Sunday, April 17, 2016

"I Want Our House to Smell like Art!"

This is a print (the photo doesn't do it justice). Several colors are layered on top of each other, with various shapes. It looks like an ocean, with whales and fish swimming through it. The print has a home now in Caen, France because Angele Guitton wanted to bring it home with her, after visiting us. So far Elias has artwork hanging in the UAE, America, Qatar, and now France!
One of the greatest things about coming to Qatar as expats was that my son's art teacher took an interest in his piqued interest in art. Gabriel Deerman, his 7th grade teacher, saw a new kid with autism at the school who needed to better understand the routines of the classroom. Elias was calling out random answers, looking a little bewildered and confused with all the new kids and demands encircling around him. All of a sudden he was in a new school, with no aide, and hearing several different languages and accents. Mr. Deerman approached me, and asked if he could work with Elias after school for an hour a week--on a one-on-one level. The results of that tutelage after one and a half years have been extraordinary. I would even say transforming. Blogpost of Elias being exhibited last year in a museum here: Our Picasso's Art Exhibition

Every child needs to know and understand how to channel their gifts. Yet often times they need a person to help excavate those talents--to nurture and coax them out. When you have a child with special needs, there is a constant ache/hope that someone will understand, talk, and invite them into their world. Gabriel has helped build a bridge for Elias, showing him how to walk across a river where previously there were more gaps and divides. Elias now thinks of himself as an artist, a creator, who is not timid to try new mediums or launch in other directions. As he told me at home a few months ago, "I want our house to always smell like art."Blogpost of Elias when he began his artwork last year: Introducing our Picasso

Elias's interest in art is not necessarily sketching or drawing, the more traditional way, but it is experimenting, improvising with mediums to make surprisingly beautiful creations. As I view his artwork, I am learning to see through another lens. His art voyage has given me a new appreciation for abstract art, to express oneself without necessarily trying to produce images. Yet other likenesses and representations are conveyed in unanticipated ways. Unpredicted patterns, textures, colors, and shapes emerge on his canvases. Elias's artwork reminds me of some kinds of jazz, where music becomes unmetered, but there is a spontaneous balance that magically appears. You can feel the pulse of another place that is familiar, but simultaneously different.

I have gone to art museums all over the world, feeling moved by famous artists' expressions, but I have never been as fond of modern and abstract art. I usually bypassed those rooms--rushing to other areas where I felt more connected--that I understood. Elias has taught me to look a little deeper, and see what the abstract is trying to express. What is the story that is unraveling in the painting, even though there are no concrete images? Just as having a child with special needs has forced me to think in diverse ways, I now see art deeper, more broadly. While listening to jazz, I now enjoy hearing the thrill of experimenting and improvisation. I do not solely live by prescribed scripts anymore; I delight in the spontaneous and extemporaneous. To watch Elias create has given me a wider, more expansive view of what beauty really means and is defined by. He has found a gift. And I have discovered a new way to perceive the world, people, and my son.

When he says, "I want our house to smell like art," I interpret that as meaning: he wants our home to be a place where we are always creating, learning, exploring in new ways. Just as Georgia O"Keeffe said, "I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say in any other way--things I had no words for." Hopefully, we can help steer our son to show us what he is trying to say about the world he sees--the deep things in his heart that he does not have the words to say. That is the best kind of creation.

                 Credit for the video goes to Megan Hansen at

If you want to know more about Gabriel Deerman, he and his wife, Ashley, are starting a new artistic adventure in Tamworth, Canada (between Toronto and Montreal) called Salmon River Studios. They are moving back to Canada to begin some creative and educational opportunities, combining two barns for studios and classrooms in a beautiful 50+ acres setting. Gabriel wants to continue to help children with disabilities discover new gifts (and for their parents to learn to see in new ways).

