Laughter as Salve

Laughter as Salve 04-07-2011 Reflections from the Alois Sharing Circle

“I think this is a little crazy. What are we going to do with this? This “Jabberywocky” is crazy. What is “brillig” and a slithy tove?” F. could read well enough, but she was always leery of materials Leigh and I would bring to the Sharing Circle. Our day of silliness was no exception.

We had planned to make the participants laugh. Perhaps we wanted to laugh, more so than they. So, we opened the class with the explanation about laughing. I told the residents to close their eyes and just listen to the “Jabberywocky” poem. Even if the words were made up, the rhythm still existed to help create a story. And there were enough standard nouns and verbs, they could piece together a story, regardless of whether it made sense.

But so much in their world does not make sense. Their caregivers become strangers. Their homes become deserted islands with unrecognizable inhabitants. Names for their favorite food slips away on the dirty dishes.

While I tried with a tour de force to read Jabberwocky well enough for the circle to imagine a story, my reading may have fallen a little flat. Not to be discouraged, we had planned for a second poem to read, “The Owl and the Pussycat.” They found this poem much more to their liking, apparently an owl marrying a pussycat, with a turkey as priest, and a pig as a pawn shop king with a ring to peddle, are an easier sell to this crowd. Words, real words, not made up ones, still mattered to them.

The laughs were coming about, one by one. So we continued on with our next exercise, a podcast playing of Who’s on First, with Abbott and Costello. Thought the repartee was quick, the podcast also had a laugh track in the background. Now, some people might find those offensive, as if a studio executive is telling us what is funny. But the laugh track served it purpose that day, to remind the circle that this was funny, the notion of Who’s and What being a proper noun.

The goal was to get them in the mindset of considering what makes them laugh. Made up words, made up stories, mixed up stories. So, we threw in a mad-lib, despite Leigh’s last minute anxiety over whether this was an exercise that might create undue pressure on them to retrieve words or recall them. Over the phone that morning, we revised the plan to only include one mad lib, that being a nursery rhyme of Little Miss Moffett.

We began by brainstorming, asking them to give words for fruit – apple, banana and W. produced strawberry after much prodding of naming red berries. Then, we moved on to words that rhymed with “day”, so we got gay and bay, and when we ask J. to produce a word, we offered a few that others had mentioned, and after this she arrived at her own, way.

The final group of words to collect were animals, and just like that, out of the chute, D. said, “Jackass”. The entire circle began laughing, before they understood how we would use that word. Then we collected dog, and from J., who speaks to us mostly with her eyes, we retrieved the word giraffe. At first, as she was describing an animal with her hands, I asked, does it have four legs?”, s J. answered, “yes”. “Is it a horse,” I asked. “No,” J. shook her head. J. continued to make a large motion, so I asked, “elephant?, horse?” and then finally, because a new little giraffe had been born at the zoo the other day, “A giraffe”, and she shook her head, “Yes.”

With that in mind, Leigh produced a poster board with the original Miss Moffett rhyme on it, which we all recited. Then, we picked out one word from each category, and used those words in place of others, within a new rhyme.

“Little Miss Moffett, sat on her apple” (Laugh, laugh, laugh)

“Eating her curds and gay” (Laugh, laugh, laugh)

Along came a jackass who sat down beside her

And here the laughing was loud enough to cause us to wait to complete the rhyme.

And frightened Miss Moffett away.

Now, we put them on center stage, by asking them to write, “Who or what do you think is funny?” Amazingly so, with the prolific writers we have had, no one produced a body of work longer than a sentence with the exception of G. This surprised us, until we later determined that we need to lead the circle down a narrow path when asking them to write, offering something more specifics, such as “The person in my family who is funny… or “A clown is funny because…”

We closed our circle as usual, with the naming of “how the circle felt today” and many stated that it felt good. Afterwards, we discussed who in the room was ticklish. As I asked each in turn, every resident had a smile on his or her face, and L. offered, “Well, I don’t really know if I am, but I might like to find out.” Even P. who sits stoically through class, though that is more disease than disposition, cracked a smile at the thought of her feet being tickled.

Laughter is a complex emotion and what we find funny is subjective, and also unnamable. While we admitted to ourselves having some disappointment in the output of writing that day, there could be no doubt as to the output of fun we had.

If laughter was the salve to even one cell where pain or sadness dwelled, then this work brought healing into their day.

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