Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dancing His Heart Out

Shortly after the birth of our son and his subsequent diagnoses of Down Syndrome, a kind, older nurse came into my hospital room. As I sat there with tears in my eyes, she tended to my needs and tried to make conversation during an awkward moment. She told me that when she was in nurse's training she had worked at a developmental center and all she could remember about the mongoloids was that they could knit and they could dance! Note to all medical professionals: One-NEVER use the word mongoloid, two-never tell a mother that her first born son will be a proficient knitter and three—kids with Down Syndrome DO love to dance.

Andy started dancing long before he could walk. He loves to dance and is, in fact, a very good dancer. Many a family party has risen to a new level of fun because of Andy’s love for music and dance. Many high school proms have been enlivened by Andy’s willingness to dance every single dance. Many a wedding guest has had the privilege of “cutting the rug” with Andy. Dancing comes naturally and joyfully to Andy.

In my study of African Dance this week, I have learned something that helps me to appreciate Andy’s love of dance on a deeper level. “Dance,” Robert Nicholls writes, “is a psycho-social device able to penetrate many aspects of human existence.” Omofolabo Soyinka Ajayi explains, “Dance is a vehicle of communication. It is able to express an action, an idea. As a sign, dance is a multi-communicative channel, transmitting information not only through time and space but also kinetically, visually and through human sensorial perceptions. Its versatility as a multi-channel system make dance a communication powerhouse able to give information at many different levels simultaneously.”

Oh, how desperately Andy needs this communication powerhouse in a body that struggles endlessly to convey the feelings of his heart. Speech and hearing are perhaps the greatest physical challenges faced by people with Down Syndrome. At an early age, most are taught sign language as a means of making their most basic needs known. As Andy’s mother, I am usually able to translate what Andy is saying to those who may not be familiar with his forms of speech. However, many a tear filled afternoon has occurred as we have labored intensely to find the sounds and the words to express an unfilled need. A person who is blind may be compensated by a heightened sense of touch and hearing. Perhaps those who cannot communicate verbally are compensated kinetically so that they too can express feelings such as happiness, joy and sorrow?

Through the years, I have come to realize that the “differences” of people with Down Syndrome and myself is very minimal. Instead, we are exactly alike in so many ways. Could it be that I, too, have a hard time communicating my deepest feelings? Doesn’t finding the sounds and words to convey the feelings of my heart reach tear-filled intensity at times? These are the moments that I long for a communication powerhouse to transport me across the gulf of unexpressed feelings. Maybe next time I am feeling blue, or happy, or frustrated, I will be more like Andy and close my bedroom door, crank up the music, and communicate to my hearts content.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Generally, when I am looking inward and analyzing myself, I do it from a Judeo-Christian perspective (Am I nice? Am I honest? Are my thoughts pure?) or I may do it from a psychoanalytic perspective (Did my mother cause this? Am I meeting the needs of my inner child? Am I just hopelessly screwed?). Up to this point, I have not often analyzed my quirks and idiosyncrasies from a bio-evolutionary perspective. But hey, I am open-minded, whatever works! This week after reading What is Art For? by Ellen Dissanyake and The Silent Language and The Hidden Dimension by Edward Hall I am coming to understand that some behavioral roots go much deeper than my parents.

One area in which we may be more in tune with our animal ancestors than we like to admit is in the area of territoriality. Edward Hall explains, “Every living thing has a physical boundary that separates it from its external environment, beginning with bacteria and ending with humans...A short distance up the phylogenetic scale, however another, non-physical boundary appears that exists outside the physical one. This new boundary is harder to delimit than the first but is just as real. We call this the organisms” territory.” To simplify I will just call it MySpace. Cats mark MySpace, Dogs defend MySpace, and birds return each year to MySpace. I am just realizing that I also have a MySpace that at times elicits an almost primal response when it is violated.

Mr. Hall then continues on, “Most American women have very strong feelings about their kitchens. Even a mother can’t come in and wash the dishes in her daughter’s kitchen without annoying her. The kitchen is the place where ‘who will dominate’ is settled. All women know this, and some an even talk about it. Daughters who can’t keep control of their kitchen will be forever under the thumb of any woman who can move into this area.”

I will not go so far as to keep anyone who wishes from coming into my kitchen and washing my dishes, but I believe Mr. Hall’s point does ring a chord of truth with all of us. We each have a MySpace which is our territory that when violated brings out an often suppressed emotional response. For the guys it may be their garage or workbench. Even kids have a closet or drawer that, no matter how messy, they do no want to be disturbed. I recently had an experience that drove this concept home to me even though at the time I couldn’t put a finger on my reaction. We recently bought a vacation home from the bank. It wasn’t a conventional transaction and several parties were involved including the financial institution and a bitterly, divorcing couple. Several weeks after closing on the property, the wife came to pick up a large pile of belongings that had been left in the home. After inviting her in she went in the kitchen and began to open cupboards and drawers as if looking for something. I even surprised myself with the strong emotional feelings I had. I very firmly told her that her things were no longer in the kitchen and she needed to leave immediately. In the jungle we would have been just two lionesses defending the territory we both claimed as our own. I could feel the hair on my neck rising and the adrenalin surging through my system. I recognized this feeling as one that I had experienced at other times in my life when someone has invaded MySpace.

