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Another Birthday

Brandee’s card for me

This week, I turned 42. It didn’t, at first, seem like a big deal. I wasn’t dreading my birthday or anything, in fact, I am glad that this past year of my life has concluded. It was a difficult year that included a lot of hard work, an unexpected disaster, stress, indecision, and self-scrutiny. Disappointment came to me through the election of Donald Trump and many people’s anxieties about what it could mean for our country and our civil liberties. All the discussion and protests about the stupid HB2 laws in North Carolina, especially in regards to bathrooms, made me angry over other people’s conservative and ignorant bigotry. However, this past year ended in personal achievement; the projects I was the most passionate about materialized, I received a raise and more job security, I designed and taught more exciting classes, and various personal issues resolved themselves. I was happy to put an end to my 41st year and look more towards the future. I didn’t have any expectations for the day of my birthday, but, as it turned out, I did end up celebrating.

The weekend before the day, I saw the film “Paterson,” which I loved and am still thinking about. At first, I kept wondering what it was going to be “about.” I loved the characters—a friendly, soft-spoken man who drives a local bus, interacts with people all over his small town (which is also “Paterson”), loves his passionate and artistic wife, and writes beautiful poetry about his world. Throughout the film, the bus driver hears about and reads the work of poet William Carlos Williams, the famous writer of an epic, five-volume poem, also called “Paterson.” But this 2017 Paterson doesn’t seem to aspire to be a famous poet and in fact, hyperbolizes his routine. In today’s world, we are all supposed to want to be famous or rich or fabulously worldly, or, at least that’s often what our popular culture, and many of our mainstream films, teach us. So many of the films in the theaters these days are very lengthy and full of twisted plots and special effects. But this luminous, lyrical, seemingly unremarkable story struck me, because it exemplified that idea of everyday life can be poetic. The film reminded me of a class I teach, The Art of Life, because, in one of the class’s required textbooks, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, art critic Michael Kimmelmann showcases how great art can, and has indeed begun, or surfaced, as the result of an accident. I have explored these ideas in relation to my own 2007 accident in my memoir, but here I just wanted to acknowledge that the film caused me to reflect on myself as a writer and an artist.

“Portrait of Arty: Stopping to Smell the Carnations,” acrylic on canvas, 2017

May of 2017 will mark the ten-year anniversary of the event that resulted in my traumatic brain injury. I’m not usually sentimental about birthdays and anniversaries, but I do feel proud of how much I have done in the past ten years. To make a long story shorter, I have been through a lot in these ten years, and as of right now, I am very satisfied and happy. I like the classes I teach and the students and colleagues with whom I interact. I enjoy learning more and writing about disabled artists’ works, as well as representations of disabled people in visual culture. I am proud of my publications and accomplishments, but perhaps even more important, I can say I don’t feel any pressure. And by “pressure,” I mean that I don’t feel like I must prove anything to myself or others. My 2007 injury took away my sense of self, and for many years following it, I continued to feel like I needed to make up for time lost, or do more to believe and convince others that I was “okay.” I realized this year that I no longer feel I’m always behind. I will write more, because I love writing, and I will continue to paint and make collages, because I enjoy it and because I like looking at the pictures. The main character in Paterson didn’t write poetry to get it published; rather, he wrote poetry for himself, his wife, and anyone who wanted to talk to him about it. I appreciated the film’s theme of making “art for art’s sake,” or creating something beautiful or special for yourself.

Images of my birthday card for myself

When I worked with my art therapist, Ilene Sperling, I would often make myself lists or collages or cards, especially birthday cards. I made one for myself this year from a collage I assembled of a painting of my cat, Arty, who came into my life last year, and some scrap paper with a pink and turquoise blue, flowered print. I made it the day before my birthday, but kind of forgot about it. My husband, Paul, was off work the day before my birthday, and he went out secretly and bought me flowers. I love flowers! When he brought them in and put them in a vase on our dining room table, Arty immediately jumped up to sniff them. The image of him sniffing the bright pink carnation stuck in my head, and the day of my birthday, when Paul has gone back to work, I painted the image, resulting in a painting I titled “Portrait of Arty: Stopping to Smell the Carnations.” The phrase “stopping to smell the roses,” means being more mindful or more appreciative of your surroundings, or paying attention to the beauty right in front of your face. I loved my stunning arrangement of daisies, carnations, and some light pink, vining flowers I have yet to distinguish. I created the one, large blooming flower in my painting with pinks, oranges, scarlet, sparkling daisy, and purple paints. The painting was my birthday present to myself. I received cards, gift cards, and presents from both my parents in the mail. Later that evening, I went out for drinks with my best friends, Brandee and Julie, whom I have written about in my memoir and my blog posts. Brandee brought me a very special card of a motorcycle, on which she had sketched me, wearing my helmet and sunglasses, guiding it as I do my own three-wheeled bicycle. It’s a quite impressive caricature of me! She wrote in the card that she hopes I have many more adventures in 2017. That’s sweet, although right now, I’m not focusing on places I’ve never been or things I’ve never done. For now, I am enjoying the poetry and the artistry of my immediate surroundings.

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