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Autism Awareness Month: Moving from "Awareness" to Friendship

April is "Autism Awareness Month." You can travel the world over to see iconic buildings--lit up in blue neon lights that give tribute to those families and people who deal with autism. In 2007 the United Nations instigated an "awareness" campaign. Many people have organized venues to heighten "the awareness" of this neurodevelopmental disorder--especially with the current research showing that 1 out of 68 children are born with autism. But addressing autism with a call to be "more aware" is not enough anymore.

For example, on April 2 for International Autism Day, Apple galvanized efforts to change perceptions of autism--with some of its new apps. Instead, they seek to to call it: Autism Acceptance Month. I wholeheartedly applaud their efforts. Yet I would add that if the statistics are so high for this developmental disorder, we must not only be "aware" or "accept," but we should friendship. There is a ladder in relationships: first to be aware of another human being, then accept them, but the next step is true friendship. It's time for the world to climb a little higher.

Eleven years ago we learned that our dear three year old son was one of those children in the statistics, and we reservedly, reluctantly started the "autism journey." Blogpost from last year: My Autism Mountain Since I have five older children, the departure from my former parenting experience has been been filled with tutoring turns. I always tell people that I would change the diagnosis for our son, but not for us. He has been our mentor for learning some of the most important lessons of life--how to forgive with no grudges, sing with uncommon gusto and reverence, love boundlessly, to unfailingly, without trepidation, try new endeavors--to just name a few.

Peter, his brother, and a friend, Chase Moore, playing the uke last summer with Elias. They are giving a concert and singing "You are My Sunshine" together. Kids with autism can learn new things--perform, create, tell hilarious jokes. More than anything, they will never judge you, but will love you unconditionally--perhaps with the greatest loyalty you have ever known.
If you would like to adopt a new friend who has autism, I will share a few observations that might help you understand your new friends a little better:

Your new friend can do much more than you think they can!

When Elias was about five or six years old, we were taking our other children skiing in Utah, Sundance Ski Resort, to be exact. Our priority and main undertaking of the day? To teach Elias how to go down a bunny hill, gliding up on the rope tow. After a few times of being pulled up on the row tow in the morning, with everyone's arms being fatigued, my husband suggested  another option. How about trying the small ski lift?  I winced. There was no way, I thought, that he could possibly even get on the lift. He would fall, the lift would hit him in the head. The skis would tangle up. I knew that option would never work. But with some coaxing, my husband finally convinced me to have him try. Result? Elias was flying down the small ski mountain with his brothers a few minutes after he skillfully got off the ski lift.

Never to stop at one level of success with our son, my husband suggested that we try the regular ski lift. Again, I cringed. Couldn't we just be content with this small ski lift? But his older brothers wanted to accompany him. Everyone assured me they would be right next to him. Again, Elias surpassed my expectations. By the end of the afternoon of skiing, he was soaring down the ski slopes, with his brothers and dad by his side.

I looked at him on his last run of that monumental day, stunned at what I had seen transpire in a few short hours. It was a day I will never forget. As a parent with a child with autism, it changed me. I realized that I was the one holding him back. He was capable of so much more than I thought possible. To see him enthusiastically ski down the slopes with his family was, well, transforming to me. I saw his smile and joy as he bounded down the mountain. And I vowed to not judge his abilities again--to see the broader view. I promised to try to give him all the experiences I could to reach his potential. I knew, in that moment of seeing him ski down that mountain, that there was so much more depths to excavate than I could dream or imagine.

Often people will ask me how to talk to Elias, but I would only say, "Just be a friend." Listen with added sensitivity. If you are a parent, encourage your children to invite others who are out of their normal circle of friends. Strive not to only to be "aware" or "accept." Move to the next level--a higher ground. Be a friend. And if you feel fearful that you will not know what to say, trust your heart. Your new friend will teach you how.

Skiing with our son, Elias, a few years after he learned how to ski. He is just one of "the gang."
I learned a long time ago that he is never fearful to try to new things. He enthusiastically jumps into new waters, without fear or reservation.  This is Elias after I learned to get out of the way, about age six.

