Apr 25, 2015
Makala Kozo: The theme for today, "What My Grandmother Taught Me," brings up a story for me by Richard Rohr, about some young male elephants in Africa who were” going crazy,” attacking their environment, fighting with each other, and attacking and smashing cars. Elephant experts were brought in to figure out what was going on, and what they found was that all of the elder male bull elephants had been killed or poached. The younger male elephants had no one to teach them how to be elephants.
Older male bull elephants were helicoptered in from a different herd, and the problem stopped. Father Richard Rohr compares this to modern society --- we're destroying our environment or fighting with each other; we're “smashing our cars.” Father Richard Rohr sees that as an indication that we've lost touch with the wisdom of our elders. I'm so happy, Mia, that you’re going to share some of the wisdom that you get from your grandmother.
Aryae: Mia Tagano grew up in a very poor background. She was the granddaughter of Japanese immigrant agricultural workers. Her grandmother met her grandfather in an internment camp in California in World War II. Her childhood experience had many challenges. There was a lot of change and instability. Through it all, her grandmother was an anchor and a stabilizing presence for her.
Mia didn't see her first play until she was in high school. From all of this she made the unlikely leap to receive a BA in drama from Ohio State University and an MFA in theater arts through the University of Washington's professional actors' training program.
Her acting career is impressive. She was in New York; she toured with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England; she's been a member of Actors' Equity; and she has played on TV shows, including "All My Children" and "Law and Order: Criminal Intent." She has acted at Lincoln Center in New York City and with the Royal Shakespeare Company and she did a one-woman show called "Cincinnati" in San Francisco, Seattle, and London.
Her next show will be at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater this spring and summer.
Mia has also worked as a teaching artist for more than 20 years with youth and adults from pre-school to college age. She uses theater arts to teach poetry to students, at the Theater Works of Silicon Valley. She's also worked with her partner, John Malloy, with at-risk youths in native and indigenous youths in indigenous communities.
Her grandmother was born in 1920 into a Buddhist family and cared for Mia when she was growing up. Now, at this point in her life, Mia is caring for her.
It was difficult to get Mia to participate in this call. She said, "Why should people be interested in me?" I want to share with you something I learned from a great teacher in human skills and human purpose named Richard Bolles. He was an Episcopalian priest; he was the pastor at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. A long time ago he changed direction and wrote "What Color is Your Parachute?" It is the greatest career guide about the choices people make.
Richard Bolles said that there are three levels of skills a person can have.
The first level, the basic skill, is when it's hard to do something, but you master it. From (the viewpoint of) someone looking at you, it looks hard.
The next level, the intermediate level, is when it's hard for you to do something but for people looking at you, it appears easy.
The highest level of all is when you do it so naturally, and you say "Doesn't everyone do this?" That is Mia's level of compassion and service right now.
Mia, could you share with us a little about what your life was like growing up?
Mia: We were poor, but it wasn't something I thought about. My mother was a single parent for a long time, and my grandmother and grandfather took care of me a lot. My grandfather's been gone about 37 years.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time on the fields they would farm. We always had enough to eat, though as far as things are concerned, we didn't have a lot. But I had a lot of love from my grandparents and the other workers on the field. The other workers would take care of me and I would run and play, and follow my grandfather and my grandmother around.
I grew up in community, in a way. My mother was gone a lot; I was not as close to her as I was to my grandmother, because I was always with my grandmother. She was working, too, so everyone took turns in helping to raise me.
I was always a happy child, and I was always helpful. I liked to help people, and to laugh. There was a time in my life when it wasn't happy, so that little girl went to sleep for a while. Then, someone related compared me to the darkness just before dawn. But really, I was always dawn. I was always a lot of light when I was younger. So I had to re-find that part of me, to re-find "her."
Part of following what made me happy was good, but also giving back. Every time I give back and do service or am kind, something heals in me. The light turns back on. I feel that in my life now I am back at dawn.
Aryae: What is the greatest learning from your grandmother and from the Japanese-Americans who had gone to the internment camps, and how does this influence who you are and what you do now?
Mia: All of the Japanese on the West Coast were sent to various camps in the U.S. The Japanese-Americans were in Canada and California, Washington, and Oregon. My grandparents were sent to Poston, Arizona, which was one of the largest internment camps. But one of the mantras of the Japanese-Americans was "Shikata ga nai." What this means is, "It can't be helped." In other words, "We just have to go on.” They didn't fight being put into the camps. They didn't understand it, but they went along with it because this is what you do.
They were sent originally to horse stables, to military bases, and the desert. You would think that most people would complain or cry or just sit and die. "Shikata ga nai" is the idea that you don't just sit and die and complain, but you accept and move on. What can you do? What are you able to do?
