Drama Can Make Us Smarter and Happier

By @AbbeyCompton, March 18, 2019

When I was starting 9th grade, I wanted to apply to our county’s magnet high school for finance. That would look great on a college application, thought my younger self. I was sure Wall Street and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous were to be found along that gilded brick road.
I pitched the change-of-venue plan to my mom complete with timing of the morning and afternoon commutes. Her answer: a hard no—a stifling no—a because-I-said-so no with which there is no negotiating. Somehow, she did not share my champagne wishes and caviar dreams. My feelings were hurt, but despite the frustration I knew better than to get my dad involved and start something that might land my bitterly divorced parents back in court.
Disappointed and grumbling, off I went to my district high school and into the only classes where my adolescent angst could be useful. I probably needed to get into therapy, but I got into theater instead.

High School Drama

My freshman drama class overflowed with 14-year-olds confident this elective would yield an easy A, but I didn’t sign-up for the A. What I wanted was a script. I wanted lines. I wanted to try on someone else’s skin and see the world through their eyes. What I really wanted was to be somebody else.
Again, I was disappointed. Not only was I stuck being me, but that first year focused mostly on cultivating the skills of pantomime and improvisation (or “improv” as we theater types called it). To me pantomime and improv were the push-ups and squats of theater education. I was willing to do the exercises, but I derived no joy from them.
I stayed with theater though, and as I got into my Junior year, the lines and characters did come. I also started to read, which I almost never did before. I had no interest in V.C. Andrews novels, but as I got comfortable reading scripts, I found myself wanting to read plays by Oscar Wilde or novels adapted from Broadway shows. Soon enough, I was reading poems and short fiction by Langston Hughes, fantasy novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and the Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley.

Learning to Improvise and Improvising to Learn

Performing arts seem to play an important role for many people working toward academic, career, and personal goals, and the benefits appear to be more impactful when the arts are thoughtfully integrated with other courses of study.
Young Kids Test Better when their classroom lessons are infused with performing and visual arts. Neuroscience is just beginning to explain the ways the arts help the brain learn, but early findings suggest the brain prioritizes content with emotion attached to it. Even without brain scans educators have observed that incorporating the arts into learning increases both their students’ engagement level and time spent focusing on the content.
Leaders Emerge through Improv both on the job and in instructor-led leadership development programs. Improv involves letting go of the script, accepting what is, making adjustments, and finding a resolution that works for everyone. Leaders improvise and keep the group working together even when no one knows what might happen next.
We Overcome Our Fears and Traumas when we set aside blame and shame to become our own storytellers and support others in sharing their stories. While it’s no replacement for comprehensive mental healthcare, improv is having a healing effect around the world; helping young professionals in L.A. overcome social and professional anxiety and helping survivors of violence in South Sudan find a way to peace.

All the World’s a Stage

I was reminded of this in January when I attended the BYM Women’s Retreat and a performance by District Community Playback, a theater company that uses improv to help people “move from strangers to neighbors.” The troupe of four actors, one director, and a violinist listened to women who volunteered their fears, frustrations, joys, and triumphs. After each woman shared, the director offered a few instructions to the actors, then they took their places and created a live “playback” of what she shared. Some stories were played for comedy while others were tearful or heart-warming.
By the end, I was reminded of what a gift my mom had given me by directing me to my district high school and encouraging me to pursue theater. Perhaps what I perceived as a “no” to my ambition of studying finance was more of a “Yes, and…”
It’s a circuitous route spanning two decades, but I eventually found myself in financial services marketing after studying Communications in college. I even managed to use those pantomime and improv skills to land a few corporate gigs while I was still a student. Dressed as a mime or Greek statue, I entertained crowds at Christmas parties and picnics, and I played the daughter of a patient in a hospital promotional video. Maybe it wasn’t real acting, but I got paid real money for it, which is what finance is all about.
When I entered my first drama class as a high school freshman, I was really entering a life skills workshop, and such skills are always transferrable.

Abbey Compton, Chita Rivera, Christopher Jackson and Darren Benjamin
Broadway groupie moments with Chita Rivera (West Side Story, Kiss of the Spider Woman) and Christopher Jackson (Hamilton, The Lion King).

