Saturday, February 25, 2012

Walking by Faith


In lobby of Paris hotel visiting friends Efua and Marc Paul,
who were also vacationing in the city after a trip to Spain

For a long time, I have been meaning to make an entry on this art blog about one of the experiences that has most inspired me on my journey as an artist, and that I had during the years that “Portraits: From Montgomery to Paris,” my first solo art quilt exhibition, came together. As I lived and worked in California, I became more and more of a Francophile. There’s a lot of documentation in interviews at this point about the impact of Paris on my art, including my trip to Paris in 2009 as a Cultural Envoy of the U.S. Embassy in France, but I have never told this story. The film “A Portrait of the Artist,” in some ways, is also a reminder of this really unbelievable experience that to this day, I am glad I went through.

I studied Paris and French culture, attended the annual French Film Festival in Sacramento from the time of its inception in 2002, took language courses in French at the Alliance Francąise in Sacramento and, inspired by interior designers such as Claudia Strasser, even decorated my apartment there as a “Paris apartment with a Southern folk and vintage twist.” I dreamed and planned to take a trip to Paris at some point to see the city for myself. My worst fears were that I’d die or go blind before it happened. I longed to see the majestic architecture up close. Meantime, I talked to people I knew who had traveled or lived there. Some days when I was traveling and had time to spare at the airport, I’d even sit in the area where people were boarding flights for Paris, just to check out some of the people bound for this great city and get a peek at their culture and legendary style. On June 23, 2007, after arriving in Atlanta from Sacramento (and after having had the upgrade to first class that has been a constant comfort on those cross-country trips) I could not believe that I was finally one of them. I was finally on my way to Paris for a vacation, on which I would also be taking another French course and would be interviewed about my art quilt project by Géraldine Chouard and Anne Crémieux.

The dinner on the flight that night was sumptuous. I remember being so excited that my very first art print cards were tucked in one of the long compartments on the side of the plane beside the seats, set for distribution in the city. There was plenty of seat and leg room though passengers were three abreast in the rows on this large plane. The flight attendant, a French guy, had asked a couple of times if I was comfortable but I told him that I felt fine and drifted off to sleep, excited that when I woke up we’d be in France or at least very close. When I woke up, as flight attendants were bringing passengers breakfast, I immediately saw that my left wrist was entirely limp. I couldn't move my fingers at all either. The man sitting next to me on the flight noticed the problem, reached over, and gently opened my orange juice and water, a gesture for which I was thankful in the midst of my confusion over what was going on with my hand. As we disembarked, he got my bag down from the overhead compartment. After going through customs, I was in Charles de Gaulle airport with three pieces of luggage and clueless about what was up with my hand. I had no idea what was going on, and expected it to just go away. My mom had urged me to get a cab and I had insisted I would be taking the Metro instead because the maps were straightforward and I was sure I wouldn’t have a problem finding my lodging; why spend so much on a cab when the Metro was much cheaper? Given these unexpected circumstances, however, her advice automatically won out. I got a cab to the hostel where I’d be staying for my extended trip, then called my family and told them what was wrong. They got busy on computers trying diagnose the problem. Meantime, jetlagged, I took a nap, hoping that the hand would be back to normal when I woke up. It wasn’t. I remember going out for a walk that evening. I bought a cloth brace to wrap it up. When I was at a restaurant, a French waiter noticed it and judged that I should go the hospital. I figured that I might need to at some point, but wanted to give it more time to heal on its own.

The next day, I registered in my French course (my third one over the past couple of years), got my books, and attended my first class. The next two days, I met with Anne and Géraldine for the interview, toured the city to the sites linked to quilts in my Paris series such as Josephine Baker and Simone de Beauvoir, had fun, and just enjoyed seeing the city for the first time. I did my best to camouflage the wrist as we taped. Every time I see the film, I notice where the hand gets out of hand a couple of times, like walking up those steps in Montmartre, or when I am wearing the gold chain bracelet to distract from it when the camera is up close on it as I go through the fabrics at the second fabric store we visited. (The first is the famous quilt store near Notre Dame owned by Diane de Obaldia, a former Chanel model). I am also very inspired to know the strength and faith that it took to be optimistic, to keep focused, and to speak in front of the camera as I was interviewed for the film, and to enjoy and savor the whole experience, when the truth was that I did not have a clue in the world about what was going on with my left hand; it couldn’t even move.

