What do you see?

When you see this photo do you think “Wow! Cool! Golden plastic!’ or do you think “Eww, raw meat bacteria!”

I realized, as Owen darted off with the gold wrapper in his hand, that I have known two people who feel excitement about trash. One of course is Owen. But perhaps Owen comes by it honestly – his great granny, Mary Scalbom Nicholson might very well have seen that golden meat wrapper the same way.

Grama Nick (as I called her) had a real eye for possibilities – and re-using refuse. She made dolls with hour glass figures using dish soap bottles. She stuffed some of her dollies with plastic bags. She sewed old panty hose or stockings onto the tops of her dollies heads (their bodies were made of recycled nylon slip) to create brown curly hair. Admittedly Owen is not so creative with his finds. But as he escaped with the meat package from the sink, I suddenly thought of Grama and smiled. And laughed. I could see her holding up that wrapper to study it, and hear her musing, “Oh look at this! Now it seems like you should be able to do something wonderful with this…”  

I witnessed her doing just that, with an old plastic box or a wrapper. She had a way of seeing things.

The Brazilian-American artist Vik Muniz is such a visionary. His approach to the world’s largest garbage dump in Rio de Janerio, for example, was transformative – for the trash pickers, for himself, and for the viewers too, I’d say. If you haven’t seen the documentary Wasteland, that describes his work there with garbage, with the workers themselves, I recommend getting it from Netflix.


I like to imagine Vik Muniz meeting Grama. I think they would have shared a lot of mutual respect.

Today I would like to take this idea of re-seeing things one step further. In a way this is the ongoing theme of this blog, re-seeing – the difficult – the tragic – the painful as something transformative instead. In the draft for my book Embracing Chaos I write about a family in my church community who had a baby girl with Downs syndrome. Apparently the young couple did not have a negative reaction to their baby’s disability – they  embraced it, felt it was meant to be. She is perfect, the father wrote in a special needs support newsletter, he wouldn’t even want to change her, if he could. This was hard for me. It irritated me. I felt he was weird, and an extremist, and young, and wrong. His point of view challenged the anger I felt at being the mom of a boy with an intellectual disability. I loved my boy – but not what came with him.

First you have to be angry when trash falls on your life.

But after a while – a long while – of breathing – and coping – and breathing – and coping – you may find yourself staring at the same old piece of trash (it recycles for a while just as trash, have you noticed? before any transforming happens at all) in the sink. And on this day it is possible that you may find yourself asking, “Hmm. Ok. What can I do with this?”

And when you are standing at the kitchen sink of life, and the bacteria laden meat wrapper, now washed out with warm soap suds, looks like something golden – when that happens, you are looking with Owen’s eyes. And Grama Nick’s.



Party On

IMG_0525_crop2It was a party weekend at the Simonses.  Bronwyn brought her art school friends home for a festive summer-like evening Saturday, and Oskar’s soccer team celebrated their winning season on our patio the following night.  All this is excellent inspiration for getting yard work done, and I drew Owen into the clean up process as much as possible.  A guy with his fetish for picking bits should be a great candidate for weeding the patio, right?  Maybe not – but the whole family threw themselves into preparation and he was part of it.IMG_0518_crop

But once in the swing of the party, Owen tends to sink into the background.  Edward and I begin to visit with the guests, and I tend to mentally disconnect from Owen.  I generally hope he’s happy with a plate of food and a spot to sit.  Meanwhile, all kinds of food that he shouldn’t eat are under his nose, and the older Owen is, the less he appreciates that.  The most tempting objects in this weekend’s cornucopia of forbidden fruits were the one liter Coke bottles – though not for the reason you might suspect.  Owen’s brother caught him making off down the hall with one four liter set earlier in the week  — four liters of Coke, taped together, a special purchase from BJs warehouse, something his mom never buys.  Naturally, it was the bottles he longed for, to heck with what was inside of them.  During the party he managed to pour a literful of the nasty contents out into the washtub of ice where the drinks were picturesquely displayed (a la Pintrest), before he was caught by his sister.  By the end of two parties-worth of being marginalized with a plate of food devoid of most of the fascinating new culinary arrivals and no cool bottles to boot, Owen had probably had enough.

Obviously he noticed all those extra plastic bottles and containers that found their way into the kitchen for two party evenings.  Imagine his frustration, Monday morning early, to find that everything was cleaned up, spaces tidy, counters clean, and kitchen locked tight.  It must have been about 6 am when he experienced that frustration.