My grandmother was a singer. She wasn't trained; she didn't finish high school. But she had perfect pitch. She has one of the most beautiful voices, even at 95. She could cook, so she worked in the mess hall. When I talked to her --- I interviewed her years ago, before her dementia set in --- about the camps, and how it was, she would say, "Oh, I used to sing, to make people feel better. Some people would feel bad, so I used to sing."
Or she would say, "I got to make the food." It was never, "Oh, we were put away, or this happened to us," it was "This is what I’ve got to do, this is what I did."
I think about that: "What can I do?" Whenever something's really hard, I think, "Really, it could be harder. This is nothing compared to so many people who have had a hard time and still continue on."
Aryae: Do you consciously practice "shikata ga nai" at this time in your life?
Mia: I always do that. I don't think of "shikata ga nai" exactly. It's in me. What else are you going to do? You do what you can. It's not that I never complain or feel bad. In fact, at the nursing home where my grandmother is, there's a lot of "It can't be helped." There's a lot of things I have no control over and there are things I can do. I don’t not complain when things are not good. I've become an advocate for my grandmother and other residents about things I see that don't seem right to me. But then I also have to pick my battles.
Some things you have to say, "Well, what can I do here? How can I make this better?" That's how I live. You can't always fight and you can't always accept.
Aryae: Given the background you've been describing, what made it possible for you to go to college?
Mia: My mother's second husband was in law school at Santa Clara. He wasn't my father, but he was an influence. My mother would work, he'd be studying, and I'd be looking at all his law books. I couldn't read, and he taught me to read from his books. I always loved learning, but no one in my family had gone to college, so I didn't know that was really an option. But because this family, my sister's father's family, all had gone to college and had an education, I saw that as a possibility in the back of my head.
And along the way there were many people who encouraged me. I knew that I loved learning, so people would encourage and support that dream. Something in me knew I wanted to do it. I started in community college. I knew I wanted to go to a four-year university and had long talks with my mother and step-father. They helped me through that. I wanted to go to a master's program because I knew I wanted to learn more about this craft. I also wanted to be a teacher. I talked to different people, people who didn't go to university, who helped me to decide if it was the right thing for me. Then I just applied. I was very conscious of where I wanted to go.
Then I gambled a bit. The master's program for theater is very difficult to get into. It costs a lot of money just to apply, and there are hundreds who do apply. Then, in our program, usually 12 are taken, but I somehow knew it was going to work out. I don't know how, but it was the support and encouragement of people along the way that helped me.
Aryae: You had a hunger for learning, and reached out to the people who were out there.
Mia: And it's funny, because I was someone who didn't stand up for myself a lot, who was quiet and shy. And yet there were these times that were important, when I did speak up for myself or asked for help.
Aryae: You didn't really have much experience with theater. How did you wind up majoring in theater?
Mia: I didn't go to plays; we didn't go to theater or the ballet. But I remember that, when I watched TV, I would direct people on the TV. I would make comments like, "Oh, they're not loud enough," or "I don't believe them," the kind of thing a child can do. Also, when I was in second grade, somehow I got into the fourth grade play. I was the only second-grader to get into it. I memorized all of the lines. When we'd rehearse, if someone was missing, the director would say "Who has these lines memorized?" And I would have them all memorized, but I was only a second-grader. I never really stepped in for someone. I had my own lines, but I was so eager. I loved it. I loved being on stage.
Frankly, I think I wasn't very good when I started. In that play in particular, I think I learned everyone's lines but my own. I found out a curious thing --- I always wanted to be an actor, and I didn't even know what that was.
I would make up little plays. One of the first plays I did in community theater was "King Lear." I was telling my grandmother about it, and I was a little bit condescending, not meaning to be, but she didn't go to theater, and (presumably) she didn't know who Shakespeare was. And I said something like, "Oh, yeah, I'm in this play, by Bill Shakespeare." I dumbed it down. And I said, "Yeah, there's these three sisters, and I'm one of them." And my grandmother said, "Which one are you?" I said, "Oh, I'm the middle sister." And she said, "Oh, Regan. Oh, yeah, I played her 50 years ago in Japanese school." I said, "Why didn't you ever tell me? All these years I've been trying to figure out where this acting bug came from." She said, "Well, why? There's no need to brag." Which is one of the reasons doing this call was hard for me. (Laughs) But I know there are so many friends out there.
Aryae: When you were in graduate school in the University of Washington you created a solo show about a woman who had lost her child when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. I want to ask you about the lesson you learned from the experience of doing that show.
Mia: The MFA program was such that we all had to do a solo show. Throughout the three years we would do short solo shows because as an actor you're constantly unemployed, so you have to make your own work. I was doing this piece about this woman, and I was channeling this woman, seeing the devastation around me, holding my child who had passed, and weeping. Every word I spoke had pain and sorrow, and it was so real, and at the end I was so proud of myself. My classmates and the other witnesses were patting me on the back.
