The chicken or the egg.

Soon after my mother died, more than one person said to me, “it takes time”. They meant well, but the words sounded a bit passive to me even then, and I have found grief to be anything but passive. In 2012, I had the initial idea to create a show that would become Speculation. It’s 2018 now, and to be honest, I can’t believe I’m still working on it. 

After the first iteration of Speculation, two shows in Kitchener, I felt satisfied and glad I’d done it. I learned what a video designer was and what a stage manager did. It was hard to talk about my relationship with my mother in a monologue, but it seemed necessary because of why I was creating the performance. When I returned to it a couple years later at the Banff Centre, I could not believe I had said those things in public. 

The most obvious reason for me to create this show was that I used to be an optometrist and I witnessed my mother lose her vision. For someone who still had their full sight, I probably knew more than most about the experience of sight loss. I could bridge a gap of understanding that I saw between sighted and partially sighted people. 

The less obvious reason for me has been the constant catharsis of the grieving process in working on this show. At some point it became apparent I would need to talk about not just the facts of my mother’s vision loss but also our relationship if I wanted to connect with people.  Repeatedly going over some very uncomfortable things in my life and my mother’s life while trying to refine Speculation as a performance has really tested my belief in sharing the story. 

This past year I have been working with Alex Bulmer as a voice coach on the monologue. I had initially reached out to Alex for her feedback on the show as an acclaimed blind theatre artist and experienced disability arts advocate. Turned out, she was also a voice coach and she offered some coaching. A little training on the monologue did seem like a good idea. I’m not a trained actor, or that great a public speaker, and would way rather communicate something to a large group with a violin in my hands, preferably not totally alone. 

So here I am, in 2018, learning about working with a hazer and lying on the ground making long  sighing noises as Alex has instructed me. They weren’t wrong. It’s definitely taken time to get here. But, in doing the work to learn how to use my voice for this performance, I have noticed lately the grief and my relationship with my mother changing. I’m able to share more things than I did four years ago that make the ‘bridge of understanding’ stronger, and I’m not sure which is the chicken or the egg.

You can't look in your own eyeballs - on money, certainty and value.

I did the career change backwards from most people. Usually a musician will go back to school to become a doctor or lawyer. The set up to my story is pretty cliché. My Chinese immigrant parents wanted me to study anything in university that would guarantee me a job. A profession. Money. Lawyer, accountant, engineer, or doctor, it didn’t matter as long as the criteria were fulfilled. Medical field was preferred since my mother’s parents were doctors, and my mother was a pharmacist.

The keywords here were “guarantee”, “job” and “money”.

Throughout high school I happily practiced both violin and piano for hours, and did well academically (more stereotype). I really wanted to study music, but I buckled, and checked off the box for the “Pre-Optometry/Pre-Health” program on the University of Waterloo form.

Fast forward to Optometry School at the University of Waterloo. (Internally, somewhere, I know I’ve made a mistake I’ll pay for later by checking that box, but that’s for another blog post or full length Knausgaard-like book series.)

I’m sitting in a class where the clinician is talking about how to talk to patients. Specifically, how to tell a patient they might have glaucoma. This is more than 10 years ago now, but at the time, glaucoma was tricky to firmly diagnose right away.

The clinician tells us that studies have been done that show that even mentioning  glaucoma is enough to decrease a person’s quality of life. It doesn’t even have to be the definitive diagnosis, “you might have glaucoma” is enough. When that person leaves your office, they don’t feel as good about their life even if they might not have glaucoma in the end.

I am shocked by this - the effect of these words and the responsibility of this expertise. This expertise that still comes with so much uncertainty. 

But, it will guarantee me a job and money

She tells us this so that we will take care in how we speak to our patients. We have to tell you these things for your well being; for your future. If you do indeed have glaucoma, it will definitely impact you, and those close to you, and society at large, so you need to know. That’s why you’re paying me, to check for the signs because you can’t look in your own eyeballs. 

Now, to me last year, trying to find a way to raise money to present Speculation in London, UK at the Open Senses Festival. The grant deadlines don’t line up for this opportunity, and I decide to try to approach corporations, institutions, and foundations related to vision: my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, Alcon, Bausch & Lomb, the Foundation Fighting Blindness, even Warby Parker (since a multi-disciplinary show for them is “on brand”). 

With the help of my fundraising consultant, I approach these organizations about funding Speculation. I’ve never done this before, it’s a steep learning curve, but it feels like an obvious fit to me. I just have to communicate the value of a performance art show to them. 

I’m not very good at it. It’s not like writing an arts council grant. That’s preaching to the choir, they already know the value. So why should these people give me money to produce this show? Why should anyone give me money to produce a show they’ve never seen?

In my role as an optometrist, you paid for valuable, potentially life-changing expertise on your vision. I spent 4 years studying just the eye, and there would still be these moments of uncertainty, but you trusted me to tell you what you couldn’t see yourself, for your own well being.

Back to me on the phone, trying to explain to a receptionist at the Foundation Fighting Blindness that Speculation is a worthy investment. Our mandates of awareness and education are the same. In my mind, understanding the way that patient feels after you mention glaucoma when they leave your office, is as important as the medical research to decrease the uncertainty about their diagnosis. 

She tells me they only support scientific, medical research. She can’t read my mind apparently. 

In my role as an artist, I have a potentially life-changing event for you, but I need money to show you. I’ve spent 37 years and counting on this performance, and I’m certain about needing to share it with you, but you would need to trust me. 

My leads at Alcon go nowhere. I can’t find a contact e-mail at Bausch & Lomb that isn’t “info@…” The administrator at the School of Optometry is kind, but ultimately says no.

I continue to work for hours on this show without the guarantee of money.

I made it to London with Speculation eventually. It was an incredible experience, thanks largely to the generosity of individuals, Cahoots Theatre and the Ontario Arts Council, Canada Council for the Arts, and some amazing friends and artists in London. It convinced me to continue with this work that is not a keyword-profession, or guarantees me any money.

As an expert in my own feelings and in my relationship with my mother, I am certain I need to share our story with you as Speculation. And, if you trust me, when you leave, I might have shown you something you couldn’t see yourself.