There were a lot of European tourists with luxurious double-decker tour buses parked at my hostel. The third night in the city, after our filming had wrapped, I was standing in the lobby ready to go upstairs and rest after a long day and was invited to come along on a two-hour tour of the city on one of those fantastic buses with a group of high school students from Amsterdam. They seated me up front next to a teacher who could speak English and he translated as we were taken on a long drive through the city, culminating, after the sun set, in a visit to the Eiffel Tower where we took photos in the midst of the beautiful lights. Wow!

When my hand had not gotten better after four days, and most of our filming had wrapped, I went to a pharmacy and tried to buy a brace. The pharmacist would not sell it to me, insisted that I to go to the hospital, and wrote down the name and location of the closest one. I found it easily and had a wait for an hour or so. The doctor who treated me looked at the wrist. He’d look at it, and then would speak in French to the nurse, laughing merrily with her a couple of times as I sat on pins and needles wondering what could be wrong. I had presumed it was an extreme form of carpal tunnel. Finally, he gave me the diagnosis-radial nerve damage-also known as "lover's palsy," "honeymoon palsy," and “Saturday night palsy.” I'd never heard of this condition with all of these fancy names that seem far too spicy and free-wheeling for the life I live. Apparently, the damage had occurred on the flight. He prescribed a brace, and recommended scans on returning to California. He then asked me for a “favor,” to photograph my hand for his students to study, a request that I obliged, though as the hand was photographed and documented for medical study (with both arms outstretched, one hand positioned up to reflect normal right wrist movement, the other to show the flaccid left wrist) I could not help but think about the history of Sara Baartman as the so-called “Hottentot Venus” in the early 19th century. I was actually being photographed for medical archives because of my hand injury. When I paid the $100 to my travel agent for international medical travel insurance, I never thought in a million years that I might need it. Yet, the doctor cut me off when I tried to ask about costs and mentioned my travel insurance. Literally, he said, "Ordinarily there might be a 60 euro charge; but forget it. Enjoy Paris." This sobering moment underscored how ironic it is to be able to get such excellent health care in a foreign country given the experiences with health care that many face in the U.S. Even the visit to the hospital in Paris was good and educational for me, to the point that I was thankful to have had that experience. It, too, became one of the things I most appreciated about my first Paris trip!

As the trip continued, I walked by faith that movement would return, put on a good face, and just did everything I needed to do with my one functioning hand. I had to wash and flatiron my hair and put it up with one hand. (There was this one day that it looked kind of disheveled because I could not get it up any better than that, which also made me think that sometimes when we see people out in public, they may have done the best that they can do to put themselves together and should never be judged). I had to shower and dress with one hand. My grandmother had been recovering from falls in 2005 and 2007. It had been one thing to support and encourage her on the road to recovery and to face those challenges with prayer and faith, but one definitely sees one’s own presumptuousness when faced with physical challenges of one’s own. I saw what it meant to look at that hand and will it to move, yet have it stay still. I got sick with one of those terrible colds that one can easily get when traveling, and was literally in a situation where blowing my nose was a challenge because the fingers on that left hand didn’t work.

Back in California, I took the scan, which assessed the level of damage. The wrist and hand were limp and numb; I only felt faint and vague pain now and then. I had not planned to be back on email anyway when I first got back (always my policy for a few days after returning from trips). My box had overflowed and remained full; it bounced emails back until I was ready to empty it. I figured that any important message would reach me eventually, and that if I was meant to get it at any point I would. (Before that, I had actually kept my website profile down for two years at my university). The people closest to me called and life went on. Typing was impossible with my left hand. After two weeks went by, I began to send emails by typing with just my right hand, a process that slowed me down in healthy ways and set a different pace and rhythm. My academic writing was almost impossible to do. I knew the art show was a year away and had no time to lose, so began to work on the quilts by balancing with the injured left hand and stitching with the right. The “Portraits” quilt show, at a point, actually continued to come together when my left hand and wrist were temporarily paralyzed, totally out of commission and could not move.

Years ago, I was working as a volunteer at a camp and learned that the mother of one of the girls with whom we worked (age 11) had inflicted an unthinkable form of abuse on her child and burned off her fingers on both hands by holding them on the stove. Another counselor and I were responsible for taking this child and another girl home in the evenings. The two of us would sit in the car on the back seat and the other counselor and another girl would be in the front. One of the most heartbreaking moments was to realize, while still talking and looking ahead, that I was being stared at. I looked down and saw the child staring at my hand that was flat down on the back seat to steady myself. I retracted my fingers and put my arm around her and hugged her. The truth is that even if my hand had never moved again, God’s grace would have been sufficient to sustain me in the midst of it all. There is nothing that I could have ever said after feeling and knowing the pain of a story like hers and that of so many people who have suffered bodily injuries in ways that few people ever think about or imagine. After losing the ability to function in some way, one learns in a very visceral way not to ever take the ability to move for granted. Getting up and out of bed in the morning is something that most people take for granted, but the ability to do that is a miracle.

