Meet Chuck

Two weeks ago I sat across from a 17 year old guy who slouched in his desk, waiting for my writing lesson.  He listened politely enough but when asked to write a sentence, he said matter-of-factly, “I can’t.”  The others filled me in:  he always says that. They didn’t encourage or expect him to do anything.   Unoffended, he confirmed that, in his own words, he “can’t do much.”  With a shrug, he looked at me blandly as I stared at him, incredulously.  Can this kid be serious?  I perceived no attitude, no defiance… just a simple statement of fact – from his point of view, that is.  Apparently, from the reaction of his peers, everyone just took his inability as the way it is.  Ha! Challenge accepted, kid.

I wish I could have introduced him to Chuck.  In case you didn’t know, Chuck Close is a world famous artist and I stumbled upon his work this week.  I was drawn to his concept of only using faces as his subjects but as I read more, I was more and more impressed; not with his work as much as with him.  His book tells of his growing up as an artist which is quite predictable, I guess, but what grabbed me is that this man graduated from high school not being able to add, subtract or multiply.  To say he had learning challenges is an understatement.  Yet, he graduated from three colleges, the last being Yale.

After finding much success with his art, marrying and raising daughters, he suffered a medical emergency which left him a quadriplegic.  Many would find it reasonable that his art career would be over but not this guy.  His assistants Velcro the brushes to his hands and he’s fashioned special chairs and lifts so he can work on his super-large paintings.  Impressed yet?  I am!  So I think back to this kid who told me he can’t write a simple sentence.  He was perfectly healthy and academically capable but his attitude was awful.  Actually, I’ve seen lots and lots of negative attitude but this guy was indifferent, which some would say is worse.

I’m happy to report that at the end of our time together, this young man found some inspiration and wrote two pages for me.  I ribbed him before I left, “Couldn’t even write a sentence, huh?  Look at you now.”  He seemed pleased and not a little surprised.  I hope that’s all it took to shake him from his complacency and realize that he has so much more ability that he thought he did.  I hope even more that he finds himself meeting people who let him know just how capable he is.  Even if he were to lose the use of all his limbs, he is STILL able to do so much.  After all, look at Chuck!

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Temporary idiocy

Since I spend the majority of my time with teenagers, I sometimes get the honor of being a friend, too.  And when they get hurt, I offer my love through a listening ear.  Recently, a few of these dear people have unburdened their hearts with stories that leave me sad but thankfully, not confused.  Here’s how it goes:

As adults, we know that it doesn’t take long on this planet before someone’s going to hurt us.  Well, these friends of mine were hurt so badly and couldn’t understand why the people who they previously thought were friends were behaving so, well, unfriendly!  In one case, they were unrepentantly snubbed with merely a shrug and in another, were the scapegoat for someone else’s sins.  People on the periphery did nothing to help, just left them stranded in cold water.

In talking to them, one observation made us mildly cheered and that is that most people are just temporary idiots.  The periphery people, especially teenagers, are basically good, solid kids.  Their hearts are in the right place and they want to do the right thing, but when friends’ relationships sour, the folks on the fringe don’t know what to do.  So, they end up doing nothing, which can hurt in its covertness as much as the original hurt in its overtness. Saying nothing is sometimes the wisest route, but other times, saying nothing hurts terribly. This is where temporary idiocy comes in. Their silence or hurtful actions are hopefully temporary.  Usually when the dust settles, they can see they were in error in stranding their friend.  The true friend will tell them that later.

I know this because I had a friend do something similar to me.  She had distanced herself with giant bounds because she guessed I wouldn’t like a decision she made.  I had no idea why she was so cool, but I gave her space and didn’t freak out.  Almost a year later, she called me and shared that she had changed course and now wanted to talk.  It was one of the best talks ever because I could honestly tell her that ignoring me didn’t help either of us.  She had assumed incorrectly.  I was completely indifferent about her decision so her fears were ungrounded but just having her say she was a temporary idiot made me admire and love her more.

In a recent movie, I heard this wonderful line: The heart is not so easily changed, but the head can be persuaded.  Isn’t that true?  Our hearts and minds get entangled so easily, but our heads have hope!  When we give each other some time, and talk openly, we can confess that we all mess up.  With time, we come around.  May we all have the grace to give to each other generously through warm hearts and listening ears.

The chocolate cake connection

One sunny morning about 15 years ago found me standing at my kitchen counter frosting a cake.  It was three layers of chocolate and silky frosting was going on smoothly.  What makes this cake different from the myriad I have made was that my mom was standing on the other side of the counter watching me.  As I worked my spatula back and forth, she noted nonchalantly, “You’re just like your grandma.”   My hand froze.  “What?”  This from a lady who hardly ever mentioned her mother, childhood, past…and oh how I wish she had!  I had so many questions about my ancestors but those questions were always just met with a shrug.

Again, “What?”  I had to contain myself from shaking her shoulders and pleading with her to open the floodgates of memory.  How am I like her? I knew some ways from my memory alone.  She could be quite mischievous and chuckled when she heard of something a little naughty, her eyes twinkling.  She loved to listen to the baseball game while sitting in her sunny living room and she kept the police scanner on, always interested in what local law enforcement was encountering that day.  I also clearly remembering her “peeling out” around the corner in her huge blue Buick.  For a 70-something year old lady, she knew how to floor it – and she enjoyed it, too.  Grandma loved music and having family over for coffee, always with a little sweet something served on the side.

This particular morning it came out that my grandmother was known for her cinnamon rolls and chocolate cake.  Hold the phone.  How did I learn of this some fifteen years after my grandmother passed away?  Here I was, becoming known for my cinnamon rolls and chocolate cake, completely oblivious that I was echoing my grandmother so many miles & years away, so distant from knowing the real her, yet behaving like her through a simple recipe. I don’t know how I landed on those two items in particular to craft repeatedly, but I was somehow drawn to them.  Mixing flour, butter and sugar is so relaxing, so natural…I feel very much like me when I’m at my counter making something sweet for someone I love.  Knowing that so many decades ago, she was doing the same thing, is so gratifying.

I know lots of people have lost loved ones; I also know women my age who still have their grandmothers and parents.  Losing them so long ago compounded by living away from my birth family for almost 30 years makes me a little more keen for moments like these, I guess.  Even though I’m so much like my mom and grandma in copious ways, that experience made me a little different in that while I’m making or baking or serving that cake or those gooey rolls, I make sure I remember to tell a story of what those two were like… or me.  I’ve raised my kids’ eyebrows with a few stories of my youth (like they can’t quite envision me as a spot welder), but I want to make sure they remember a few things about me and my ancestors from when we were younger.  Hopefully, when many years have gone by and my kids enjoy a piece of my cake made by their own hands in memory of me, the stories they hold will be sweeter than the frosting on the cake.