If you missed me in person, here I am reading at the #ListenToYourMother show in San Francisco. http://bit.ly/29HYgaS Ariela didn’t want me to write about her, but here’s one story she really liked.
“Following a child’s interests, going with what motivates them, spending time in nature, and if possible working with animals — these things seem to help all children.” – Rupert Isaacson
Like his bestselling book, The Horse Boy, Rupert Isaacson is intense, inspirational and candid about his courageous journey to help his son with autism.
Motivated by love, faith and desperation, he traveled to Siberia, rode on the backs of reindeers, and sought the healing powers of shamans. The results were life changing for his son and his family.
For me, he represents many parents of children with special needs who would go to the end of the earth to help their children. Nothing is simple when you have a child with special needs, and crazy becomes part of every family’s story.
Rupert is an engaging and generous raconteur. He was visiting SF to promote his new book, The Long Ride Home, and to work with Joell Dunlap of Square Peg, the ranch where my daughter enjoyed many years of therapeutic riding. He took time out to give me much appreciated encouragement and advice.
I’m very excited to see my story, “Beach Tires”, in Hippocampus Magazine. Ariela was very proud to be a trail docent in Golden Gate National Park. The photo in Hippocampus shows her trail at Crissy Field. Ariela’s painting on my website banner is a view from her trail.
This story was recently published in Brain, Child Magazine. Ariela loved to party. She had great friends who were always ready to celebrate.
The five-year old girl sat waiting in her wheelchair. When she tried to speak, all she could say was a mournful “aaah.” She was scrubbed clean. Her pink leggings matched a pink t-shirt matched her pink sneakers and pink socks. Her tight black curls were cut close for easy care. Her head swished back and forth as if she was scanning the room with her deep brown eyes.
Abandoned by her birth mother. Abandoned by her foster parents. She was denied placement in kindergarten, because her constant crying disturbed the other children. No one knew if she had ever received any therapy.
She and her caregivers met with several doctors and therapists at the clinic. The physical therapist said her legs were stiff and contracted, and her spine was curved and would continue to twist as she grew.
The communications specialist at the clinic saw she had something to say. “See how she raises her eyebrows, when she likes something,” the specialist told the caregivers. “See how she frowns when she doesn’t.” The girl’s head swished left and right.
The specialist showed the girl a computer with an eye-gaze communication system. Cartoon pictures lined up on the screen with a preview of three videos. The girl’s head stopped swishing long enough to gaze at each one. She found a video she didn’t like. The specialist showed her the comments page. The girl found the button she wanted. “It’s boring,” she said with a digitized voice. Then, with her eyes, she found a video she liked and smiled.
It was time for the clinic’s dietician to speak with the caregivers. The girl was crying. She had been listening to people talk about her for over three hours. She was bored and tired of being poked and stretched. I rolled her wheelchair outside to the sunlit courtyard. Her head swished, and her arms flailed. I started to sing to her, just like I used to sing to Ariela when she was a little girl. I sang all the songs I could remember, the songs that made Ariela laugh.
“I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” When the spider wriggles and jiggles inside her, I tickled the girl’s tummy like I tickled Ariela, The little girl didn’t laugh. “Aaaah, aaah” she moaned. Maybe she didn’t like my voice.
“Yellow Submarine.” The girl continued to cry. I wondered if she knew what a submarine was, or if she didn’t like yellow, or pink.
“I Love You a Bushel and a Peck.” Ariela loved the silliness of that song. But I didn’t hug the girl like I hugged Ariela or give her a peck on the cheek with a loud smacking noise.
I looked at the girl and wondered if she had ever heard, “I love you”? How do you know you’re lovable unless someone tells you? Or hugs you? Or gives you a peck? Or says you are the best, most wonderful child in the whole wide world?
As I sang, the girl’s crying lessened. She looked up at my face, her eyes burrowing into me. Then she stopped crying, and my off-key singing wafted into the courtyard.