There's an evaluation at the end of every quarter, where all your teachers will talk to you about your work, and I'm expecting accolades for that demonstration of my "brilliance." (laughs). At the same time I wanted constructive criticism because I always want to make my work better. And my director said, "What was that? What were you doing up there --- all that acting? What was that?" And I said, "I was channeling her. I was really feeling it." And he said, “If you're feeling it, how can we feel anything?” This is a really important story. This has implications for the world, the devastation that a bomb, that war, can have on a people. If you're getting all that feeling, what do we get from that? We don't get to have our experience."
And what is theater about? It's not about you having that feeling, but us, the audience, the transformative process that can happen in the seats of the audience. By having all the feelings that I was, I wasn't allowing that to happen. I was so grateful, because after that, I learned to tell truth in a different way.
Aryae: Tell us about the actor who shows you the moon.
Mia: There's a book I used to carry around when we were touring in England. I wanted to make sure I didn't get that "too big for my britches" feeling (as my grandma might have said years ago), with the Royal Shakespeare Company and all that came with that. There's a book called "The Invisible Actor" by a man named Yoshi Oida. He's a master in what I was trained in, the Suzuki Technique. He talks about the fact that there are different kinds of actors. There's the actor who comes out on stage and, "Oh, he's beautiful, or She's beautiful, the costume he's wearing is so beautiful, the way he walks across the stage is so elegant." Then he points to the moon, and "Oh, my goodness, the point! You can see the talent." And then you have another actor who comes out, and he points to the moon, and you see the moon. It's almost as if that actor isn't there.
But if it's about seeing the moon, then the first actor failed. If it's about the story and all I see are the actors and what they're wearing, I don't hear the story, then I've failed, if I'm that first actor. The second actor came in humbly and did his job, which was to show us the moon, and we saw the moon. That's what Yoshi Oida talks about as "the invisible actor."
That is what I try to be. When you're a lead in a show, you still have to find that truth and that humility, even if the spotlight is on you. You don't want to use tricks to tell your story.
Aryae: Is this what acting has to teach about life?
Mia: I think it helps me all the time --- whenever I find myself being disingenuous. There was a time when I stopped writing this year, where I felt, "Am I writing these stories about my grandmother because I want approval or I need validation or I need people to say, 'Oh, look, how nice you are Mia'?" And I said, "No, that's not at all what I want." But I was afraid that's what might be seen or how I might be coming off, so I stopped writing. I make sure that when I do write, there's a bigger story, and not just me.
Also, I've started writing not just about my grandmother, but about other people. Because it's not just about my grandmother, really. My acting world --- not the presentation part, but the truth part --- always influences me. I get reminders all the time.
Aryae: Can you tell us about how you and your partner John met?
Mia: We like to joke that we met at a sobriety party, where people in recovery are celebrating their time sober. But we as sober people are not actually part of the sobriety community. John is a counselor of many people who have lost their way in that regard, or who need help in that area. I was doing outreach education with a theater company where we would use improvisation with different kinds of students --- at-risk youths and also youths and adults with special needs. One student of John's from the school he used to run asked me to come to her sobriety party, and asked other adults who had made a difference in her life, and John was there as well.
I didn't know his history; I knew he was a teacher, but I didn't realize the bigger picture. We just started talking at the picnic table, where all the food is, because that's the best place to be. (Laughs) We ended up talking for an hour and became good friends. And then fell in love.
Aryae: How were you led to connect with the Service Space community?
Mia: (Mia describes being introduced to members of Service Space) There's something about this group. I felt very connected. I haven't felt that way since we'd been to Japan and done a peace walk. I felt connected to the people there who were so loving and giving. I felt as if I was home when I came to Service Space. I'm so grateful. It's been about five years now. It's very hard to say no to anything. I was very surprised when I said no to Service Space. I was going to stick to my guns. But it is an honor to be asked.
Aryae: You came to Service Space and then last year you went to India with Nipun and Pavi and others from the community. Then you came back and the next chapter was caring for your grandmother. It's an interesting sequence. First you're at the ashram in India, and then you come back to care for your grandmother. How did that experience in India prepare you for caring for her?
Mia: So many things happen for a reason. I feel like I'm guided a lot by a higher power all the time. This trip to India was a gift from an anonymous donor. I could not have gone to India without the group and this donor and an invitation.
That generosity of heart influenced everything else. I saw people everywhere in India who were generous and giving and loving. Regardless of color, race, or status, it was "We are human beings together and we take care of each other." We went to a leprosy community called "The Loving Community." I remember a woman who was missing her fingers, and taking her hands and holding my face and blessing me and thanking me. I was thanking her. It was so beautiful. And going to a village where I felt so loved by so many… They didn't even know me. I felt held everywhere I went.
When you're given such love, there's a responsibility to give back. And here was my grandmother put into the home. It felt like it was an extension of India somehow, and that it was important to give back to, not just my grandmother --- I've done that forever --- but also to the other residents. It's not a responsibility that feels like hard work. It feels like joy. It feels like my heart opens up constantly at the home. Besides my own upbringing, that trip was pivotal.