Elias, sandboarding down a sand mountain in Doha. I love his fearlessness and courage to try new things. His joy and excitement is infectious. This is a picture of him this past winter. No ski hills, but hey, you gotta bloom where you are planted--even if it is in the sand! Blogpost: Celebrating Sand

This week in Doha, Qatar, Elias and his friend, Megan, at the Sailing Regatta Club--gliding away in the gusts and gales of the turquoise Persian Gulf.. Last year in a sailing class, he steered me an hour away from Doha to an island. I think I already knew he can leap over my paltry expectations, but somehow I still get surprised at his successes. I often wonder what people would be like when we do not limit them--especially people with disabilities. 

As my good friend, Dick Jacobsen, says about raising typical children, "Move on over, and get out of your kids' way." I am trying, every day, to move out of Elias's way. I have learned that I do not want to block him because he never ceases to amaze me. That is one of the startlingly glorious things about raising a child with autism. There are points in the journey when you realize that you could never have predicted or imagined their successes. I try to cheer by the sidelines, getting out of the steering controls. I have no doubt he will continue to navigate many more beautiful places for me to see--in his heart and in the world. 

I am hoping that others will not only want to be aware of him, or even accept him. But they will see this amazing person who can be their friend.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Stories of the Refugees

Laughing with Jidon, my 81 year old Cambodian grandmother in Thailand, Her story is in the blogpost:                                                                            Remembering the Refugee Faces             Picture by Dr. Lucinda Bateman
With the recent announcements from the First Presidency and Sister Linda K. Burton, General Relief Society president of the LDS Church, to launch an effort to serve refugees, my heart leapt with joy. In the 1980’s I worked in three different refugee camps--in Thailand, the Philippines, and for a short time in Palestine/Israel. Their faces, sometimes bewildered, but often times surprisingly happy, still reverberate within me. Many of their examples and stories continue to tutor me when my heart needs to be mentored or turned. Sister Linda K. Burton voiced her plea to help those who are displaced in the world when she asked us to reflect, “What if their story was my story?”

I clearly remember many refugee stories--people who are some of my beloved friends. But I also thought of a visionary man, Elder Marion D. Hanks, a man who has a remarkable story of his work with refugees. In the early 1980’s, he observed perilous conditions in Southeast Asia where he was serving as an Area Authority in Hong Kong. He too yearned for the church to become involved in the refugee effort of that decade (specifically in Southeast Asia) and thus, a few of us were called, as missionaries, to teach and work in refugee camps. However, we were absolutely not allowed to proselyte or even mention the church in any way. I was a missionary, but was strictly forbidden to talk about the church.

We developed an agency within the refugee camps that helped the refugees as they waited for their sponsored countries to accept them. Working with other agencies like Catholic Relief Services, the Red Cross, and government and UN officials, we learned how to build a program that was highly respected. We were young, mostly inexperienced, but no one told us we couldn’t do anything. And Elder Hanks gave us all the confidence and support to make it happen. Within the space of about ten years, thousands of refugees were taught temporal and practical skills in Thailand, Hong Kong, and two camps in the Philippines.

As Marion D. Hanks, who instigated missionaries to work in refugee camps under the auspices of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) taught us in the 1980’s: “Serve with no strings attached--without looking for any credit. Our purpose is to serve in a way that exemplifies pure religion. As you teach and visit with the refugees, you are sitting in proxy for the Savior.” Elder Hanks further instructed, “You are on a historical errand, and God is depending on you to give solace, comfort,and love to our brothers and sisters who have gone through a refiner’s fire.” None of us would ever be the same. How could we be?