Whether your MySpace is the area immediately around your body, a favorite chair or a whole bedroom that you call your own, it is important that you recognize it for what it is. It is also important that we understand MySpace as it relates to other members of our family and to our culture as a whole. Reactions to violations of MySpace aren’t always kind, they aren’t always logical but they certainly are natural.

Revealing All

Blogs are funny things. Are they for online journals? Newsletters? Political rantings? Gripe sessions? And who is reading them anyway? My mom? My professor? My neighbor? My kids? Some psycho computer geek with a penchant for a middle aged grandma? With so many questions unanswered it really leaves one in a quandary as how much of ones inner-life to share with the whole world but since, in this unusual case, my art class grade depends on it, here it goes. Besides hasn’t much of great art through the ages depended on someone being willing to “bare all” so to speak?

In reflecting back on my own “artistic journey,” I think that, perhaps, it came to a screeching halt somewhere around ninth grade. Prior to that time, I spent a great deal of time in the arts. I loved working in clay, dabbling with paints, carving a piece of wood, or dancing to Tchaikovsky. The art rooms were my refuge in the junior high world. Then we moved. I remember registering for an art class at my new high school. On the first day, the teacher arranged our seats in a circle, put a horse’s saddle in the middle of the room and told us to draw it. My hands simply could not translate what my eyes were seeing to the paper. Within days I dropped the class and with it my desire to be myself; to create for the love of it. Comparing my talents to the rest of those in the circle consumed me.

Fast forward, thirty something years later to one of those ‘aha” moments when I figured out something about art and about myself. Somewhere around adolescence we change our perception of the world from one-dimensional to three-dimensional. We are no longer satisfied with simple line drawings and cartoon figures. Our world takes on texture, shading, space and perspective. Without the guiding hand of a teacher or mentor we simply do not know how to translate what we are seeing with our eyes to the paper in front of us; both in our lives and in our artwork. Our stories remain flat, our pictures remain childish and our confidence is shaken.

Every teen needs someone to guide them. Every young Virgil needs a Beatrice. Everyone needs someone to restore their confidence during vulnerable times. They need someone to help translate what they are seeing with their eyes to what can be created with their hearts and hands. They need to make the transition from a one-dimensional world to a three-dimensional one whether it is through a painting or a relationship. Each of us must somehow pass on the skills we have developed to a struggling artist or student or friend so that they too can express their deepest emotions in whatever medium they choose.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Global HeARTS

After much, o.k. after very little, consideration, I decided to combine my school blog with my personal blog. So now my family can learn something new about art and my fellow classmates can learn something about me. My past experience has shown that within a few days I will be too busy to blog about anything but schoolwork anyway and most likely my next personal blog will have something to do with Thanksgiving. So welcome everyone to this eclectic view of my life.

But Why?

As the next blog attests to, I made my annual Labor Day pilgrimage to the top of a mountain. This year I dragged my sisters along. Let me rephrase that, they were dragging me—Cheryl even carried my backpack when I “hit the wall.” Somewhere, in our ascent up the mountain, Cathy said, “I know you love this, but why?” I don’t think at that moment, as I struggled to catch my breath at 10,000 feet, I really had an answer but I have been giving it some thought this last week. Why do I like climbing mountains?
1) Because I love The Sound of Music. (Hence the seven kids and dashing husband I have.)
2) Because ever since high school when I had a poster that said, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp”, I have lived my life that way. (Hence the seven kids, overdue stacks of library books, overgrown gardens and overextended credit cards.)
3) Because when I climb a mountain, I have to do it one step at a time. I play a came with myself that if I can just make it ten more steps I will rest and then start again. Many times I play the same game in life. Just ten more minutes of housework, just ten more pages of reading, just ten more sit-ups, just a few more steps and then I can rest and start again.
4) Because I love mountain goats, waterfalls, wildflowers and sweeping vistas.
5) Because of the pure exhilaration that comes from reaching a summit, headache and all.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Stop and Smell the Roses

It has been a crazy, busy summer and now we are starting into crazy, busy fall. But somewhere along the way I had a chance to sit and enjoy. There is nothing like holding babies, catching hummingbirds, sleeping under the stars, enjoying a drenching rain and reading a good book while our kittens play at my feet that keeps me grounded and gives me a chance to count my blessings.

(The real reason for this post was to learn how to download pictures. It took me all afternoon but I can now take a picture, get it to my computer and from my computer to a blog. This probably does not seem like a big deal to all of you computer geniuses out there, but for me it was a monumental afternoon. Tomorrow I might learn how to program a number into my cell phone.)