Thursday, October 30, 2014

Love Letter To Canopy

When we first come in, Jude is sleeping in my arms. She has had a long day of therapies, and she's beat. R dances in as she always does, her shoes coming off with a quick swipe as she rushes to the floor. She loves her teacher, and eagerly gets on the mat for a quick warm up before the extra fun begins. Myself? Well I love the studio as well. It pleases my aesthetic eye. The way the fabrics in the back drape down from the ceiling to the floor, or the cross of ropes sweeping beneath the black steel beams on the ceiling. More importantly I feel safe in this place, or perhaps I should say I feel like my children are safe in this place. This is an important thing when you are the mother of "biracial" children most who have a disability. In this place, my girls soar and fly and not just because they are dancing on trapeze bars. They are accepted for who they are in this space.

Jude wakes up the moment the bars are lowed from ceiling to floor. She yells out happily as R's teacher begins to help R through a series of moves. R is a bit timid on the ropes, and her teacher knows just the right amount of pressure to use to push R out of her comfort zone but never too far. It's amazing watching R going from tearfully afraid to smiling with pleasure at an accomplishment. Jude claps for her every time, a big smile on her face, usually laughing. No longer content to be in my arms, she squirms down, and thus begins our dance. She keeps moving towards the mats, and I keep sweeping her away. 

Towards the end of the class, one of our favorite people, Ann, comes to work. She sees Jude walking and she is immediately setting her things down, and squatting to get Jude to come to her. She's been waiting for Jude to walk for a while now. Jude has been an added passenger to trapeze classes since she was an infant. We have sat through many sessions watching the big girls learn to fly. And along the way she's acquired a few admirers. Ann picks up Jude, and brings her over to an empty bar. Jude's face is marked with incredulity. Finally she's allowed onto the forbidden mats. Ann sits down with Jude facing out, and pushes them into a gentle swing. She gently places Jude's hands on the rope, and Jude? Jude is smiling, her face is glowing as she too begins her first lesson in what it is like to fly.

When I think about leaving Athens, I am sad in ways that I didn't imagine I'd feel even last year. While I love our new adventures, and know that we're a tight enough family unit to be happy almost anywhere, I love this town. And I love Canopy. I know it sounds a bit silly to be sad to leave one studio but this place has come to mean so much to us. The respect shown to Camille, the careful patience in working with her not against her, and then the joy when Jude takes her first step (this means she can now do the toddler's classes) has made this place much more than just a place to take lessons. It has made it a place with people we can call friends. A place where I can entrust my children. 

Last Sunday, the big girls and I  finally got to see a show done by the repertoire company. I am not sure if I can begin to describe the beauty. A beauty combined of grace and strength. A beauty made stronger for the fact that everyone was so different and perfect in their difference. This was not a dance with bodies that all looked alike but a dance with bodies of many sizes and shapes. As the women (and one man) , twisted their bodies into what seemed like impossible positions, I teared up a little at the wonder of it all. I was taken back to when I was a child and magic was so very real, just outside of my small grasp. Vampires and monsters abound but they danced and seduced us into feeling safe inside a studio magically metaphorized into a dark forest. And the look on my girls' faces was even more magical. They were carried away not just with the power of the show but with the power that someday they would be the ones dancing with fire, dancing with others high above the ground. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Taking Happiness Seriously

When I was about nineteen, fresh from a conservative Christian high school, I began to slowly transform the way I looked to match the way I felt. For three years, I had tried Jesus as a fix to a deep abyss that sat heavily in my stomach.  After reading, Frank Peretti, I even entertained the idea that maybe I was oppressed with demons. Real demons. Not metaphorical demons of depression. When I left school, I also left my faith on the stage, and walked out into a world no longer enchanted. Over a period of months, my clothes got darker, my hair shorter, and I added some holes to various parts of my body. Sure it was an act but it was also a telling moment where I began to accept that the feeling inside. I can mark this as the beginning of a time when I went beyond naming my depression and turn into an intricate part of my identity.

Of course depression was not just a fashion accessory for me. Depression was something that I had experienced for many years but not something I really understood. I didn't see a psychologist until I was 22 but I first remember being depressed around twelve. There was this feeling inside me that told me I'd never be happy. Days when I could barely get myself out of bed. Days when I wished I'd just never wake up. Days so filled with pain and sadness that I couldn't even cry. But I didn't really have an understanding even if I had the word. The understanding would come much later when I was older.

At the point, I started to retell my story depression became the fuel for my creativity. It was not difficult to reach this conclusion in the artist biographies I read, and in the people with whom I had friends in my early twenties. Among this group, depression was romanticized and idealized. Instead of being the thing that kept me bed for hours upon hours, that made it difficult to even shower, depression was made me special. For a young woman longing to feel special this was heady stuff.  I refused treatment. My rejection of antidepressants became a badge of honor. I accepted my suffering, wore it proudly, marched about as if I was a martyr.