We taught them English, but also practical skills to hopefully assist and benefit them in their sponsored countries. We had fun together, and tried to help them forget their current circumstances--with staged fashion and community shows, fairs, and mock job and bank interviews. There was a lot of comic relief. We reviewed the lesson with our translator before we presented it to the class; there was a great trust we developed together. We tucked in jokes, songs, stories to entertain as we taught them about how to apply for a checking account or how to use a vacuum cleaner. Sometimes as I would teach, I unintentionally would say something that would open a flood of emotion, and then just like dominoes, several rows of faces would be dripping with tears. They would talk, and I would listen, and my tears would stream with them. I had not graduated from college yet, but attempted to handle caseloads of psychotherapy every day. I knew that listening to their stories meant more than anything I could say or teach them.

One day we pretended to have 335 Vietnamese refugees on a plane, with me as their attentive stewardess (of course, none of them had ever been on a plane and it generated many roars of laughter as they all sat in their designated rows). We taught, with our translator, holding microphones, in large pavilions or sheds, with only a roof and a cement floor. Sometimes there would be 1000 students at one time, sitting on their mats, waiting for me to teach them with my translator. Women breast fed babies, and brought their children to listen too. Men, with anxious faces, tried to grasp a new language and imagine the country they were bringing their family to. I taught Buddhist monks who invited me to their self-made temples in the refugee camp. Older people, who had never held a pencil in their hands, were my students too.

We visited their make-shift homes, which were large sheds with three sides--several families living together. Hammocks blowed breezily, as children played and ran in the dirt around them. I loved teaching the refugees in those big sheds, but the best visits were often times when we sat one-on-one, and they could bear their soul or just talk about their dreams. I visited hundreds of those homes, hearing of how they had experienced Pol Pot’s genocide or their experiences on the open seas. We communicated to them through translators that spoke Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong. I could speak Mandarin Chinese to them, if they were ethnic Chinese.

Every day my heart was ripped out, as I heard their tales of trauma and torture--of how they had seen their families slaughtered before their eyes or their women raped on the seas. But we also laughed, long and hard, even forgetting momentarily where we all were: in a refugee camp. We sang, with glee and even happiness--they showing to me as a young 22 year old what it means to survive and go forward when life looks drearily bleak. I was their "teacher,"--a revered position in Asian culture. Although I was young, naive, and mostly ignorant of their struggles, they loved me anyways. However, if I were to be honest, their stories, lives, examples have fueled me all these years. Actually, they were my teachers--on how to forgive, garner courage, generously give (they frequently gave me their bananas from their food rations or invited us to dinner with their meager provisions), and to gloriously laugh. Often we unconsciously stopped time with our jokes. As I look back on those times, laughter was one of the most important things we gave each other. We needed it.

Recently I returned to Southeast Asia, after being gone for three decades. But their stories and faces have never been too far from my heart. Some of them I tracked down later in the US, curious to see how they were faring in their sponsored country. A few months ago, while in Southeast Asia, I visited a prison and killing fields where Cambodians were tortured and killed before their family and friends. I swayed on the same open seas around Vietnam where my friends had experienced abuse and neglect of every kind as “boat people.”  The trip made me confront images of my mind, their stories--the experiences of refugee faces that have never been too far away. As one Cambodian refugee said, "It would take a river of ink to tell our stories."

I am grateful that for a short time, at least, I was able to be in the presence of some of the most wonderful people I have ever known--in refugee camps. After I recently saw their killing fields and the places they had fled, the memories of our laughs and tears streamed together. Many faces and stories unravelled--reminders of their tutoring me on how to be human when others have forgotten how. Whether they knew it or not, they helped me grow up. Because of them, I am comfortable with women who wear burqas or men in Buddhist robes. They taught me that no one is a stranger because I know both of our stories need to be intertwined.

