By Kimberly Gerry-Tucker
I have an abacus in my basement. It’s got a wooden frame and is about the height of a Kindergartner. My late mother worked in the school system over 25 years and when the classroom updated their room, my mother took the abacus from the discard pile. When I walk by it to do laundry, I’m struck by its simplicity. The faded colored wooden beads on a wire, slid to the side, to learn adding and subtracting. I glance at it often as I feed the dryer wet clothes and I imagine so many long-ago small fingers on the beads, intent with learning math, in a very hands-on way. I ponder many of the Kindergartners who used the abacus having gone on to learn algebraic equations. All learning starts so simply.
Brain neuroplasticity (“the ability [of the brain] to change its structure and function in response to experience,”) fascinates me. My brain loves to think about itself. 😊 The infamous Max Gladwell proposed that if you do anything 10,000 times, you will master it. There IS science in this. Cab drivers have thicker connections in the part of their brains called the visual spatial cortex (because they memorize the map layouts of cities). In the book Colors of the Mountain, author Da Chen writes about the 1,000 steps of Hugong mountain and the monks and serious hikers who trek it daily, many living in mountaintop shupas. The author relates that the steps were once jagged and rough-hewn. Now they are utterly smooth from use.
This is not unlike water which also has the power, over time, to reshape rock. I like the analogy of brain and nature- water reshaping rock is not unlike the neuroplasticity of our brains, like I mentioned earlier as having the fascinating ability to change in response to repeated experience. It is true my brain loves repetitiveness and routine. I believe there is innate learning in this insistence on repetitive activity- trying to get it right, learning through rote, and overall tranquility in knowing what to expect. The cicada has gradual metamorphosis, gaining wings little by little and the moth seems to grow them at once, by comparison.
Learning, for me, curtails anxiety. Sometimes anxiety is so big (“the third person in the room” as Donna Williams once told me) that I can’t step into my bathtub without worrying it will crash through the floor and land in the cellar. I think this is in part due to a visual I have about the workers who did a remodel of the bathroom years ago. They had ripped up the floorboards and at one point, I could look through the slats on the bathroom floor and see the cellar! Sometimes something comes up which other folks see as ‘minor’ but to me, it is monumental. Paper cuts seem minor. In the scheme of things they are, in fact minor- and they produce very little blood, but they cause pain receptors to be open to the air. So they don’t feel minor. They hurt.
I often push and do things outside my comfort zone so I can feel I’m truly living. I am happy to say, that I learned more from the students at the collage workshop I ‘instructed’ a few years ago than they probably learned from me. Here are some favorite photos from that day:
Image 1 is the art table, my view from my seat, a long and lovingly nicked solid surface for our purposes. And the other photo is of my PowerPoint and video, (I am in purple) as I felt a video was preferable to ‘instruct and introduce’ collage in this manner, and the students were very receptive.
This student, posing with his (unfinished) “depiction of sadness” is awesome. He made use of both the music sheets I’d brought along, and some puzzle pieces I brought. Note: I do not use puzzle pieces as some sort of autism symbol or statement, I like the colors, that simple. The music sheets here, which he chose for the background, were from a 1950s music book with such songs in it as: Eating Goober Peas. A terrific book, a terrific re-use of its pages. I NEVER would’ve thought of using the puzzle pieces in this manner. That’s what I mean by having learned from the students. He created an eye, and then had puzzle pieces flowing from it and to further depict sadness and tears, he put translucent blue velum paper over the puzzle pieces! It has a quality that allows the puzzle pieces to show through –Brilliant!
This is me in purple. Patricia, (my new friend, and Good Purpose Gallery coordinator) is seated here, with glasses. Note: I misplaced my glasses and worked the whole 2 1/2 hours without glasses only to find them when we cleaned up- two feet away from me! Also, lovely Patricia borrowed them for a bit and neither of us noticed she was wearing them, thinking them to be hers.
Thanks to Patricia and Good Purpose for putting up Al and I at The Chambrey Inn which had a fireplace in the room, a jacuzzi in the bathroom, and BEST of all dim corridors, neat niches, olde charm, room service, dark corridors and mucho interesting history! It was founded by nuns who came over from France and pictures of nuns with their students (which they taught when the Inn was a school) are adorned on the walls.
It’s been a couple years since that collage workshop and I had an event on May 30th in New York. It was a suit-and-tie art show, of which I was a small part (think seven artists and all of them but me show work in the thousands of dollars but I was approached because my work is ‘interesting’) and the anxiety gave me death threats but I didn’t listen, Lalalala anxiety I don’t hear you. I went anyway.
Back when I did the collage workshop, I had a newly acquired Tibetan Singing Bowl. At the time, the late Steve Selpal (Steve-O) gave me tips on how to get it to sing, but to no avail. You are supposed to choose a bowl with a tone that appeals to you. I listened to several bowls as a nice young man demonstrated how to make them sing by running the leather wand over the rim. I couldn’t get the hang of it. When your singing bowl won’t sing, you have to trust there’s song in there somewhere and in time it’ll come out. I have experience with stifled song but I have to let the situation be what that is and not what I think it should be.
I’m about to wrap up this blog and actually head into the basement to load the washing machine and I think: the abacus. The children who used it were ‘simply being,’ not thinking about the far-off or even near future, not thinking about the algebra or balancing of checkbooks that were surely to arise in their future. There is something to be said about ‘simply being’ (a foundation of all) and again I am reminded of Donna Williams who spoke and embodied this truth of simply being. As I face the prospect of a new experience, my rational mind tells me that the floor is not going to give way and that this event in my near future may even be a positive thing.
Donna left me some of her fiction writing, very raw and unfinished, with her surviving spouse’s blessing (he would earn half profit) and she told me “Be my legacy.” I’m still not brave enough to begin on this. I’ve queried here and there but still haven’t found someone in publishing who will believe in this project. Takers?
Recently, my son Silas tried his hand at my singing bowl. Wouldn’t you know, there was a song in there after all!
a fascinating neurobiology read here: https://www.bustle.com/articles/165306-can-you-rewire-your-brain-5-scientific-ways-to-change-emotional-habits
Kimberly Gerry-Tucker is an artist, QA tester, and writer. She is the author of Under The Banana Moon, living, loving, loss and aspergers/selective mutism. She resides in Connecticut with her pets and significant other Al and serves on the board for Art of Autism.