What We Didn’t Know About Respecting Our Elders

By @AbbeyCompton, Nov. 28, 2018

Most of us were told as kids to respect our elders, but few of us got much guidance to help understand what that means or why it matters. Unsure of the rules, I muddled through with an extra dose of good manners (a lot of “yes, Ma’ams” and “no, Sirs”) on those rare occasions when I encountered an old person I didn’t know.
From what I could see, elder status was undesirable to adults. I don’t recall my parents or teachers ever referring to themselves as elders or lining up to get into the local rest homes. There were elders at church, but they were volunteers saddled with administrative jobs hardly anyone else cared to do.
So, when do we assume our place in elderhood, and what does respect for elders look like?
In October, I had the opportunity to meet people whose elder status is welcomed and celebrated.

Native Truth Be Told

At the 75th annual meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Denver, I sat in a circle of a dozen or so young people and two elders for a two-hour, technology-free storytelling and Q&A session. While American culture in general still harbors many antiquated, romanticized, and false notions about Native people and how they live today, almost everyone recognizes that Native people do much better at showing respect for elders.
This was evident as I took my seat in the circle of chairs in the hotel break-out room. The young people ranged in age from middle schoolers to recent college grads and represented Tribes from across the U.S. There was not a smartphone in sight as they took their seats and turned their attention to the elder gentleman already seated among us.
He wore a black Vietnam Veteran cap. As he spoke, he took us back to the time he grew up in 1960s Chicago; a time when Native people were encouraged by the federal government to urbanize and when young men who dared show signs of weakness would become easy prey for neighborhood bullies. He shared deeply about the impact of violence on his life and the complex tangle of emotions attached to his time in Vietnam.
A second elder, a woman in her 50s, joined the circle. She spoke of her years as a mother, raising children while working, and the importance of family connection and perseverance.
Midway through the session, one of the organizers brought water over to me and both the Native elders in the circle. I felt a bit like an interloper. I am not Native. I’m well past youth, and like the adults who raised me, I was resistant to being viewed as an elder (middle-aged? Sure…elder? Not just yet, please). Nevertheless, I was grateful to be so warmly received.
The questions from the young people flowed naturally during breaks in the elders’ stories. While the discussion veered political at times, they mostly wanted the elders to share their personal triumphs and failures and how they found courage when times got hard.

The Campfire Within

It had been a long time since I had seen so many young people (or any group that size) sit quietly without anyone reaching for a smartphone. It may have been established as a ground rule that phones be turned off and put away while the elders spoke, but I believe the attention of the young people came from a deeper place.
The connection to others we often seek in reaching for our devices was already in the circle. We are pre-wired to connect to each other through our stories. Our DNA makes us human, but our stories make us people, and we were people before any political, religious, or racial identity became the reason we started seeing the otherness in each other.
When the elders told their stories, they kept coming back to their own elders. The man who served in Vietnam talked about the pain it caused his mother to have both her sons at war and his regret about not seeking the Clan Mother’s advice before enlisting. The woman elder talked about navigating a federal bureaucracy so that her father, also a U.S. service member, would posthumously receive the medals he earned.
After the two-hour session, the group stood, stretched, and shook hands. The smartphones were turned on again, and the selfies and Instagram posts resumed. To me, the young people in the circle didn’t seem different from my son. They have their friends, their schools, their iPhones, and their dreams of the future.
The elders seemed very different. They had the respect of their communities. They knew they belong, and their people gave them the opportunity to be heard without agenda or fear of judgement.

The Prescription No One Gets

Too often our elders are made to feel they no longer fit in. They struggle to feel as though they still belong in their communities and even in their own families after their time as breadwinners and caregivers expires. We can do better for them and for ourselves if we take the time to understand the problem and look for creative solutions:
Loneliness isn’t just sad. It’s a threat. Even when older adults have lots of friends and social engagement, if they feel they don’t belong, their risk of developing dementia increases. Engaging older adults in senior activities won’t be enough. We need to help them feel valued and included in our communities.
Generational integration requires a time and place. As kids outgrow the need for a grandmotherly caregiver and move into middle school, they rarely have opportunity for meaningful engagement with older adults. We need to find ways to engage our elders with our middle and high schoolers without further stressing them or ourselves. The last thing our kids need is yet another item on the checklisted childhood.
There’s no quick fix. Caring for our elders and raising our children are both long-term propositions. If either generation isn’t thriving, let’s find ways to support them rather than mechanically working to fix them. With our support, those elders who are able to be the beloved storytellers in our communities will emerge to help begin the healing journey.

Listening is Respect

When I was younger, I got away with speaking respectfully to my elders. Now, I understand respect is more about listening than speaking, and it was always more for the benefit of the young than the old.