Aryae: One of the key features of your story and your writing is that, now, when you go there to be with your grandmother, you're not only being there with her, but with the other elders. If you're there to be with your grandmother, why not just be there with her?
Mia: We're stronger in community. When I first got there, I got to know all the nurses and all the CNN's (certified nephrology nurses). I got to know certain elders. They're all neighbors; they all live together. If I just went in and just visited with my grandmother, it would be a small world for her and for me. When you're in these homes, it's a very small world for everyone who lives there. Their life is their bed or their wheelchair or their room. They don't even recognize the person who is in the same room with them as sharing a space. Something switches when you are in a nursing home; something has to turn off in order to survive there.
Our lives have expanded. My grandmother's life has expanded in the nursing home because we walk the space. Even walking with her, I'll say hello to people. I will kiss her neighbor and roommate, Anna Mae, on the cheek. She didn't ever show any emotion at all. She would lie on the bed, and her mouth would be open and her eyes glazed. I would still say hello. After a while she started to wake up. Her eyes would start to focus. Then she started to say hello. I would kiss her on the cheek and say "Sweet dreams," and at one point she started to say "Sweet dreams."
Through all this time my grandmother is saying "That lady over there, she just stares." Over the year, while I was doing this, my grandmother started doing this in the halls, too. That's her way. She's my teacher, really; she just forgot. She's starting to help people in the halls. Now she says, about her roommate, "This is my friend." Not "There's that lady," but "This is my friend." Anna Mae was in a wheelchair the other day and started to leave her room. My grandmother said, "Hey, don't go too far. Be careful."
Something opens up. If I had just stayed with my grandmother, it would have been a sad experience.
Aryae: Having done this with many elders like Anna Mae, what general lessons have you learned about how to approach elders with dementia in situations like this, and how to connect with them?
Mia: For one, don't think of it as a difficult thing. Don't see them as strangers. I don't see them as strangers and I also don't see them as incapable or as in a "living death." Some people say, "Oh, they don't hear you. They don't speak." It's not true. They're alive there. Their heart is beating. Their blood is pumping. Their eyes may be glazed over, but this is just a mask. I approach the elders and say "Hello! Hello, Mr. Lae, how are you?" And he doesn't say anything. He just looks at me. That's okay. He heard me. The next time I see him, he shakes my hand. Or, the tenth time I see him, he finally looks at me.
One woman took six months. She said nothing. I stop by and say "Hello, how are you? Oh, I love your shirt. What's that you're wearing? Oh, that color is so interesting." I don't ask too many questions, because sometimes that confuses, but I always give respect and say their name. Sometimes they don't know their name anymore, so I say "Grandma," or I don't even say a name. With this woman, I would just wait. I would say, "How are you feeling today?" Or, "Are you good today?" Or, "It's a good day today, isn't it?" And I just wait, smile, and look at her. Not a big, crazy smile, like "HI!" But a gentle, loving smile. Finally, after six months, this woman said, "Yes," or "Okay," or "It's good."
Aryae: It sounds as if so much of this is about patience, and about letting go of any expectation or need for them to respond in any particular way.
Mia: Yes, that's like working with youth or adults with special needs. You can never force anyone to learn. One thing I do is to help people bring their voice forward. You can't force that. There's a lot of fear. I've had a student who wouldn't come out of the corner for three weeks, then finally came into the circle. There was another girl who, for a year, would cry any time I would ask her to speak. Then, at some point, she asked if her friend could stand with her. And at some point she became the leader who raised her hand.
If you just know in your heart that you don't need to answer today... They may never speak; they may never change. That still doesn't keep me from saying hello, or holding their hands, or squeezing their shoulder.
Aryae: So much of much what you're saying sounds as if you're talking about spiritual practice. And yet, you're not using the language of God or spirituality. What is your relationship to God or to religion? What role does that play in your life?
Mia: Every day I pray... every time I feel weak, or it's a big deal, or even when I feel sick. Sometimes when I come into the nursing home, there are smells that, when I am sick or tired, can make me feel more sick or tired if I let it. I say, "God (I use the word God), please walk with me today. Help me to be a vessel." It's very simple. But I grew up with atheists, Buddhists, and Christians; some of my best friends are Jewish. I used to go to Hanukkah in New York. I've gone to different churches; I used to go to a Black Baptist church in Seattle, and I'm not either. I love where community gets together in prayer. I love faith. I love believing in something. But I never want to exclude anyone. I don't pick a religion; I don't speak in a way that excludes anyone. Whatever our belief system, we can still be in the room together and have a conversation. If someone says "God bless you," I say "God bless you." There are so many words for God; I just follow suit. What we're really saying is "I love you. Please love me. Forgive me. Let it be okay." It's simple.
