the way home. Don’t forget the lemons! It’s already ten minutes past the end of my shift at Panorama, playing my songs for the “old folks,” as my father would have put it.

I could easily ignore her—in a few seconds, she will not even remember that I walked by. She’s not on my list for one-on-one music therapy sessions, and I have never seen her before. In this place, it’s not unusual for people to be sitting in the hall in their wheelchairs, calling out to anyone for some diversion. Like we are told with children begging for money in third world countries, you simply can’t give money to all of them and it’s probably best to just move on.

I glance up and down the hall—there are no nurses or aides or chaplains or food servers anywhere to be seen at that moment. This lady and I are completely alone. A whisper in my head tells me that I cannot ignore her, not with that pleading look directed towards me and me alone. Remember why you are doing this, Eli?

OK, forget the lemons.

I look at the name on the door outside her room. “Would you like me to sing a song for you, Sylvia?” I ask.   Her face immediately brightens up. “My sister and I sang on the radio for two years!” she tells me. “Well, maybe you can sing with me too!” I say. I tell her that my sister and I also sing together sometimes. She smiles and repeats the happy memory about singing on the radio for two years with her sister in Aberdeen. Sylvia will repeat this story many times more in the quarter hour that I spend with her.

I suggest that we go into her room, and she wheels around with a big smile, clearly happy to have someone to talk to. As I am unpacking my guitar, I learn that she is angry about being there. “Why am I here, anyway?” she asks, again with earnest plaintiveness, searching deep into my eyes for an answer, her face just inches from mine. “Do you know Carol? Maybe you could call her and ask her to get me home. My kids dumped me here, but it’s my house, and I want to go home!”

I realize with a shock that I completely identify with her feeling of bewilderment. I also identify with trying to control and blame others to make sense of my reality. How do we find ourselves where we are in life? It really does not matter that she has advanced dementia and I do not—the feeling is the same, the knee-jerk tendencies are the same. We are so similar, Sylvia and I.

What IS going on here?

For the past year, I have been “in transition.” We say this to other people when we are between jobs, between relationships, between one “phase” of our life and the next.   It’s the catch-all phrase we use when our self-definition is fuzzy, or even completely unknown. It’s for after the divorce, but before you have stopped finding his old razors at the back of a bathroom drawer, turning you into a mud puddle for the rest of the day. It’s for after the drug rehab program, but before you have made new friends who aren’t users, before you can even believe these new friends could be nearly as interesting or brilliant as your old friends. It is after someone important in your life dies, but before you have finished grieving, long before you can really accept that she is gone, that you could ever be alive and be who you are without her.

For me, on the widest surface of meaning, it has been about re-defining myself as a working person and figuring out how to pay the bills, since I lost my day job as a state Senator’s Legislative Assistant a little over a year ago. Trying to navigate government programs, learning new computer skills, meeting new people, taking classes, researching on the Internet, all with the goal of “landing” a new job, landing somewhere more apparently solid, stepping into a re-definition of myself.

It’s as if I am in a store called Elizabeth NEXT! I’m walking down an aisle displaying mannequins who all look exactly like me, but each is wearing a different outfit. Will I be someone who finally figures out how to make money from my musical endeavors? (Love those crazy leggings!) Will I be a project manager? (Sharp blazer…but is it really me?) Novelist? Fundraiser? Hmmmm. How about a worker at a food co-op? (Really? I could wear moccasins to work?) A music therapist? (Oooh, check out the beautiful harp accessory!)

What (the hell!) is going on here?

For most of us, fears abound during times of transition. Over the past year I have struggled with the terror of re-definition at this time in mid-life, and have faced very real concerns about my economic security and my ability to take care of myself as I am aging. The Big 6-0 is just a little over two years away! I’ve been at times sunk by waves of depression, laid low by physical illness, and spun out into dark whirlpools of anxiety. I’ve been pulled back again and again by the love of good friends, and the eternal magic of the Muse. (Good dark chocolate has helped too!) I have tried my best to meet this indisputable “now” without blaming someone, without curling up into a ball and wrapping myself in the oh-so-soft comfort of a victim blanket. Like Sylvia blaming her children for “dumping her” in the nursing home, I can so easily fall into the trap of being angry at others for my situation and my painful feelings.

I also know that Sylvia’s feelings are understandable, and that I would probably feel that way too in her shoes. She had a life, a home, raised a family, drove a car, lived in a town full of complex relationships--now she is in a wheelchair looking up and down an empty hall. Yes, I want to embrace accountability for my life and avoid getting personally trapped in a “victim stance” that immobilizes me from moving forward. But the world is also full of unfair and unjust things that we must try to improve however we are called to do so. I have no doubt that Sylvia’s family love her and have made the best choices possible for her. At the same time, we need to keep looking for ways to improve those choices for families so that our elders feel as much love and comfort as possible. It is the mission of the Panorama Convalescent and Rehabilitation Center to do just this, so I am glad to do my own small part.

As a music therapist, I play songs I have written to bring a feeling of joy or a soothing moment to the residents. With Sylvia, the song that comes to mind immediately is “Sweet Misery.” I have never played this song during my one-on-one sessions, because the lyrics are somewhat dark. They invoke the gothic landscape of the murder ballads and outlaw hymns I heard my father sing when I was a child. Here’s the final verse:

If I had a river, if I had a loaded gun
And a jug of three dollar wine
I would sing to you all night long
Until the rising sun
Then I know everything will be fine
Oh Sweet Misery
Oh Sweet Misery

But I know that Sylva won’t be listening to the words. She’s a singer. She’ll be listening for the music.  Words seem to run through her brain like water through a sieve, but clearly one of her favorite memories is about singing. I just want to play a pretty song that someone who loves to sing could easily join in with.

I start by singing the chorus for her. “No, I don’t know that song,” she says, shaking her head. “Well, maybe you will know it when we are finished!” I say. Sylvia is game, and nods eagerly for me to go ahead, tiny hands gripping the arms of her wheelchair, eyes locked on mine. I begin singing and playing. Sylvia’s face relaxes as she lets the sound of my voice and the guitar wash over her.

By the second time I sing the chorus, Sylvia is looking up to the ceiling, clearly working to remember something. “Yes—yes! I think I remember this now!” she exclaims. She begins singing with me, her voice thin and sweet and fragile as a sheet of rice paper. Her notes dive and swoop around mine, sometimes meeting me exactly, sometimes landing on precise harmony notes a third above mine. She is singing with me, and it’s beautiful. “That’s it!” I say between the words of the song. She sings with more confidence, and her smile opens up even more. I’m amazed, given her advanced dementia. Her brain can still learn a tune she has never heard before, and even find a harmony.

Sylvia has stopped wondering: what is going on here? And so have I.  

There is no bewilderment, no victimhood, no grasping, no obsessive need to define and control. Just the simple joy of singing together as human beings across the planet have done for tens of thousands of years. I am grateful to have this moment with Sylvia, a moment of openness and expansion inside the challenging transitions we both are experiencing in our lives. Because the truth is…we are always in transition, each of us, in every moment. There is no solid ground for any of us, and not one of us escapes suffering. From our science and from the teachings of our wisest, we know that any solidity we experience in life is at best an illusion, as the only constant is unceasing change…and more change.

The state we call “in transition” is often an uncomfortable and even terrifying space and time.  And yet, it is also rich with the potential for re-invention and creativity, for digging down beneath the depths of our constructed selves to find the heart that beats outside of any identity. It’s a chance to heal, if we can crack open our fearful hearts a bit wider and discover what is really going on here: the open sky of love holding and connecting us all.



By Elizabeth Hummel 1/17/2016