Breaking out of prison

(I missed my MST column last Wednesday, November 21. I wrote this instead for MST Sunday, Nov 25.)

What could a 16-year-old girl and an 88-year-old widow possibly have in common?
Teenager Courtney finds herself in a North Dakota nursing home. One of her roommates is the octogenarian Elva, a former English teacher who walks with a cane and whose eyes are starting to fail her.
The other mainstay in the room, May, has Alzheimer’s Disease and has to repeat everything she says three times.
Such is the situation in Mind’s Eye, originally a novel by Paul Fleischman.  It was performed onstage with Joy Virata and Jenny Jamora as Elva and Courtney, respectively, during limited performances this month at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium of the RCBC Plaza and at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Courtney has good reason to be sullen: her mother who had earlier died left her in the care of her stepfather.  They did not get along.  And then, she encountered a horse-riding accident, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.  She would never be able to walk again.
Excited by the arrival of a new roommate and potential friend, the garrulous Elva comes up with the idea to go on a vacation to Italy—using a 1910 travel guide and Courtney’s able eyes.  Realizing she has got nothing better to do, and that Elva is not going to stop asking her, the young girl agrees.
Elva is delighted, decides to come as a 23-year-old newlywed, and even brings along her husband. (In truth he died many years ago without having traveled.) The trip does for her exactly what she imagined. She is able to transcend her physical condition and the four walls of their sterile room. She is young and pretty and free again!
Courtney is grudgingly uncooperative at first.  As the days pass by, however, she comes to terms with the fact that her life will never be the same.  A friend visits her occasionally and talks about boys and school, and all of that is suddenly foreign to Courtney.
It’s a play, first and foremost, but all the action takes place in the mind. There is no need to change sets—just a room with three beds, a wheelchair, a cane. Actors Virata and Jamora bring forth the stark differences in their characters in the beginning, but as the story develops, they bridge their age gap and become contemporaries.
* * *

Hawking on his wedding day. Photo taken from

Last month, History Channel aired a special on the life of the prominent scientist Stephen Hawking of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics of Cambridge University.
Anybody who has heard of Hawking automatically thinks of his wheelchair and the monotone way in which a computer enables him to communicate to his students. Looking at him, one only sees helplessness. It is thus phenomenal how Hawking has managed to defy his physical condition and reach for the stars—not with his arms, but with his mind.
He was not always that way, of course. In the History Channel movie, a 21-year-old Hawking is doing what other young men of his age were doing at a time—settling into a career, and falling in love. Hawking is bent on challenging the steady-state theory that says the universe has always been there and will always be there.
Soon, however, Hawking started exhibiting symptoms of a motor neuron disease. His parents were worried he would die within two years.  He was at that time working on his PhD dissertation; his father spoke to his adviser and asked the latter not to give his son a hard time so he could at least get the degree.  The teacher felt the father underestimated his son.
And he did. The next few decades saw Hawking’s disease progressing, but they also saw the man’s capacity to transcend his physical limitations. As said in the film, Hawking not only made Einstein work…he made Einstein beautiful.  He went on searching for a theory that explains everything: how we all came to be.  He determined that singularity was not the universe’s end; it was its beginning.
Hawking believed that even though we are small, we are also profoundly capable of understanding very big things.
One is a work of fiction, one is a real life story. Many people feel trapped by their circumstances. Believe it or not, it is possible to break out of these constraints and live a fuller life. We just have to start.