Because sometime just after 6 am our telephone rang.

“Hullo?” I yawned into the phone.

“Hi this is Sharon,” said my neighbor’s terse voice. “Owen is out on the loose in the neighborhood, at Hyatt’s now.”  She didn’t add til later that “mean old Mrs. Kunkle” had refused to share her trash cans with him already that morning.

I thanked her (at least, I hope I did), groggily yanked my bathrobe around me, and out into the steamy morning air I went.  I noted the back door standing open, and the beautifully tidied patio beyond it empty (why, oh why hadn’t I left a bottle or two out there for him to find?!).  And out front was Owen, in the street, hovering over our next door neighbor’s trash cans.  I don’t know why he needed to look farther than our own driveway, since after two parties ours fairly bristled with cans and containers of all sizes and their riches.  The other pasture is always greener I suppose.  I growled, and Owen moved homeward, waddling to support the dangling nighttime undergarment.  What a start to the day and the week.

In view of all this, it certainly behooves us to deadbolt all the doors, every night, if we can just train all the family members to do it. That works until Owen wants something on the other side enough to figure out how to open the deadbolts.  What then, chains?  What is the long term answer? Ask me in about 20 years, when I am that much wiser.  One thing I do know: you don’t want to seem to care too much, or to turn it into a competition, because the tighter you squeeze the harder he will work to escape.  Human things need to have freedom.  When I think I am clever for inventing a way to control Owen, he tends to foil it.  I guess that (and the expense) is why I haven’t yet invested in one of those wrist devices that Owen could wear 24/7 that would permit me to track him on my cell phone.  I suspect he would hate it, and spend a lot of time trying to pry it off.  We are lucky he’s not a “runner” – an individual who gets huge pleasure from suddenly charging forth into streets, down highways, or wherever, fearless.  Terrifying. Owen only occasionally wanders.

But it would be smart to lay out some decoy objects, if I can just remember to do that.  I listened to a very intelligent presentation once about designing houses and spaces to support those caring for their special needs children.    This designer was an advocate for other ways of managing “runners” besides keeping them locked up, such as a motion sensor that turns on a sprinkler as you go through the door.  If your child is very attracted to water, that sprinkler coming on will have great appeal, and lure them into the yard instead, away from the street for the few moments it takes for their parent to catch up.

There are special needs folks who run away, every chance they get.  There are folks who stuff things into toilets and flush compulsively.  There are folks who eat non-edible objects, like their mattresses.  And there are the parents who love them, the neighbors who help to look out for them and love their parents, and the creative people who think outside the box about how to help it all work better.

And there is Owen, currently in training as connoisseur of recycling bins, specializing in educating his mom.

Weeding the patio…


Stuck Up


Owen got a roll of duct tape in his stocking for Christmas. At first he ignored it.  I suspect Owen does not like to be considered predictable.

But Santa knew what he would do with it, and sure enough, a few weeks later he got interested and spent a couple of days joyously wrenching tape off the roll.  And wrenching.  Duct tape makes a terrible and satisfying sound as you pull it off.  Duct tape also has a terrible smell.  It smells like something is wrong, rather than something is about to be fixed.  Someday, if I get chance to speak to a duct tape designer or chemist, I will ask why this is.

When Owen wanted to take the stinky mass of stuck up tape into the bathtub with him though, I objected.  Who knows what chemicals he would be absorbing through his skin, as the hot water soak and steam softened those adhesives? So I stuck the sticky things (there were at least three by then) around the corner in the hall at bathtime.  But he found them of course, making a naked search and rescue while mom was down the hall writing or more likely doing laundry at the other end of the hall on a Saturday morning.  By then the tape blobs had picked up all kinds of dirt and dog hair, were in even less savory condition and just as smelly. Into the bathtub they went, which gave Owen great pleasure. And into the trash they went thereafter, which gave his mother great pleasure.

But not before they lay around the floor a while, clogged the toy drawer, and were carried off by Trum the Boston Bulldog into the backyard mud a few times and left there to improve with rain.

far too clean to be normal

In general I don’t like plastics, and the laziness and waste they permit to our “throw-away society.”  But there are exceptions to how I feel about this, and one of them has to do with watching the simple pleasure Owen gets from unwinding an entire roll of duct tape, and then being allowed to throw that blob out afterwards.