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Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Candle for 'Crackers'

If you need proof of the provisional, precarious nature of our lives, look no further. Quite out of the blue, the wonderful, talented, energizing and energetic Australian actress Michaela Cantwell, whom I have had the good fortune to work with and to know, was struck down this week when a hidden, totally unexpected condition hit her like a bolt from beyond. Without going into details, it is severe, massively debilitating, and multi-layered. It will be a long road to who knows what degree of recovery.

A fundraiser is being held by the excellent folk at State Theatre and Brink Productions to pay her bills while she is recovering. Close friends have rallied in support. 'Crackers', as she is known, knows what has happened and knows what is going on around her, and what lies before her.

One tries to think of things to say by way of encouragement, consolation, solidarity, but the event has been so vicious and unjust that Hallmark card-type expressions feel like ashes in the mouth. To make matters worse, I've been reading a lot of "liberation" theology from people in South America and Africa and Asia, whose people have suffered horror and injustice in their millions. Without fail, every one of these attempts to find scriptural texts to make sense of people's suffering. And without fail, they fail, for me, to do so. Try the Book of Job--we're puny, deal with it. Or Isaiah's story of the suffering servant--suffering is your solidarity with God through Christ. I cannot imagine trying to comfort anyone in your situation with that.

Shit happens to us and we can't really know if it means anything beyond itself. But the Greek tragedians knew a thing or two about what suffering can become. As an actress, she'd know this in her bones, so I wrote her this:

Dear Michaela,

You probably already knew that I’m in the UK studying for ministry, so I’ll say right off that I’m not writing to you to get all “churchy” on you in your current troubles. This is just an expression of warm wishes from one friendly colleague and acquaintance to another. I can’t pretend we’ve been terribly close, but I can honestly say whenever I worked with you, chatted with you, or shared a smile and a wave across a crowded opening night party, my heart never failed to be lifted by your infectious happiness, your boundless energy, your sheer joie de vivre. Nor can I pretend that I have any idea what you’re going through, but that its suddenness, severity, and utter cosmic injustice shocked me deeply, happening to one so very much alive as you.

That Michaela, untouched by such suffering, we probably both realise, is gone forever. And that a new Michaela is being born, as in all gestations—slowly, painfully, mysteriously. It’s easy for the un-afflicted to say to someone in your condition that your brokenness is a gift in disguise. The stuff about crisis and opportunity being two sides of a coin, or that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, that we are all broken, but we, like bones, we get stronger is the broken places. It’s easy to say those things because the un-afflicted are not right inside the pain and shock and despair of it.

You’ve also probably found out by now that many who come to comfort you are seeking something for themselves. But you will also have discerned, or had confirmed, just who your true friends are, and though they are fewer by comparison, they are a real source of hope and love. Both these types always emerge in these circumstances, and that knowledge of just who is which is a real blessing. As is the unconditional love of true friends. These few will know you are entitled to your outrage. They will know, without being told, that your are entitled to your fear, and all the negative stuff going on inside which I don’t presume to imagine. The loving kindness of friends is, I think, all the real divinity we get to experience is this life.

The new Michaela being forged out of parts of the old one, with the tools of character you already have, with the love of friends, will be crucially different in that she will have been tempered by great suffering. For better or worse? That’s really up to you now.

Theatre has always been better at interpreting how suffering changes people. Particularly, the Greek tragedians well understood its necessity, its uses, and its precise trajectory—it generally leads to wisdom. They do not simply curse the darkness, or pretend that the awful isn’t awful. They light a candle, and this is yours, from Aeschylus:

“No one knows suffering better than you-
And in our sleep,
Pain which cannot forget,
Falls drop by drop
Upon the heart until,

In our own despair,
Against our will,
Comes wisdom,
Through the awful grace of God.”

From here on, Michaela, though never absolutely whole again, you get to know about that sort of healing. Only those who’ve been cracked can let in the light.

Rest and be healing. And if by chance I ever get to meet the new Michaela, on that day I will rejoice.

 With every good wish and a blessing,

Rob MacPherson

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