Last fall for the first time in my life I was admitted to the hospital, the University hospital here in Ann Arbor. Up to now I had never had a serious illness. Though I broke my bones several times and had to see the eye doctor often while growing up I have never been admitted to the hospital.
It was an amazing experience while I was in bed at the hospital. Care, attention, sympathy and of course the professionalism of the doctors, nurses and other staff. Almost frightening, but I started thinking about wanting to stay there for a while not because of the illness but because of the peace I felt in my mind. I did not think about my work, students, even my family. The focus was on myself, nothing more, and to think about my life. This made me feel good and guilty at the same time.
I swallowed many different shapes of pills everyday. I can’t even remember which was for what. I used to try not to take any medication at all but here I was taking them by the handful. Maybe my sweet and little sour thoughts were the side effect of the medication. I felt like I was dreaming though I did not sleep well at the hospital listening to the growing sound from a suffering patient who shared the room with me. Yet it felt so good to rest my mind. When I get well I might want to come back here for a rest. Silly thoughts but I really felt so.
When I returned home and was enjoying being with my family again I realized how much I appreciate everything I have and the things I take for granted, family, job, friends and much more. I feel this experience must be a gift from above. To understand and to have empathy with people who are ill. In this way I am lucky. From time to time I remember the feeling I had in the bed at the hospital. A little sweet a little sour.
Several weeks later I received the first bill from the hospital. When I opened the envelope I thought I had misread the number. That one single treatment at the hospital was the cost of our small car! But next to the total the words “insurance pending” and a 0 and I gave a huge sigh of relief. I have had several of those treatments since, many lab tests, 23 bills and more to come. So far the hospital bills add up to the value of the little house we have.
Thankfully, we are covered by the university healthcare insurance but I cannot help thinking about people who are not covered. What if I am not teaching at the university, and we are not covered at all? We would lose everything, not only things we possess but also the spirit to fight against the illness I have. I am so lucky but I feel the pain for the many people who do not have insurance in this country. Nonetheless, I really appreciate the care I am receiving at the University of Michigan Hospital, and I will never again take for granted health or care.
A couple of weeks ago a storm came through and we lost power for two days. Even though we really try to conserve electricity in our home - turning off the lights and not using the air conditioner - not having power really affected our life, more than I had thought it would. It was all of a sudden that I noticed the silence. No humming sounds or radio in the daytime, no lights at nighttime. The evening especially felt really long. We had dinner by candle and afterward we gathered around and talked. The candle was beside some dahlias in a vase, and so the light cast gigantic flower shapes on the ceiling that moved around. Our dog got scared but we were enjoying this free entertainment. As we talked we remembered when the kids were small and how we often played charades. We didn’t have a TV then so that was our entertainment, and I remember how fun it was. We still don’t have a TV but now after dinner everyone disperses to the various computers around the house. We don’t spend the time together like we used to and we haven’t played charades in a long time. During the blackout it felt so good to not have to make excuses about unanswered emails or letting the phone ring. It felt like I got back some of that freedom I had a long time ago. When we finally got our electricity back I suggested we power down every Saturday - not turn on the computer, leave the lights off, unplug the phone. Funny, but the idea wasn’t so popular with the kids.
As an annual event my family drove back to British Columbia to visit my wife's family and also to spend some time on the property we have on Cortes Island, in the Northern Gulf Islands. We have a small hybrid car and my family is growing. Also we now have a dog. It is amazing that we could be stuck for ten days together in this little car. On the way there we stopped at Glacier National Park and our kids jumped into the ice cold waters of Lake Macdonald.On the way back , for the first time in this annual trip, we decided to visit Mt. Rushmore. Our daughter had done a research project on the site in her school last year, so she wanted to see it. Honestly, I didn't want to got and our son decided to stay with the dog in the car in the parking lot. He is 15 after all. But it wasn't as bad or as touristy as I had thought. The best view was actually when we were driving toward Mt. Rushmore and happened to see the faces peeking through the forest. I could not really believe that the government approved this carving into the side of a mountain, actually a kind of environmental destruction. But since the goal was to get people to visit South Dakota, well they did it, and it has become a destination for all kinds of people celebrating America - bikers, immigrants, international visitors and all sorts of people. I could see that the facility was as discreet as possible though they haveto accommodate an enormous number of visitors. I have a mixed feeling - impressed by human achievement, but at the same time so sad at the distortion of the landscape.