That's my grandmother, too. I had done peace walks with Buddhists and they're very specific about their learnings and their teachings. I asked my grandmother, "What is your Buddhism?" This was before the dementia. She said, "Oh, you be kind to people. Don't be mean to people. Help others." There are books and books, of course, written (about Buddhism), but I feel as if it's easier for me to stay in the simplicity of it.
So I'm accepting. I'm curious about all the learnings. I feel there's connection with all the faiths.
Aryae: I've been involved in interfaith dialogue lately and I'm listening to you and you're living it. What is your relationship to death and dying, and what are you going to do when your grandmother dies?
Mia: Over the last nine or ten years, John and I have had up to 40 friends die. I've washed the feet of the dying, I've sat with those who were dying.... before the nursing home. I brushed and flossed my grandfather's teeth before he died the next day. I witnessed his heartbeat stop. It's a very intimate thing. I'm honored and humbled when I get to be with a family who is grieving, and whose loved one is dying. It's a quiet time. It's a sacred time. In the home, I've met so many people who are now gone. I saw a woman they called "Mama Sam." She was scratching at the walls, trying to get out. So I sat on her bed, and she crawled up my body, and then rested on my heart. She died two days later. I felt honored to have had that experience with her.
When my grandmother dies... I've often thought a part of me will die too. But what I've learned is that, if something of me dies, if I don't continue service and continue loving, the way that I've learned from her and from the other residents, that would be very sad. Someone said your service is the rent you pay for living on Earth. That's so true. When she goes, I will bless her life with my tears, and then I will continue on, doing what I do.
Aryae: What would you like the rest of us from your story?
Mia: It's easy to be kind to people who are hurt. It's easy to be kind to these residents and my grandmother, because they're in need. It's an insular place and a safe place. We've created a community, in a way. If we can be kind even to the people outside our immediate circle... A big challenge for me is to be kind to people who rub me the wrong way, or who have hurt me. If we can forgive and be kind and focus on what we can do instead of what we can't, I think there's more hope. Keep loving each other. Keep being kind and forgive each other and our mistakes or weaknesses.
Kozo: I've seen in the care of elderly, an odd thing that happens. Often when an elder suffers Alzheimer's or dementia, close family members almost get upset with the person who is suffering, because they're no longer the person they used to be. Especially with something like dementia, and thinking of your grandmother --- I would imagine you have to forgive every time that your grandmother says "This is my niece," or "This is my sister," and she forgets who you are. There has to be this constant forgiveness when she forgets something you might have told her the day before. I'm wondering how you develop that patience and forgiveness, and constantly forgive in those situations.
Mia: First, I don't think of it as forgiving. That's just my grandmother. But I did have to get to a point where I realized that --- when I would get impatient with her at the beginning. Because I had lots of time to learn and grieve my grandmother's loss --- the grandmother that I knew --- and then to re-see her in a new way. That just takes time.
But I also had to look at myself and say, "Why am I impatient? Why does that bother me? Why should it bother me?” We have children. If I can listen to a child ask me the same question over and over again, why can't I do that with my grandmother or anyone else? My acting training has taught me to work moment-to-moment and to be able to re-create a show a hundred times. That's easy for me. Now it's especially easy, because every time she speaks, it's an extra word I get. Even if it's the same thing, she's still with me. I'm blessed to have her talking. Some people don't even talk any more.
People get very tense and tight because their parent wasn't what they were, and they need them to be what they were. It's about a letting go. Once you let go and forgive, it's not a constant forgiving, it's that the acceptance allows you to have extra breadth. And compassion comes in.
Kozo: It's "shikata ga nai" on another level. "Shikata ga nai" is "deal with it" or "surrender to it." But this is taking it to a new level. "This is how it is. Love it. Love that she repeats the same word, love that this is how my grandma is in this present moment." That's powerful practice.
Mia: When I've shared stories with Service Space about my grandmother at the residences, other people would share stories with me about their grandparents. It's not about my grandmother, exactly. It's about all of our grandparents. John never knew his grandparents. He calls my grandmother "grandma." We're losing our connection with the elders. The generations that are coming don't know their grandparents or they don't have time. They have so much in front of them all the time. So if we keep these stories alive for all the generations to come, then the wisdom can remain. I'd love to hear stories from others about what they've learned.
Bela: This is Bela, from Berkeley. It's been such a gift to listen to you this morning. I haven't had the chance to spend that much time with my grandparents. I do have a couple of sweet memories, and a recent one, visiting my grandmother, who was in Bakersfield.
I've been married for a year and a half now, and I'd like to learn what you've learned about love, and how your understanding of love has changed or grown through your relationship with John.
Mia: I focus on what we have, what I love about John, or what I love about my grandmother, or what is beautiful, rather than what doesn't work or what annoys or bothers me. You can choose either side. When I have a moment with John or even with my grandmother (which doesn't really happen anymore), I just take a breath and then re-look. “Who is this? This is my best friend. The one with the beautiful eyes, with the kind heart.” Every day, I remember what I love. I don't take it for granted. I allow myself to be vulnerable, to say what I need and to share what is so when it is so.
