Events of the last few months have made it so easy to feel powerless!
Seeing news footage of the ocean pouring over the Malecon in Havana, floods in the streets of New Orleans, fires raging through Santa Rosa, I walk through these familiar places in my memory, grieving. I worry about the safety of friends and try to quell horrific images of fleeing people, animals, birds. We inhale the smoke from the ever-encroaching Los Angeles fires. As I read about the reckless short- sighted cupidity of government law-makers, a feeling of mounting hopelessness for the fate of the world that I love, and was certain would endure, overcomes me. I long to hide my head under the blankets.
…and then I think of Jay.
I had the great good fortune to meet him when I recently co-led an art/collage group on expressing cultural values for low-income seniors. He rolled into the class in his electric wheelchair, his beaming smile lighting a pathway into the group. I looked from his deformed hands to his smiling face filled with expectancy and I resolved that, if this man wants to create something, we would make it happen. The project – to collage a box that would not only remind people they are creative and to express their values but it would be a box to store special objects.
The first week when I was getting signed photo releases from everyone, he refused.
Jay and I settled at our own table. The first challenge was how to communicate because he is deaf and mute and I don’t know how to sign. I quickly learned that he can force a pen between two fingers and write, so with the aid of a small whiteboard, we conversed. In answer to my written question about what is important to him, he wrote the names of the Los Angeles basketball and baseball teams. This is where my learning began.
I noted how he painstakingly picked up sheets of paper, forced his working fingers (two on each hand) into the handles of scissors and cut out his collage materials. He carefully looked at each of 35 pages of photographs I downloaded from his team’s webpage and selected those he wanted to use.
On week 3 he wrote “take my photo!” and on Week 4, I presented him with several copies of his infectiously, good-humored face.
Over the series of classes he assembled, cut, composed and glued the pictures in place. I steadied the paper sometimes, took the top off the glue, brought in an exacto tool and cutting board and marveled at his focus and determination. The box became an object of art that was meaningful to him and I must confess, to me and everyone else in the group working at another table. My encouragement was transmitted with gestures, smiles and a few words scrawled on the board. In turn, I never left the classroom without being uplifted by his enthusiastic attitude.
I wanted to know more about this important bond between his team and his feelings about himself. The obvious connection was Jay absorbing the images of strong, lithe, powerful and successful African-American men. I remembered a practice where Zen painting teachers tell their students to sit with their subjects – be it rock or a tree- “until their souls intertwined”. It seemed to be so here. Jay could become one of these magnificent athletes and heroes for a short and glorious time. (As an aside, Social Psychologists understand that identity is social and that if an individual is proud of the group to which he or she belongs, their sense of self is strengthened. They also know that belonging is one of the top psychological needs and motivators. (Harre, psych.aukland.ac.nz/Psychologyforabetterworld)
Every week Jay wheeled in, beaming and waving his arm like a stick. Every week he settled into his labors. Every week he progressed towards completion.
I asked him to point out words from a list of values to incorporate into his work. He chose Education, Winning, Fun, Belonging, Beauty, Collaboration and I continued my learning. And yes, sports are all of those and Life too!
The highlight of his art-making was to place a picture of a poster in his box as the first thing to see when the lid comes off. His motto and that of his team……
And if this man can feel this as he deals with enormous challenges – every day and up close – I ask myself “who am I to give up??”
(photos- M.Kellen-Taylor 2017)