I remember getting a manicure because there was nothing else I could do with the hand at the time. A guy at Taylor’s Market, the grocery store where I shopped sometimes in Sacramento, would walk me over to the light rail and help me carry my bags because of the lack of function in my hand. Every little movement of my fingers, every little movement of the wrist-a little twitch to the left that wasn't there before-was something that I noticed and celebrated. I remember what a triumph I felt to have movement return slowly, from finger to finger. My postman and building doorman monitored the brace and observed my progress when I was downstairs in my building; the postman was of the mind that I should go ahead and let the wrist loose from the brace. My wrist definitely felt stronger and better. Finally, after about six weeks, the day came when my wrist felt like an egg hatching and I knew I no longer needed the brace. I felt reborn in a way. The first night without the brace, a Friday, my left hand moved tentatively, and then began to gallop across the keyboard once again. Even after it could move, I still needed to build strength and went on to have two therapy sessions that fall, and then did daily finger and wrist exercises with puddy and one-pound weights.

At the spa, weeks later, during a moment when the memory of my recent experience had receded and was not on my mind, the manicurist excitedly pointed out from across the room that my hand was healed, and came over to greet me. Similarly, the guy at the grocery store, who'd helped me carry my bag to the light rail a couple of times when I had been wearing the brace, did the same thing as I stood in the checkout line. In those small moments, my hand’s movement became something to celebrate. Seeing other people take such joy in my recovery inspired me all over again. I found it odd, puzzling, and funny, even, that the brace also drew the interest and attention of lots of guys who would use it as a conversation opener when I was out in public; it had worked like an aphrodisiac that summer.

That I type this post with both hands today is a blessing, for I lost all ability to do this not five years ago. That summer, other than two medical appointments, I did my own research. I saw that eating well and getting the proper nutrients was important, so I did those things. I took extra good care of myself. A black woman doctor substituting for my Asian male physician who was away on vacation was nice to meet but I was unsettled by her cynicism in making the comment “IF the hand ever recovers . . . ”; I was not about to be discouraged and indicated to her that I was sure that it would move again.

The prognosis I had seen online was that it could take up to a year or more for movement to return, but I definitely wanted to be back on track sooner rather than later. I believed it would be sooner. My positive attitude helped a lot. I did not complain or fret a day in Paris or once I returned to the U.S. I just walked with the faith that my hand would heal. The optimism that I had to have in that situation with my hand translated into optimism about a lot of other things, and helped to give me new levels of strength, confidence, fearlessness and determination. (And it was strength I needed later that fall and beyond as I dealt with an entirely different medical issue, prepared for months to go through surgery, and in the process, went out and interviewed for jobs; those experiences helped me tremendously in that process). I look at myself on screen in “A Portrait of the Artist,” see the brace in certain shots, am always reminded of this powerful and transformative experience, and am deeply inspired all over again.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dealing with Men, Dating, and Relationships (Thoughts Outlined for College Women)

Happy Valentine's Day in advance! I LOVE talking and thinking about the subject of relationships. If I were married to the ideal man and in the perfect relationship right now, I’d be as obsessed and devoted to it. I enjoy it in much the same way as the singer Béyonce, who notably released the hit song “Single Ladies” as a married woman and has remained an advocate for them. I very much approach it as I approach almost every topic of interest to me, including those related to home and lifestyle management-as a researcher-at least in a casual and informal sense. The fun ad hoc discussion that came together around my dining room table a few years ago one of the times that my mom was visiting me in California, and had female friends over, convinced me that I know the discursive terrain and all of the popular works-the classics-well enough to teach a course in this area. Precious few people on earth ever see me come to life on this topic and hear what I really think about it. They can almost be counted on one hand. My mother. My grandmother. My aunt and cousins, who are her two daughters. My truly close girlfriends. A close female colleague or two. (And my uncle is positively the only man in close enough proximity to have exposure to my real opinions on relationships now and then). My cousins, for instance, might overhear me sharing opinions about this and that with my mother. The other off-topic post on this blog from a few months ago discusses my all-time favorite relationship manual, The Alpha Male. A few years ago, for instance, I was reading various books and articles on this topic (to the point of even studying the behavior of wolf packs), and to my mom, underscoring my longtime and really lifelong intention to marry “a man for all seasons,” declaring that I intend to “marry at the front line of culture” and that “a strong woman has to be strong enough to deal with a strong man” and not fall for the “nice guy” type who on the surface seems “safe” emotionally but is often a passive-aggressive, jealous, and insecure jerk in disguise. I was discussing the perils and passive-aggressiveness of the “beta” male in this sense, along with the widespread and wrongheaded presumption that this type makes the best kind of partner for a woman with alpha female qualities, while declaring my intention to avoid him and to NEVER deal with him again at all for the rest of my life in either personal or professional contexts. During this time, I was stunned to get a sense of how much my cousins, college students, had picked up when one of them fed back the basic profile of “the alpha male” to me, explaining why a certain guy in popular culture often presumed to be in this category “is really a ‘beta male.’”