And I also began to see happy as a shallow emotion something upon which to look with disdain. It was easy to re script my past by carefully editing out all the happy moments. My childhood was a gray sea of sadness in this new story. I struggled with the moments I was happy, and self-sabotaged any joy I felt. I ruined relationships, destroyed happy scenes, and stomped out any laughter that wasn't underlined with a bit of sarcasm and cynicism. In the end, I didn't really understand my depression anymore than I understood how I could be happy when the world was burning around me.

Over the years, I've softened my attitude about antidepressants. I no longer see meds as an easy way out, and I've even put myself on them. Depression doesn't do much for creativity when you can barely get out of bed. I reshaped my ideas about depression and along the way discovered that antidepressants, therapy, all the tools out there, were not escapes that erased my personality. But with this important shift, I still was disdainful of happy.  Happy people were shallow, simple, and lacking in creativity. The pursuit of happiness in a world that was screwed up was selfish. And this made embracing the joy in my life incredibly difficult. I knew that I was holding back but I came up with a lot reasons for why I was holding myself back: fear being the biggest excuse. I suppose it was fear. Fear that being happy, enjoying happiness would somehow make me less complicated, less interesting. I remember experiencing moments when I was so happy I felt that the lightness would carry me away, and I would stuff that feeling deep down away from the light. I got to a point where I couldn't imagine how I could experience happiness with depression.

Thus you can imagine my horror when I told people that Jude had Down syndrome and the first thing so many people said to me was "Oh everyone I've meet with Down syndrome is just sooo happy." And what ran through my mind was that old playground taunt "Happy and dumb." I thought about how many ways we have of saying this very thing: "I was happier not knowing." Ignorance is bliss." Christianity's very origin story revolves around the idea of ignorance being paradise.  For someone who spent a great chunk of her life looking down on happiness as a personality trait, I was horrified even as I knew it was a stereotype. Obviously no one is always happy, and it's absurd to paint an entire population of people with any one characteristic. Of course I knew this. But what I didn't even pause to question was my attitude towards happiness.

A few weeks ago, I took a photo of Jude crawling towards me with a huge smile on her face. Her hair is up in pigtails; her eyes are shining. The whole picture screams "Happy." As I added the picture to a group on Facebook, I wrote a small justification about how Jude wasn't always happy, and I ended with how I almost didn't want to put the picture up because I knew people were going to harp on how happy people with Ds are.This has happened often over the last two years. I find myself seeking photos of Jude's rare moment of having a fit. I joked to H that I wish I could snap a shot of Jude having a fit in the middle of the night because I'm not latching her on fast enough. The thing is that Jude is happy most of the time. She loves life with a joy that is intense in and of itself. She is almost always smiling with her eyes bright as she explores the world. Whenever we go out people comment on it "What a happy baby!" "She's loving that lollipop?" "What a smile!" "I wish I enjoyed life like that!" And while sometimes I feel like I have to argue because not all people with Ds are happy, I do have to also acknowledge that Jude is pretty damn happy (and no not all babies are happy. I've had four besides Jude and only one was a happy baby).

No Jude is not always happy. Just like I am not always depressed or moody or gloomy. She is like me a multifaceted person. She's not happy when R is stealing a toy from her. She's not happy when we don't let her dump the hamper. She doesn't enjoy all things. She's not overly fond of our cats. She's a little eh about her physical therapy. She despises her car seat. She's shy as well, and like most toddlers hides behind my legs when she first meets grown ups. She has days where's a little cranky but overall Jude is very content. She likes to play. She likes going to the library and to the park. She adores dogs. She has a huge smile on her face most of the time. She lives life with a breathtaking kind of intensity that has made me question my own ideas about intensity.

And that's where I am this evening as I finally type out this jumble that has been rolling around in my head. I don't want my child to be limited by a stereotype. But I also don't want her to be limited by an unquestioning definition of happy either. Our society has a complicated relationship with happy. There is a drive to be happy. The Declaration of Independence tells us we should pursue it. There are  a million and one zenish quotes that tell us how to achieve it and why we should. But yet there is all the cultural baggage I mentioned earlier that tells us that happiness is simple, uncomplicated, not really smart, not really creative. One hand we long to be simple and on the other hand we look askance on simple. Is happiness even connected to "simple?" What does it mean to pursue happiness? Does feeling happiness really prevent one from seeing the ills of the world? Is it really selfish to be happy? I have no answers to these questions. I am not even sure if I could give a decent definition of happiness. What I do know is that in order to fully appreciate Jude I am going to have explore these questions, seriously. Jude  and other people with Down syndrome do not deserve to be corralled into one emotion. The absurdity, and danger, of labeling a group of people with any one thing is something we must speak out against. But an equally important objective for me, as a parent, as a guide, is to fully explore along with my child, the dimensions and richness of her personality including the part that is happy.