Thursday, April 26, 2012

Joan of Art

Organized religion is not for me.  It’s not the God thing, it’s the people thing.  It seems to me that human beings have just made a mess out of religion.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against people who go to church, temple, etc.  I’m actually very interested in religions, large and small, and have been studying them for over thirty years.  It’s just that I, like a lot of other anti-Status Quo, free spirited people I know, am not much of a joiner, and could never choose one religion over another in order to fence myself in spiritually.  One over the other?  I don’t get that.    My spirituality has evolved and changed as I have evolved and changed.  It’s personal and simple.  My philosophy?  Leave the world better than you find it.  That’s my religion and that’s what I teach my kids.

What has guided me all of my life, in the absence of organized religion, is what I call my inner Joan of Art voice, the “still, small voice” within that always knows what to do.  I have listened, and relied upon, this voice all of my life.  As a small child, I trusted that voice when I couldn’t trust the adults in my life.  I escaped into my own world and expressed myself freely with my art. When I was being creative, I was safe and in control.   Music, art, humor, and my curiosity of anything outside of the norm are what sustained me through my teen years.  As a young adult, I took a leap of faith and jumped out into the great, wide open, and found my way with the same music, art, humor, appreciation for anything outside of the mainstream, and the written word.  I had started writing.

Then I became a mom. I love my kids!  I love all kids.  Kids are all artists – naturally inquisitive, uninhibited, trusting, and one with the moment. They make me laugh.  When I started teaching art to young children, laughter took on a whole new dimension as I got to be a big goof with them.  From that, art and teaching led me into my activism, a natural continuum and expansion of my creativity, and a challenge to my rebellious nature.  

My Joan of Art voice has guided me through every stage, impasse, and crisis throughout my life.

When I got cancer, I was scared to death.  I felt so lost.  For the first time in my life, I couldn’t hear my Joan of Art voice.  “Even if I survive the cancer, I am as good as dead without Joan of Art,” I would say to myself.  I didn’t know what to do.

Then I decided that if I could not hear Joan of Art, I could at least remember Joan of Art.  So I went through the motions, and started writing, drawing, and painting, whether I felt inspired or not.  In time, I laughed. That laughter reconnected me to that voice and I found myself again.  Once I had myself back, I knew I was going to be OK, no matter what the outcome.  The only way I could find myself, after losing myself, was by making art.

Listening to music, painting, drawing, laughing, reading great literature and writing are what has kept me going and helped me make sense of this whole crazy cancer ordeal.  By staying creative, I keep connected to God, The Source, The Divine, a Higher Power, or whatever you want to call it.  Making and appreciating art is my daily practice.  That’s how I stay regular… being creative every day.  A dose of art is like getting a spiritual chiropractic adjustment.  Creativity is what straightens me out and puts me back on track.  

Artists, even though most people don’t stop to think about it, are who make the daily grind for the masses more bearable, interesting, or meaningful.  Whenever people stop to appreciate music, art, humor, or literature, they are getting a spiritual chiropractic adjustment, whether they are conscious of it or not.  

Joan of Art has spoken.  And she did not leave the building!  Phew!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Think Public Education Doesn’t Affect You? THINK Again

I’ve been thinking about how serious the education crisis in America is for two weeks now, ever since I got back from Washington DC. I went there to tell my story about how my family and I were nearly destroyed by the recession, and how the Affordable Care Act is saving my life. After the recession hit, we were forced to have to choose between our house and our health insurance. As self employed people (my husband owns his own small, computer business, and I am an artist and arts education nonprofit leader), we had been purchasing health insurance on the individual market. It’s the most expensive policy you can buy, with the least amount of coverage. By the time we cancelled our insurance, it was costing us as much as our mortgage. Two years after cancelling, I discovered I had Stage 3 breast cancer.

I have been undergoing chemotherapy treatments for three months, but since my life is being saved by the Affordable Care Act (“aka Obamacare”), I feel it is my civic duty to share my story whenever and wherever asked, if able, so I can help pay it forward. I got the chance to tell the country about my story by participating in a press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court on March 27.

I was invited to take part in this historical event by another nonprofit organization, Affordable Health Care for America Now (HCAN), whose mission is to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health care. They set up a media center directly across the street from the Supreme Court where radio stations from around the country were set up to interview people like myself. I did radio, TV and newspaper interviews (resting in between as much as I could) for three days. Side effects of chemo aside, I was energized and quite comfortable doing the interviews as I have had a lot of practice going up against the Status Quo for the past twelve years, fighting for public education and the arts in schools out on the streets, on the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento, in countless meetings, with my own nonprofit organization, through my leadership with school PTAs, or with my own art. I had prior experience with radio, TV and newspaper interviews, so I was prepared. I’d just never gone all the way to Washington before, and of course, I’ve never stuck myself out there while being sick with cancer.

The irony of this trip, for me personally, is that while I had to abandon my first cause (public education and arts education) to commit to this new cause (affordable health care), I came back to Los Angeles thinking long and hard about my first cause. My take away from the whole experience was that most people don’t have a clue about what is going on with health care reform. The majority of Americans are completely misinformed about the Affordable Care Act, but that doesn’t stop them from expressing strong opinions about it. That got me thinking seriously about our education system in this country. We’re in big trouble.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to dupe people into believing just about anything in this country. I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, while participating in my democracy at the very epicenter of the free world. I had a lot in common with many of the other demonstrators. It wasn’t just that we all agreed about the Affordable Care Act. It was that we could articulate, in our own words, what the Affordable Care Act meant, not only to ourselves, but to the country. We all thought for ourselves. Educated, liberated people in a free democracy can do that. On the contrary, there were others (who the media paid way too much attention to), who could not articulate their own points of view, but relied instead on silly, empty talking points based on fear and lies. For all of the screaming and yelling about Obamacare being “socialized medicine”, and how our freedoms and liberties are being threatened, I couldn’t help but wonder why these people find it so easy to let others do their thinking for them. Ignorance is the real enemy, not Obamacare.

