This is a blog post by Lena Rivkin, M.F.A., is an artist and graphologist living in Los Angeles.
Saturday was the Pumpkin Festival. As my brother and I wandered around looking at the colorful, wildly shaped pumpkins and gourds, I realized that Halloween is the harbinger for the upcoming holiday season. While other families carve pumpkins and scheme over costume ideas and how to keep the sugar intake to a minimum- my brother will be needlepointing his heart out. While other families excavate Halloween and holiday decorations from boxes in the attic, Phillip will be obsessively crossing days off of his large collection of calendars. While we all ramp up our already hectic schedules to include gift ideas, holiday outfits and double-book numerous get-togethers, it is slightly different for those of us who have special-needs family members.
My brother, Phillip, is a severely autistic adult and lives in a group home in North Hills, California, administered by New Horizons, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping adults with developmental disabilities. Phillip also attends a day school called Tierra Del Sol Foundation. The 9th Annual Fall Festival was a fun way to raise funds for Phillip’s day school. Among the great line-up of entertainment was Murphy’s Flaw Band- a terrific bluegrass group and gorgeous Aztec dancers that dazzled the eyes and ears.
Phillip really loved looking at the ceramic crafts hand-made by him and his classmates. It takes a subtle eye to recognize what Phillip really enjoys since he doesn’t speak and willingly goes along with pretty much everything I suggest. Sometimes I feel like the narrator of his life. “Isn’t this a beautiful mask, Phillip?” or “Phillip, are you ready for lunch?” He’ll nod a sort of yes to everything I ask him, especially if it relates to food! Or I can tell by another look in his eye that he appreciates what I am seeing or is ready to see something else. When I am with Phillip, if I still my inner voice and erase any personal agenda, I can hear him with my eyes and appreciate exactly who he is, not wish him to be who he simply will never be.
The holidays matter to us as well, just a little differently than everyone else. When you have a sibling who cannot speak, make direct eye contact or give a hug, a Gap Gift Certificate doesn’t quite manage to bridge the gap. Phillip would be far happier watching me draw a pattern for him to needlepoint or baking cupcakes with him or simply being with him. For those who are uncomfortable with developmentally delayed people, when it comes to birthdays or holidays, doing nothing appears easier than wondering whether a gift or card would even resonate.
But focusing on what simple acts delight our autistic family members is the kind of holiday gift that money cannot buy. I have dear friends who make a point of including Phillip in their life because they recognize he is an important part of my life. They mail him postcards regularly from anywhere in the world, even from home, because they know he is thrilled to receive them. As Edmund Burke said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” The greatest gestures can also be the smallest.
Holidays nowadays are more likely to resemble high stakes poker games or full impact sporting events or high spending reality shows than simple exchanges of love and friendship. Holidays can be hallmarks of tiny gestures. In our fast paced and recession-tired current times, holidays prove to be challenging for all families.
Almost every American has grown up with Norman Rockwell’s cheerfully chaotic portraits of large joyful families crowded around a Thanksgiving table. For many of us, Rockwell’s iconic paintings hold up a beautiful ideal of family life. As a child, I truly admired Rockwell’s incredibly warm-hearted realistic paintings. As I studied art at UCLA and became an Expressionist painter, I grew to reject Rockwell’s idyllic utopia as sugarcoated and corny. I’ve come full circle with Rockwell, and now can truly appreciate his extraordinary talent as an illustrator, especially as I now know more about Rockwell’s life. He grew up in a silent, working class family in New York City, married three times, and struggled with depression. A telling quote of his was that he painted his happiness but did not live it. Not that I am trying to celebrate the woes of those who famously appear happy, I merely appreciate knowing that not even Norman Rockwell had the Norman Rockwell fantasy holiday season.
We are all fraught with unfair expectations that every holiday season must be the perfect embodiment of familial bliss. As soon as Halloween is over we brace ourselves for the marketing onslaught in stores and on inundating us with endlessly perfect present suggestions and spectacularly decorated homes, trees and stunning meals. It seems every year the goal gets higher, more expensive and sadly more elusive. But perhaps we can all jump off the holiday hamster wheel if we simply re-adjust and redefine our values. Find the gift that isn’t the mall. Look deeper at the act of giving.
For Phillip, the best presents are silent, handmade gestures from the heart. The best gift I can give my beloved brother is myself; I design the needlepoints he stitches. Our gift to each other is how we communicate via our creative collaborations. His endless gift to me is to treasure the present moment. Perhaps determining how best to give of ourselves can be the most rewarding New Year’s Resolution we can make.