Solving the Life Equation in an Expanding Universe

By @AbbeyCompton, Oct. 29, 2018

Since our earliest days as humans we struggled to care for ourselves, our young, and our elders while testing theories to improve quality of life on this harsh planet.
As we entered the Space Age, we came to believe the struggles of the past would fade into the distance like so many spent rocket boosters. Affordable daycare and time-saving kitchen appliances meant mom was liberated to join the 9-to-5 workforce. Cheap life and long-term care insurance meant we would never “be a burden to our children” (remember those ads?).
Growing up a GenX kid in the last part of the twentieth century wasn’t so bad. I came of age with AOL and Netscape, became the first person in my family with an email account, and marveled each time the Hubble Space Telescope sent back images from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
I was a true believer in the rich promise of modern convenience, so I was blindsided when as a 34-year-old wife and working mom of a preschooler, I found my own mom suffering cognitive impairment and losing the capacity to care for herself. She was just turning 70.

Gateway to Another Dementia

For the next five years, the center of gravity in my life shifted almost hourly. I worried constantly about my mom as she steadfastly refused to leave her three-bedroom house in Florida or hire in-home help. I racked-up miles flying from where I lived with my husband and son in the DC suburbs to visit her. It seemed each time I visited I was met with a new and unexpected crisis; like the time the electricity and water were cut-off in the middle of summer (she had the money but didn’t pay bills for months).
I would spend those visits fussing over the dusty house, the lapsed car insurance, or buying clothes to fit her shrinking frame. Meanwhile, she would fret over and resist everything I tried to change in her home environment.
“She’s like an unruly teenager,” I complained to a friend in one of many moments of frustration.
After years of my brother and I almost begging her to leave her house for a safer, smaller place, or to move into his house (he offered first), she finally relented. A little over three years ago she moved in—with me.

The Right Stuff

My husband, who to me is both Sexiest Man Alive (I don’t care what People Magazine says) and one of the kindest souls on Earth, welcomed his mother-in-law, who was never particularly kind to him, into his home with warmth and compassion. He spent his few days off in August 2015 managing Ikea deliveries and contractors to turn our guest room into her room, our hallway bathroom into a safe space for a 75-year-old with movement disorders, and getting our two flights of stairs equipped with chair lifts to prevent her falling.
Our son was about to turn ten by this time. “I’ve never seen her smile,” he said once as we talked about what changes to expect when Grandma came to live with us.
How could he have remembered her smiling over him when he was a newborn or playing silly games with him as a toddler. The changes in her happened in a few short months just prior to his fourth birthday, but being a bright and kind-hearted grandson, he welcomed the opportunity to get to know her as she was and to help engage her in our family activities.

Our Continuing Mission

My expectations were low. I considered Mission Grandma a pilot test, but I am happy to say we are doing OK after three years as a three-generation household. We also learned we are not alone in this journey.
Affordable Long-Term Care is the great challenge facing elders and their families in this country today. The population of older adults is swelling, and if you live past 65, odds are you will need some kind of long-term care in your lifetime. Unlike generations past, most of us don’t have four children and 12 grandchildren all living nearby to help out at little or no cost.
The Workforce of the Future is going to need training for both their Space Age ambitions and the age-old challenges of caregiving and family connection. We have to invest in our kids for everyone’s sake. They will have to solve challenges on a planetary scale and be the caregivers too. There is already a shortage of home care workers, so we cannot assume enough help can be hired to help everyone.
Intergenerational Peace in Our Time is possible. Multi-generational households are increasing in America. The percentage of adults 85 and older living in a multi-generational house increased from 18 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2016. Millennial children of Baby Boomers are also boomeranging back to live with mom and dad (and maybe grandma and grandpa too) more than their parents or GenX cousins ever did.

The Big Bang Theory of Everything

My son has seen my mom smile. He has seen her laugh, and I have heard them laugh together.
After we finish family dinner in the evenings, he puts milk and cookies on a tray and they retreat to her room for dessert and two episodes of a favorite sitcom. She introduced him to The Big Bang Theory (chock-full of the breed of nerdy science jokes that delight him so much). They have seen every episode of Third Rock from the Sun, Cheers and are just finishing its spin-off, Frasier. He was so proud when he heard the “Sam and Diane” reference in Guardians of the Galaxy and knew who the Chris Pratt character was referencing.
Growing up the kid of a GenX kid with Grandma across the hall isn’t so bad.

Mom and son: both solvers of the Life Equation.