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.

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