Elder Hanks’ vision to rescue the Southeast Asian refugees altered my life, and has given them a refuge in my heart and homes all these years. When I heard Elder Patrick Kearon speak a few days ago in General Conference, my old friend’s voice intermingled in the recent talk about refugees. Elder Kearon ended with a probing thought, “The moment of being a refugee does not define them, but our response to them will help to define us.” Elder Hanks was teaching the same principle 36 years ago in the April 1980 General Conference when he said, “There are others, nearer at hand, who struggle with problems with which we must also be concerned. . . . We must have “individual concern for the strangers among us, resident or passing through.. . .” In other words, refugees can be far away in remote places, but they can be in close proximity too. It is for us to discern how to help the strangers around us.

At the end of Elder Hanks’ life, I called his dear wife, Maxine, and inquired if I could come visit him. I was coming from out of state, and had heard he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. He had always been larger than life: eloquent, wise, inspiring. She gently cautioned me, “He may not know you. Sometimes he is lucid, and other times he is not. But I am sure he would like for you to come.”

As I walked into his hospital room that day, I could perceive as I looked into his eyes that he indeed did remember me. We spoke, with nods, and me filling up the conversation. At the end of our visit, I asked him because he had always been my teacher (and I had some of my teenage boys  standing next to me), “Tell me, Elder Hanks, what is the most important thing we can do in our lives?” In his true sage-like way, without missing a beat, he looked at me with his penetrating eyes, and said, “You already know. Service.”  

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Qatar: Beige is Beautiful!

Anniversary, 2016 in a cove, with sand all around us.
Enjoying the views of possibilities in the desert

Showing my son, Jonathan, a new definition of expansiveness.
Since I am wanderer these days as an expat, I am seeing with new eyes--colors of the world I have never seen before--in every possible hue of beige in Qatar. In Adam Gopnik's travel memoir,  Paris to the Moon, he defines two different kinds of travelers: "There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see and sees it, and the kind who has an image in his head and goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second one sees more. He is constantly comparing what he sees to what he wants, so he sees with his mind, and maybe even with his heart, or tries to." Being an expat in Qatar has taught me about the importance of opening the possibilities of seeing new kinds of beauty. The catch? Just as Gopnik states, you have to have the optimistic perspective that there is splendor in expansive beiges. As a traveler, keep a hopeful image in your mind as you journey, and the sights will be more scenic, even majestic. Below are some paintings and a video that prove my point:

Taupe, beige, tan, brown, buff or oatmeal colored, all those neutral colors that can blend and blur together are surprisingly beautiful in a desert. In my time of being an expat in Qatar, I have learned to appreciate the desert on another level, and even the occasional bloom in the spring. The sun looms larger here on a flat horizon when there are no vertical slopes to peek over. The ever widening vastness beckons that there are endless possibilities because you see no obstacles or hindrances. Everything is possible in a beige desert, as long as you have your water and occasional shade--just as the wandering nomads of deserts have always known. Blogpost of  Celebrating Sand!

Last winter our friend, Steve Chamberlain, captured some of these scenes with his paintbrush. My husband took him on an "off the road' trip. When they returned, Steve painted almost non-stop for a week. Here are just a few of his paintings. You can see more about him at the blog: Residence Artist in Doha, Qatar  or check out his website: 

Steve, who had never painted in the Middle East, was enthralled with how to express his new love of painting more neutral, muted tones. The desert can open up a new level of creativity. Is it the boundlessness of the borders, the opening of a new world, seeing with new eyes? Perhaps it is the shedding of former thoughts/traditions that the sand has blown away? This picture hangs in my living room. It is not finished here, but I love the sunrise, with the hint of rainclouds in it. 
For many Qataris, a tent or a compound of tents is how they live during the winter months here. If you go out to the shorelines around Qatar, there are many people who spend the more temperate winter months by the beach. I love this picture that Steve painted of a tent in a windstorm. The stakes appear that they are anchored in the shifting sand, even in the billowing wind.

The beautiful shoreline of Zeekreet, Qatar
                    Check out Megan Hansen's Video of "Off the Road."  Megan captures the sublime serenity of the beautiful, beige desert.