One of the highlights was joining a kayaking tour of the Van Donop Inlet in support of the local museum. There is limited land access to the northern half of the island so this was a way to see the land from a new perspective. We took the schooner Misty Isles loaded with kayaks around the island to the north and lauched them from there. One surprise was to see that there were so many big yachts anchored in the inlet. Since it is so remote I wasn't expecting to see as many boats as I did and it was a bit of a shock. On this tour there was a long time Cortes resident who grew up in one of the former small logging camps set up around the inlet in the 1950's. It was wonderful to hear the stories from his childhood and his memories of the inlet. The tour was also led by two experienced guides who spoke about the natural history, botany and background to the area. We ate some plants growing off the rock, called sea asparagus and got to see starfish and barnacles up close. Our kids did very well with the kayaking keeping up with the adults, especially our daughter who is 10. Toward the end of the trip the winds picked up and it was quite hard to paddle. But I could see the determination in her face. And I realized that I don't need to give her any extra help because she has it all inside her.
Each year my feeling for Cortes Island grows. More and more I feel like this is my final place for my life. I would be happy to become old on this island.
Trip to Japan
From May 9- 30, 2011 I led a group of nine undergraduate students to Japan as part of the course Rethinking Power of Art: Art Education For Social Change in Japan. We had prepared for this trip as a class since February, with meetings on Japanese culture, language and service learning programs. But when the tsunami hit on March 11 everything became uncertain. Naturally, the parents and students were terribly concerned about Japan as well as their own safety in traveling there. As we followed the news I was not sure the trip would go ahead. It was an emotional time. But when the situation had finally stabilized and UM gave its approval for student travel to Japan we departed from Detroit as planned.
The purpose of this trip was to experience first hand what art can do to improve people’s lives and their communities. Due to decades of economic decline and an aging population Japanese social programs have been severely cut back. But in Shiga Prefecture – the sister state to Michigan and our destination - citizens have stepped up to fill the need, starting non-profit organizations to ensure that children and people with disabilities continue to have opportunities to make art. During our three weeks in Shiga the students and I learned about how people organize and implement their own programs, what social entrepreneurship can be, and the benefits of a supportive local government.
For most of our trip we stayed in the small town of Shigaraki, in a rural part of Japan. We lived in the residences of an institution for people with mild cognitive and mental disabilities, Shigaraki Seinenryo. During our stay we got to know many of the residents and this was wonderful. While many could speak Japanese I was not able to translate as I could not understand what they were saying. So it was our students who found alternative ways to communicate and over the course of our stay friendships formed between our students and the residents. I was very proud of our students for the way they stepped up, initiating activities with residents and around the building. For example, the students were constantly taking photos and some of the residents wanted copies. So, as promised, the students took the extra time and effort to go into town, print out the photos and pass them out much to the excitement of the residents. Some students also had great patience, repeating the same conversations each morning with particular residents - a routine that had come to be anticipated with great enthusiasm. With all their effort and care I feel very hopeful about these students’ futures.
With Shigaraki Seinenryo as our home base, we branched out into the community. We visited three elementary schools, three museums, spoke with many community leaders, visited two colleges, spent time at four institutions for people with disabilities, attended a BBQ with local artists, took a tour of the town of Shigaraki, participated in a hands-on ceramic workshop at the Shigaraki Ceramic Park Museum, took a hike to the waterfall in the mountains, and participated in a traditional tea ceremony.
Between all these scheduled activities there were many more individual experiences where our students really felt connected to the people of Shigaraki. There was a wonderful group of volunteers who so generously spent time with us, and the practical assistance from the Shiga Government –providing ground transportation and guidance -made all that we did possible. We were extremely fortunate to receive an ELF grant from the UM International Institute and funding from the Aikens International Travel Initiative. All this support made this trip possible for our students.
Here are my reflections on of some of the highlights of our trip:
-At the elementary schools our students were treated like celebrities, giving so many autographs their hands were worn out! At one school, we participated in an art class for special education students. Once again, our students really impressed me with how patient, caring and involved they were with these young children. The fact that some of the children were not able to speak seemed to free our students from concerns of language and they found creative solutions to communicate with them. At another school we made origami cranes alongside children who were working hard to send 1000 cranes to the earthquake affected region of Japan.