I spent my last day in Washington looking at historical sites. There are so many monuments and museums (which are all free! I spent a little time in the National Art Gallery and was blown away – I want to go back again with my family soon.) As  I thought about our nation’s history and the symbolism of the monuments, I feared for the future of our country. After what I heard with my own ears, and saw with my own eyes during my stay, it looks like my friend from England may be right; America is the best half educated country in the world.

If we did a better job of educating our citizens, people wouldn’t be so easily manipulated and controlled. Our current education system does not teach kids how to think, it teaches kids what to think. Controlled, collective thought is DANGEROUS, especially when it is voiced on the steps of the Supreme Court and echoed all over the country at the end of the day by the media on TV.

Education and personal responsibility are the antidotes to the social poisons of apathy and sloth. All of the hysteria and paranoid anti-Obamacare hype that I witnessed exposed the root problem: fear, ignorance, and lack of education. So it’s back to my first cause: arts education. Here are the reasons why a well rounded, high quality public education must include the arts:

  • A world class education must address and exercise both sides of the brain. Our current “skill and drill” education system addresses only the left side of the brain which focuses mostly on memorization (to prepare kids to do well on standardized tests). Creativity, individuality, and critical thinking (right brain function) are not only discouraged, but children who are more right brained in their talents and abilities get labeled as having some sort of learning disorder such as ADD.
  • A well balanced arts curriculum exposes children to other cultures via exposure to different styles of music, dance, art, and literature. This not only helps build understanding between children from various cultural backgrounds, by creating creative bridges between students, but it also opens schools up to the greater world beyond them.
  • Participating in music, dance, art, creative writing, etc., gives at risk children an opportunity to express themselves in a safe and constructive way. Many children who exhibit behavior problems at school have secrets, or live in homes that are not at all safe or nurturing. By being given the chance to write poetry, get their frustrations out through dance, or lose themselves through drawing or making music, we are teaching children that there are healthy, constructive ways to express anger, fear, or sadness.
  • By asking students to use the right sides of their brains, we are asking them to search for more than one answer, where there are no preset, defined boundaries, to step “outside of the box” into unknown territory. This may be a welcome relief for the more free spirited, artistic types, but this can be threatening for some left brained learners who are more comfortable in a more restricted learning environment. They learn how to be, and deal with, feeling uncomfortable. By being challenged in this way, they learn valuable life skills on how to deal with uncertain situations, how to think on their feet, and how to risk putting oneself out there. The arts also teach children how to handle rejection and failure. They learn that others may or may not respond well to their interpretation of things. That is life.
In summary, offering a well rounded arts education curriculum in schools challenges all learning styles. They encourage students to question, to think deeply, to have their own thoughts, to handle rejection and negative emotions, and to risk……all elements of an educated mind and a healthy democracy.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Best Candy Playlist

I've been receiving chemotherapy for Stage 3 Breast Cancer for seven weeks now and I'm happy to report that my body is responding to the treatment really, really well. It's rough, though, and I'd say that I've been pretty useless for half of those seven weeks, because the side effects of chemo are pretty debilitating. There is nothing I can do but ride it out.

What has helped me endure all of this is MUSIC! I have loved music all of my life, and have made it a priority that kids in our schools continue to participate in our orchestra and band programs, produced through the Children's Music Workshop, in spite of the recession, because frankly, music saves lives.

What has kept me going for the past few years, as I try and keep my and my nonprofit's heads above water, are those precious kids whose lives have literally been turned around by being able to play in the school band or orchestra. Some of the kids who have benefited come from homes where they have witnessed unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty. I think of these kids whenever the Status Quo has suggested that my, and many other small arts education nonprofits, are well meaning, but that our efforts are small in comparison to theirs. Whenever I have been insulted like this, I think of our kids. Knowing that a few kids' lives have been changed for the better is good enough for me. I don't need, or want, the Status Quo's approval.

After all it's boasting and bullying, the Status Quo has announced that it will cut 100% of its elementary arts programming, which it has been bragging about for the past ten years!!! I'm not at all surprised by this news, but I am disgusted. The kids and the arts lose again, yet the Status Quo lives on.

I can't get too worked up about this, because I need to focus on staying positive for myself so I can keep up the good fight to beat breast cancer. The stress of trying to stay afloat during the recession, and keeping the Status Quo as far away from me and my nonprofit as possible, has taken its toll.

But the music plays on! Arts in Education Aid Council has managed to keep our band and orchestra program going in two schools in the Valley, and I'm very proud of that (all I had to do was find the money to pay for it, the Children's Music Workshop, under the direction of Larry Newman, does all the work). We have received grants from the ASCAP Foundation and the Colburn Foundation for this program and are waiting to hear about another music grant in a month or so. That makes me really happy.

What else makes me really happy is my own, personal sound track that I created, just to help me get through this tough time in my life. I call this playlist, "Best Candy", inspired by my nine year old daughter's desire to change "breast cancer" to "best candy" because breast cancer sounds so creepy and scary (she is the writer in the family!) On my Best Candy playlist is every song that I love so much that it makes me want to stop whatever I am doing, turn it up, and dance. I listen to this playlist every time I get chemo and while I take my daily two mile walks. What happens to me while I listen to my favorite music, is so good, so permeating, so strong, and so joyful, that I know I am being healed in that very moment. I have always felt this way about music, and now I am living proof (pun intended) that music heals. I know it, all musicians and music lovers know it, music educators know it, and music students know it. It's too bad the Status Quo doesn't know it.