Twenty guys, or maybe thirty, in less than one hour. That’s how it goes with 100 people learning to salsa. We form two large circles. The followers (“usually ladies”) are the inner circle facing out, and the leaders (“usually men”) create the outer circle facing in. I can tell the teacher is unsure about these gender specific words. From this point on we are “leaders” and “followers,” which requires a different self-assessment. We pair-off. The music is turned up, and we practice the basic step for about a minute. Then the teacher says, “Change partners.” Followers stay in place. Leaders shift left to the next partner, like a reversed carousel. The next guy holds out his left hand to me, and we dance another minute or so until the next “change partners.”
The teacher has instructed us to smile. Some people don’t know how. Are they trying to look tough, or do they just have bad teeth? A few words may be said. “How’s your day goin’?” More often, we just move our feet and count out loud, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” just like Sesame Street.
There’s not a lot of space on the dance floor. Ordinarily, I avoid close contact with strangers, but here, I’m an anthropologist. (Think Margaret Mead in heels and a short skirt.) I marvel at the diversity, not just differences in color and size, but attitude, from self-assured to smart-ass to shy to awkward, attitudes reflected in the way they dance. Self-assured has done this before. Smart-ass corrects my position. Shy can’t make eye contact. Awkward can’t do the simple basic step. He is sweating, really sweating. Sixty seconds become sixty minutes. When will the teacher say “change”? Please save me from this guy who’s never heard of deodorant.
Then comes Garlic Breath, and I stop inhaling. Next is Sweaty Palms, and I dry my hands on my skirt. There’s the guy in the Cal t-shirt. “I went to Cal,” I volunteer. Why did I say that? He might ask me what year? Finally, Hot Latin Ballroom, with requisite gold chain, whose torso twists like he’s made of rubber, and I am Dancing With the Stars.
Two of my 20+ partners had a few grey hairs. The rest, I figure I am old enough to be their mother. I tell this to Gary. “Try grandmother,” he points out. I look around the room. Maybe. But I can dance with the best of them.
KEHINDE WILEY The Two Sisters, 2012. Oil on linen.
I’m insecure about art. I don’t know enough to be an art snob. But I don’t want to be thought of as someone who doesn’t know kitsch when it’s staring at her. So I wasn’t sure what to think of Kehinde Wiley. His paintings are meant to startle, in his own words “go for the jugular.” His colors and patterns are bold. His subject’s postures and expressions are intense. His realistic paintings are larger than life.
When I saw his show at the Seattle Art Museum, I was captivated. His subjects, all people of color, gaze out at the viewer. “Look at me,” they demand. “Don’t accept what white society says about us.” They’re not screaming, but they’re not subtle either.
Wiley stops people he finds walking on city streets. He casts them in paintings derived from the great portraiture of the 15th through early 20th centuries. The originals, created by artists like Gainsborough, Singer Sargent, and Chassériau, depicted royalty, aristocrats, people of great power, wealth and prestige.
Most of his models are men. For his grouping “Economy of Grace,” Wiley focused on black women he had recruited in Harlem. He dresses his models in long flowing gowns by Givenchy. Their hair is styled in up-dos that suggest elaborate crowns. He positions them to mimic the poses of the originals. Maybe because of Wiley’s naturalistic style, they look better, more real, than the originals. They are self-possessed and regal, but at the same time, Wiley doesn’t hide their vulnerability and humanity.
For a moment in time, he takes his subjects out of the reality of their lives and elevates them from the ordinary to the majestic, from people with no power to people of nobility, from anonymous to celebrated. It’s not just the clothing, it’s their inner beauty that Wiley captures. We don’t normally think of his subjects as royalty. But in their newfound settings, on the imposing large-scale canvases, they command our respect and admiration.
Does changing the context of a person change the way we view them? How we treat them? We make assumptions about people by the way they look, the clothes they wear, their backgrounds. We take our preconceived notions and marginalize “the others” – be it people of color, or people from another country, or people with disabilities.
My daughter, Ariela, used a wheelchair. Her hands waved and her head bobbed. I know that people judged her by the way she looked, whatever they knew about disability forming their opinions. “Poor dear”, they’d say, giving her a narrative that wasn’t hers. We don’t normally think of people with disabilities as royalty, but that’s how she thought of herself.
I can’t dismiss Wiley’s work. He has too much to say about how we think of each other. He challenges our preconceptions about identity and art. With his reimagined light and landscapes, his subjects come alive and deserve our thoughtful attention.