Tuesday 21 October 2014

Identity and Belonging by Robert Lepage: The Personal is Universal

Identity and belonging are subjects that caregivers grapple with everyday.  When we become caregivers, do we lose our ‘other’ selves?  When our beloved charge passes away, who are we then?  Either way, where do we caregiving families belong in society – how can we nurture and sustain a sense of authentic belonging when our lives are so different from others’?

Robert Lepage is a theatre director whose work probes questions of identity and belonging.  ‘Lipsynch’, a play I was lucky enough to see in London a few years ago, questions what happens when people lose their voice… or find it.  Many years ago, Jim and I saw an early production of, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota”, a play set in post-Hiroshima Japan in which Robert examined ideas of displacement, order and chaos.   Robert’s biographical “Far Side of the Moon” painfully and poignantly explored sibling relationships at the time of their mother's death.

Yesterday, Jim and I drove from Ottawa to Toronto to hear Robert Lepage give the 2014 Lafontaine-Baldwin Symposium Lecture, hosted by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.  The co-founders of the Institute, Canada’s former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul, the author and President of PEN International greeted everyone warmly and personally.  (You might want to read Clarkson’s 2014 Massey Lectures, also on the subject of belonging.)

Jim and I knew intuitively that Robert Lepage would have something profound to say about identity and belonging – we knew that his message would have deep personal resonance, but importance for our sense of being Canadian, too.  And we were not mistaken.

Robert began his address by telling us about his own family.  Growing up in Quebec City, he and a younger sister spoke French.  But two older siblings had spent their formative years in Halifax, an English city.  So, the family was split on linguistic grounds and Robert felt a sense of belonging to Quebec and to his first language of French.  As a young child, Robert developed alopecia, a condition causing loss of hair.  Robert always felt like an outsider because of his physical difference.  But, one thing he didn’t feel was Canadian.  That is, until one day while travelling in Italy.   Robert noticed another young couple whose backpacks sported a small Canadian flag.  A friendly conversation amongst foreigners ensued, beginning with, “Hey, where in Canada are you from?”

Robert realized then that you have to leave your home, your comfort zone, in order to discover who you are and where your sense of belonging lies. 

In his world travels and artistic exploration of the self, Robert has discovered that our stories of home are the most universal.  Our sense of place grounds us and gives definition to our essential self.  But oh, there are other selves to be discovered too!  Robert described a concert violinist – world famous and highly accomplished – coming home to her family where everyone was expected to play fiddle music after dinner in the kitchen.  “Hmph!” her family scowled, shaking their heads.  “What kind of music is that? Our dear daughter is just no good at playing the old standards!”  And yet, that musician calls home her family.  She is known and loved for her personal history and her whole self, not just for her concerts and after-party conversation.

Our personal history shapes our identity and for caregivers, looking after loved ones becomes part of who we are.  Where do we belong in the world?  Robert Lepage challenges us to see the value in our personal stories and to comb our personal experience (for us, that means giving care) for universal meanings.  The ordinary IS extraordinary.

My book, 'The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I've Learned From a Life of Caregiving' is available from all major booksellers in the USA and Canada.

Use TYZE PERSONAL NETWORKS to coordinate sharing your caregiving responsibilities with family, friends and professionals.

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