When I have problem or an issue or something bothers me I speak it out. In that, our love can be strong and grow and it's not based on a facade. In the beginning of our relationship I was less apt to be as truthful as I can be now with love.
Bela: When I see the two of you together, it's palpable, the love that you both have for each other and for your community. It's really inspiring.
Mia: It took me a while to find this love. I worked all the time but I didn't have space for love. It's one of the most difficult spiritual journeys when you have someone you love. We've been together nine years. As you're learning and growing, you're changing. You can go to retreats, and I've been to Vision Quest, but then, Pow! Life gets in front of you. Like your partner, who mirrors things, or pushes buttons. We've earned our love, because we talk it out, we work it out. We've had fights, too. We walk together, and we also try to make sure that we're not so needy so that without the other we don't have anything. We have to be able to stand on our own feet. A friend said, "Two plus two becomes five when you're like that, or one plus one becomes three. Because we already have our own something, and together we make something that's even stronger.
Anne: (Writing in) Thank you, Mia, for sharing your heart. I wonder if you would speak to the essence of your joy. It is so palpable when you speak about your relationship with others -- children, friends, and elders. It's such a joyful experience to be in your presence.
Mia: If you know Anne, you know she's an inspiration for my joy. She walks in a room and a room lights up if it's dark. If it isn't dark, it gets brighter. I've had a lot of sadness in my life. I've had a lot of pain in my life. And what I've learned from that is that those experiences help me to be a better teacher, a better actor. But also, I can't live in that world. I don't add anything to the world that is positive if I live in my pain or my sorrow. There's so much to be joyful about. In America we have a lot of "things," we have a lot of access. So maybe it's easier to be joyful if you choose that. Some are having a hard time seeing that, especially some of our youth. In India, we saw people who have nothing, living in tin houses, who were joyful or sharing. I see people who have very little, sharing a lot. When I'm not joyful, I'm reminded by John or others, "Hey. What do you really have to be sad about?”
Grief is a place. It won't be just like any other day when my grandmother goes. But ultimately I'll focus on the joy that I have had with her.
Alisha: This is Alisha from north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley. I want to thank you. Some of the things you said are so important. One, especially for me, was when you talked about how you approached the different people in your grandmother's nursing home. I feel that in our culture, the lack of acknowledgment or the invisibility we give to almost everyone, unless we deem them important, is so prevalent. Doing what you do and sharing that is essential.
There's a woman who wrote a book, "My Stroke of Insight," (Jill Bolte Taylor) who shared with that. She was aware when she was what other people consider "gone and out of it." Her mother would be there and rub her feet and touch her. I've had friends in nursing homes, and I know that when I talk to them in a loving way and touch them, I can feel them stop shaking. That is an essential lesson that we continue to miss in our culture. We are all here even if we appear to be gone. And that's why I know I love Service Space. Even though I'm far away from Berkeley I try to participate, because, as you say, when you're in a checkout stand there's that spark underneath everyone --- that we're all here, and sometimes we're lost. And what you're doing is taking a thread or ribbon and pulling someone back a little bit. Or making it safe. Maybe they're there, but it's so scary, and they're gone, or lost. I wanted to thank you for sharing that.
Mia: We can talk about our elders or people who have had strokes, but we can be lost anywhere, and feel unsafe anywhere. We can take any opportunity we have for creating safe spaces. That could just be giving a smile instead of a frown at a child or at the checkout clerk, or whoever's having a bad day. It ripples, right? Thank you for bringing that up.
Alisha: Someone told me something that his mother said, and I wanted to share it for the beautiful imagery. She said she had a really good marriage. She said it was like being an ice skating dancer. To be an ice skating dance couple, both people have to dance well on their own. It was a beautiful image. If he or she was unable to be strong, they couldn't do it.
Wendy: This is Wendy from Halfmoon Bay, California: I'm intrigued by the community you have developed in the nursing home. I wonder if family members of the other residents have joined this community group as well. How can we involve them? Thank you for your wonderful, open-hearted sharing. The question comes from so many caregivers who also need the support as well. I'm curious about the family members and friends.
Mia: There actually is a family council group I met with recently that consists of about six people. When I say community group --- with dementia, there's no consistency. There's no, "Okay, everyone, we're going to meet on Mondays." But when you walk down the hall, and everyone's in the hall in their wheelchair and looking lost, we can create a sense of safety and love, and there's community. We're connected by our smiles and our waves, or just our looks, or our eye contact.
There's a man in the room next to my grandmother. He's been there eight years. He doesn't speak, he has a trach (tracheotomy tube or collar), he had a stroke. Mostly, I don't see his eyes open. For eight years his family has come to wash him and to move his arms. They don't ask for help from anyone. I've gotten to know his daughter. She's started coming in at eighth grade. Now she's 22 and she is still coming to take care of her father.