-Japan has well-established vocational and educational programs for people with disabilities. During our visits to some of these institutions we were introduced to wonderful weaving, painting and paper making studios, and a job training area for laundry work and organic farming. Our students worked alongside people in these programs and it was an eye opening and inspiring experience to see people with physical and cognitive disabilities being trained for independent living in a society that expects contribution from all citizens.
-At Shiga University the art education department offered a mini course for our students: package design using origami techniques; an introduction to traditional woodworking tools; and a class on how to build an art history curriculum for elementary school students. At the end of our visit there was a lively social exchange between the Shiga and A&D students, and I think this was a really significant and inspiring event.
-One afternoon I met with the Governor of Shiga, Yukiko Kada. She was very interested in the purpose of our trip and invited me to talk with her about A&D engagement programs. We discussed many subjects, not only art and community, but diversity and environmental issues. I was impressed by her knowledge, her openness to new ideas, and her understanding of the connection between art and other social issues. Since being in office, Governor Kada has created an Art and Community Department that promotes art to improve the quality of citizens’ lives. It was wonderful to see this progressive administration and their support of this trip is greatly appreciated.
-Our schedule was packed, but during one of the few free days our students decided to venture on their own to Osaka, a three-hour train ride away. They wandered around, shopped, ate, went to a public bath and stayed overnight in the lively, wilder part of town. I was glad they wanted to be independent but was so worried while they were gone. When I finally saw them again at the train station I was overwhelmed with relief! But I could also see they had looked out for each other.
-For many of us the highlight of this trip was our all day visit to Miho Museum. The idea behind this museum is that we should learn about art through direct experience of nature. To that purpose the museum has its own organic farm that provides food for their traditional restaurant. So in the morning we spent time on that farm and our students helped to harvest produce, chop wood and prepare rice in the traditional manner. We were served lunch in a beautifully restored 300 year old farmhouse and it was the best meal of our trip, rewarding all our senses.
In the afternoon we entered the museum, a beautiful building designed by I.M.Pei where the architecture and surrounding natural landscape become one. We toured the museum with one of the curators and learned about art education programs for school children led by artists and curators. These people volunteer their time and expertise to draw on the museum’s vast collection, introducing art history and techniques to the children. During our tour we also learned about the origin of anime through a 12th century scroll Chojugiga. This long, horizontal scroll depicts a fable world where the animal characters mirror the petty and noble dramas of human society At the end of this viewing we had a very interesting discussion with the curators, and I was so proud that our students spoke up to contribute to this discussion.
For people of my generation the gateway to Japanese culture was Zen Buddhism or gardens or traditional craft. But I now realize that for our students’ generation that gateway is anime, manga, gaming and pop culture. For example, one student did a lot of gaming, became interested in Japanese sword fighting techniques, followed this to a study of martial arts and finally became fascinated with Japanese culture. On this trip I discovered how connected these young students already feel toward Japan, and I realize that I need to adapt and try to understand where their interests come from.
Though exhausting, this was a great trip. Several years ago I began talking about it with Shiga government officials and it took me a year and a half to organize the trip working closely with community leaders, museums, non-profit organizations, and Shiga officials. While I can not think of doing another trip like this right now I am sure that with rest and time I will work hard again to develop another trip for our students to experience a different side of Japan, and with that a stronger relationship between Michigan and Shiga Prefecture.
This is the first time I have written a blog. I would like to keep it simple and short and will limit it to things I really want to say.
This winter semester I taught a community engagement course called “Many Ways of Seeing”, a collaboration with the Detroit Institute of Art Learning and Interpretation Department. It came out of ten years of my volunteer work teaching clay to blind and visually impaired children from the Detroit area. The course was significant for me because it was now an official University of Michigan Art and Design engagement course. Also I was able to collaborate with a world-class museum, the DIA. It was wonderful to see university students and public school students develop a relationship working together in the studio over the semester, and to see that energy is such a joy. Within this course, wonderful things happened. My dream came true. For many, many years I wished that blind or visually impaired children could touch to see art objects in a museum. While I requested this of the museum I wasn’t expecting them to say “yes”. But because of the many understanding and caring people who work at the DIA it happened.
When I saw their smiles I thought the children and the art objects became one.