Keeping the bar high and not settling has not ever been difficult for me because I am not the type to compromise my values or my integrity. There’s a book that I once read that argues that men have an “alarm” that a woman either sets off or doesn’t, and if she doesn’t, she will just be “strung along” until he meets the woman who is right for him. I’m kind of like that, too. In the course of my life, I would say that I have been genuinely attracted to very, very, very few men, below 1%. Few are ever “my type,” so to speak. So far, no man has ever come close to setting off this so-called “alarm” for me, whatever that means, which also explains why I’m still single. I would honestly rather remain single for the rest of my life than ever date or marry the wrong man and rising above the fear of being alone is the most liberating thing a woman can ever do.

I take a lot of pleasure in empowering women about relationships. In a public sense, I spoke at a forum on male-female relationships for students at UC Davis around 2006. When he was feeling me out as a panelist for it, the guy who invited me to participate joked when he heard some of my opinions and said that I was “dangerous” because I might help women on campus get “too smart” on relationships with the kind of wise advice I had to offer, and in turn, ruin it for guys who count on women to be naïve and gullible. He was like, “Please stay away from them and in the classroom!” Recently, I was asked to share some reflections in a survey on romantic relationships designed to support college women and help them avoid such things as desperation, the game of “musical chairs” in relationships, and just settling. Though some of what I think about negotiating relationships is not necessarily grounded in a feminist position per se, these issues underscore, too, the need for more feminist dialogue for students on campuses about relationships. What I ended up writing is copied below. In this case, as was the case with a couple of other posts last year, and because I am amazed by how many people actually read this blog and the range of posts that draw their interest, I am taking the liberty during this Valentine’s season to go “off topic” to share perspectives on relationships that may be useful. My thoughts outlined here were originally typed into a box off the cuff and not written as an essay per se, so are more informal and stream-of-consciousness, but include some basic ideas that I think are important for young women to think about in the area of relationships. While these comments were originally pitched to support college women and share strategies and perspectives that might help the specific problems that respondents were asked to talk about, some of this is translatable to women across generations, men, and various relationships beyond the male-female dynamic discussed here. Here it goes . . .

I think that it is important for young women to remain true to their values and to not allow anyone else to lead them to compromise their integrity, including their values about spirituality and sexuality. The important thing is to be able to respect oneself, to hold out for the very best, and to never sell oneself out, or God. For me, it is important to be my best possible woman to attract the best possible man, and to keep the bar high and never settle.

I think that the advice that is offered in lots of contemporary dating manuals has truth in underscoring, for instance, that it is important to have confidence, to not look to another person to complete you, and to “date yourself.” In other words, there’s that saying that “you teach people how to treat you,” and so must understand how to convey a sense of your own worth. Learn how to channel that alpha female/femme fatale kind of energy that has him wondering where the relationship is going with you, instead of coming across as the "needy" kind of woman/"nice girl" ready to be his doormat and whose fate rests on his every word, whim, call and decision. Recognize yourself as “the catch” in the relationship.

I think that women could help themselves exponentially by building their literacies about relationships, reading in the self-help genre on this topic, and understanding how relationships should ideally work. To not have this basic understanding is the equivalent of getting in a car blindfolded, then driving around on roads oblivious to any of the warning signs. With this literacy, for example, one knows how to recognize a relationship that is healthy versus one that is toxic. One understands not to take the bait when he gives you his card and says, "call me," or to understand what it means when he spends the evening talking about himself or says, "come over." I also think that young women need to understand that it is important to be with a person who is truly stable and emotionally grounded, for life itself can feel like a roller coaster. Ideally, two stable people should come together to navigate the ups and downs of life, as opposed to the relationship feeling like a roller coaster in and of itself. Never try to rescue or mother any man. Moreover, part of this aspect of the lesson is learning how to identify men who are “narcissists,” non-committal and “emotionally unavailable” and avoiding them at all costs. Do not waste your time with these types. Lose any obsession and fixation on any guy that is not showing interest and understand that it is okay to be alone rather than to spend your time with someone you always have to wonder about or who makes you feel insecure and like you are on a rollercoaster ride instead of in a relationship that is nurturing and beneficial to the both of you. Men who blow "hot and cold," and who are there one day and gone the next, are manipulative and do not deserve the time of day.