Community is created by learning each other's stories. So I asked, "How are you doing? If you ever need anything, let me know. I'm here, too.” I've met other people who have come in and I say, "Hi. My grandma's here, too. If you need anything, I can check in on your grandma when I'm here." Or, "I'll check in on your dad when I'm here." And I do that, because I said I would. And we start to feel responsible for each other. There's the community.
The family community meets once a month. They involve people from the facility. In every facility you can do this, but often the family members are really tired. They're overworked. They feel angry, maybe. It's really grieving a loss, that anger or that annoyance they feel for their loved one. It's sadness at a loss that they have to get through. It's really hard for people to come together when you're in that space. It tends to be the people who have been there a long time who can start to do that.
Mish: This is Mish in New York City: You have a beautiful, gentle energy which I find very soothing. I shared a similar journey with my beloved mother, who was a loving, kind, always smiling, peaceful soul. I took care of her at home for as long as I could, and when I wasn't able to (her mother moved to a nursing home). There's definitely something there. Their brain synapses go on and off. After a year of not speaking at all, we brought her some picture magazines to look through. I handed her a "People" magazine with Burt Reynolds on the cover. She hadn't spoken any conversation in about a year. She looked at me and blurted out, "Burt!" They're there. They're definitely there. They're there on and off, but people should know they are definitely there.
Putting her in a nursing home is the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I've come to peace with it, but for many years I felt like a horrible person. I realized I did the best I could at the time, but I wasn't strong enough. I would hope now that I would be able to. It's very hard for some people when they have to put a parent in a nursing home, but if you do the best you can, it's all you can do. I was able to help a friend who went through a similar journey with her mom, and I saw her angry and hollering at her mother. I looked at my friend and said, "Why are you hollering at her? This is who she is, now." The anger is what you said --- grief, fear of losing your parent. Once they accept what is, I see the anger leave. Thank you so much.
Mia: I don't think it's about being strong. I think caretakers feel if they could just be stronger they would do it, or they wouldn't have to put the parent "in the room." But you're one person, and you get tired. Even if you're two people. There are many people taking care of all these elders, and they are sometimes overworked. They are always overworked. Start with "I did the best I could."
Mish: I have come to peace with it. She was just such a beautiful, loving mother to me, and did everything for me. I accept that I couldn't do it. The guilt is gone. There's regret, but there's no guilt. Not to be able to do for her what she did for me was what really hurt. We all do the best we can.
Mia: Were you there when she passed?
Mish: I was not there, physically, no, unfortunately.
Albert, in Oakland, California: (Online): Thank you, thank you, Mia, for your sharing of the human heart potentiality in your ongoing personal spiritual growth. Have you noticed a few seemingly significant challenges, perhaps habits, that we all might struggle with, that you could share, and how you work with them? I'm thinking of the habit of consumption, whether it be food, activity, entertainment, identity-building? Namaste, Albert in Oakland.
Mia: Thank you, Albert. Are you thinking, in regards to my grandmother, the facility, or just in life in general?
Kozo: I think he's getting at life in general. Because he's talking about your personal spiritual growth.
Mia: It feels like it's all one, because I spend so much time at the facility. I have this feeling where I think I need to do more or be better or be different. There is this feeling that, "If I could only do better, or if I only had had more of whatever.” Even with Service Space, the first time I was asked to open, I said, “I just want you to know I don't have a PhD; I'm probably not the right person.”
I'll do that --- find ways to hide or get involved in so many things and then not feel good enough. But you can't be a master of everything. So I notice that energy, where either I put myself down, or where I feel like I'm not good enough, or where I overdo to fill an empty space to prove that I'm good enough. Not that I do it so much now, but then I have to take a pause, I have to take a breath, and I have to remind myself that I am okay. I've had to learn to prioritize.
In the beginning I was going to the facility every day, or every other day. I was feeling resentful. I had to know that if I was going to go in there resentful I wasn't going to help anybody. So I had to let that go. Self-awareness is key for me. Whenever I notice my energy getting negative or I try to overdo I have to slow down. I've learned from my teacher Angeles Arrien that slow to medium is the healing speed. When we're too much of one thing or the other, we're not in that healing speed. Whenever I feel depressed I know I'm not helping anyone else. I need to do more service then. I tell friends, too, when they start getting too much in their own story, they've got to learn about other peoples' stories and help where they can. Service is key, service and slowing down.
Kozo: I want to connect that with something you were saying about being the invisible actor, channeling this divine energy, and not getting in the way of it. I saw the first example when you were talking about this one-woman show. You were channeling this woman but you were getting in the way. You were putting your emotions on the stage, rather than letting the audience see those emotions. I see with your prayer, and with your service, and with your self-awareness that you're constantly cleaning in order to be that clear channel, so you can be that invisible actor.