College students can have lots of questions about the future and end up trying to close the deal for themselves with someone sooner than later, but realize that life is long. A younger woman would be best off not trying to focus too much on exclusive relationships and being someone’s “girlfriend,” for the truth is that many younger men can forget a woman the second they are no longer in her geographical vicinity, and do not necessarily see friendship as the lifelong relationship that lots of women imagine and think they are forming during the undergraduate years. The hard truth is that most men are quite capable of sleeping with a woman and then never seeing her again, so women should not put themselves in situations to be used, exploited and discarded in these ways. The “girlfriend” category may seem flattering on the surface but actually tends to be far more beneficial to young men than young women and it is not really in one’s best interests in the long run to get caught up with such titles; in fact, the best thing for the long run is to define an “exclusive” relationship as an engagement and not get too caught up in “nesting” and spending time with a man who may not be a part of your future. Don’t play house and don’t play wife with any man. This is not to say, however, that women should tolerate things like a man's failure to define a relationship as a relationship when it seems logical to do so; it is important to know the signs of a man who is unavailable and noncommittal. My only point is that being called his “girlfriend” does not necessarily mean that he intends for you to ever be his wife, so it is best not to allow oneself to be manipulated by doing things to unconsciously "audition" for a future with a man who may not be imagining you as part of his future, but is simply exploiting someone for the time-being (i.e. while he is in school and in town) because he wants to have someone to hang out with, sleep with, etc. It is needless to say that anyone who allows herself to be treated as a “friend with benefits,” a “f--- buddy,” “hook up” or “booty call” is not understanding her value and is clearly looking for love in all the wrong places. Please do not allow this disrespectful and manipulative treatment under any circumstances.

Yet, good relationships at this age are possible if one is wise. For example, I think that the success of relationships at that young age very much depends on the “type” of young man a woman is dealing with. Relatives of mine who have gotten engaged and married in their early 20s, for example, are dealing with entirely different types of guys from the ones on lots of college campuses these days. It can feel “cool” for some men to exploit as many women as possible for their own convenience, including sex, but who have absolutely no intention of ever making any kind of commitment. Many young men, too, are aware of statistics that bemoan the black female marriage rate and exploit them for their own gain by rationalizing the emotional abuse of women and dating and “playing” multiple women. In no way should young women allow themselves to be “pimped” and exploited like this. Black women cannot operate on these fears about marriage, and allow themselves to be exploited because of them. Walk by faith and know that the right man is out there, as evidenced by the many black women who are in loving and committed marriages and relationships; meantime, do not allow your time to be wasted by the wrong ones.

Young women should cast the net wide and indeed consider guys on campus, but also consider other types, including men in the military, church and other contexts where the climate encourages maturation, the building of commitment, family and marriage. If women stand back, let men call and do the emotional sweating in any relationship, they will tend to feel much more empowered and far less anxious. Never be that type who cares or asks a guy “where is this relationship going?” Or the planet who can be pulled off of her axis the second he comes into the picture. If all of a sudden, you can clear your schedule on his whims and spend every day with him, how much are you really doing and how valuable is your time? What does that say? No man will respect a woman whose world will revolve around him like this, or who converts to his hobbies and everything that he enjoys while ignoring her own needs. Guys respect women more who have a life, who are busy, and who have a sense of self-respect. Never be a “doormat” for anyone.

Remember that you should never judge men by their words, but by watching their ACTIONS, for actions always tell the truth. For instance, saying “I love you” means nothing if his behavior says something different. Learn to be intuitive by watching actions more than listening to words, and you will be better off in relationships. The best thing, as a woman, is to learn to listen to good advice, too. Too many women, instead of heeding good advice, somehow insist on going out and making their own mistakes, whereas learning some basic principles about dating and relating can put young women in a position to attract men who are truly deserving of their time and love.

Relationships also tend to reflect who one is at any given time. Drama queens will attract drama kings, for example, even without realizing it. If you feel that you are being treated in an inferior way, then you must take responsibility and ask yourself what about you thinks so little of yourself to allow someone to treat you like that. Try to reflect back the qualities that you are interested in attracting. You attract the healthiest and most fulfilling relationship when you also establish that balance in your own life.

The best thing I can say is walk by faith, remain true to yourself, and pray and trust God for the very best.