Mia: I'm constantly learning and reassessing. I try to do less reassessing. There was a point in my life in my 20's or 30's where I was reading self-help book all the time. I was self-diagnosing myself, and all of these things. A friend said, "If you're always in the space of needing to be fixed you'll always feel broken." There has to be a moment when you say, "This is who I am. This is what I’ve got."
But I do always try to be aware of how I come off in the world, and what am I doing to make the world better, locally.
Terry, from Ithaca, New York (Online): This isn't a question, but a reflection. Thank you, Mia, for this inspiring share. I can identify with your story in so many ways. I have a mother-in-law who is 98 years old and is living with dementia. I say "living with" rather than "suffering from" dementia because I've come to believe that I had been approaching her with preconceptions about what I now call her new way of thinking. I wanted to "correct" her when she was, in my opinion, "illogical," or when she is "fantasizing" about her day's events. She has often asked me in recent months about the well-being of her husband or her daughter, both of whom have died. Part of me wants to say, "No, Anna, they're dead, don't you remember?" And at first I did try to correct her, gently. But now I will simply smile and say, "They're doing well, Anna. They said to say hello." And who's to say that's actually wrong? Again, thank you for your share.
Mia: You can feel an extra breath when she started to say it, "Yes, they're fine." Correcting has a tight energy. The going along with it has a softer energy. I have that with my grandmother, too. When I take her back to the facility, she'll say "Oh, is this where you live?" And I'll say "Yep!" And she'll say "I've been here before," and I'll say "Yeah, you have." And then she'll say "There's my room." And I'll say, "Yes, it is."
I just go with whatever she gives me. It's an improv game. You say, “Yes, and what else?” Because "Why?" doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what the details are. Just having the conversation is more important.
Kozo: Where Terry says "And who's to say that that's actually wrong?" Those dead relatives might actually be there saying hello. I love that.
Mia: I don't think it's a wrong response to just go along with it. It's a happier, accepting, loving response.
Pallavi: This is Pallavi from San Jose: Mia, this was just so beautiful. I'm sending so much love to you right now. I wanted to share my story with my grandmother. I grew up around her. My mom was working all the time. She passed away eight or nine years ago. I was here, busy with my life, in a startup, with no time to breathe, and she was nearing the end of her life, but the distance you find a challenge. One day my mother called me and said, "If you want to see her, you'd better come now." I wasn't getting the message. And it was a mad scramble to get on a flight, and my mom warned me, "She might not be here by the time you get here. So be prepared for that." It was just a very harrowing experience, checking my email in Singapore, and going back to India, and eventually, once I reached there, it was frustrating for me.
And then she passed away three days later. I don't any more, but back then I had the regret that I didn't know how to comfort her in those three days. Dying was a difficult process. She was in pain. Everybody was flustered seeing her in pain. There was grief. There was all of that. It was the first time I'd been around that kind of process. I didn't know what to do. The hospice nurse was like an angel. She just came in. She knew how to comfort her. She gave her baths, she combed her hair. It's something to see her energy relaxed. I felt guilt later on that I didn't know how to be around her. I could have massaged her feet. But I didn't know what to do.
Thank you for being on this call and for sharing all the stories you do. I've always felt attracted to grandparents and little kids --- the beginning and end of life. There's a special, pure energy to them. So I get teared up every time you share a story about your grandmother. I wanted to add that it's been many years since my grandmother passed, and through my own spiritual practice I realized she's one of my guides. So we are always connected. I just wanted to share that and thank you for being who you are. It's so good to see everything you do.
Mia: Thank you so much for sharing that story. That must have been very difficult. And hard to know how to comfort someone when you're also in grieving and your body was going through so much --- just going on the plane, and coming in, and the uncertainty. But just being present is a comfort you gave her that you can't even know.
Pallavi: From your story I learned how to be, how to find ways to comfort somebody even if you don't know how. It's special that you share everything about your grandmother. Thank you for that.
Kozo: How can we, as a larger Service Space community, support your work?
Mia: My work is just being me. Support each other and love each other, and ask questions and stay curious. As Alisha talked about from Sagit Valley, if we just create safe places for each other, allow people to be who they are, and forgive yourself for what you don't know, that's how we can bring peace. I'm often wondering how we can have a more peaceful world. I only know that I can work on myself. If I work along with others like that, who are trying to add rather than take away --- to bring some kindness to the table --- it makes everyone's meal better.
I would say, "Think globally, act locally." So, think about the bigger picture, and what you can do right here, right now. I'm so honored and amazed that my share was felt by so many, and I'm so moved by everyone --- their shares and their questions and the time they took to listen to me. Thank you.
Kozo: I look over this call and I see a lot of love. I see you sharing the love with your grandparents --- your grandmother --- and also those other people in the home. But you also shared the love you have with your partner John. You shared some of your spiritual practices of channeling the divine in a loving manner. And obviously there's the love you do with service in so many different ways. I'm just touched and honored to have been a part of this.