The Wonderful Whirl of Missy

The lights went down. The applause rang out. Opening night of another triumphant show was in the books. Time to get changed, get out and celebrate with the cast.

But first I had to leap in the car and race home. The real celebrity was on her way.

“So did she dance every dance?” I asked the driver as we both helped a smiling, exhausted Missy to the door around 11 o’clock at night.

“Oh, yes,” the driver answered as Missy’s smile grew wider. “She had a GOOD time.”

This is not unusual. Our developmentally disabled ward Missy – who is my age physically, but much younger in mind and spirit – has a social calendar that sometimes leaves me tired just thinking about it. There’s the bowling, of course. The Friday night trips and activities, including dancing whenever she can. At different times, there have been art classes and Bible studies, softball games and out-of-town festivals … just about everything short of red-carpet premieres and dinner at Spago.

Mind you, not every hour of every day is filled. There are plenty of nights spent simply listening to music (at FULL VOLUME) or doing a puzzle or waiting impatiently in the bay window for me to get home from work. But Missy is an extrovert at heart, and it’s not unusual for her to grab a coat and head for the front door as soon as she knows I’m back with the car.

“I wan’ go bowling!”

“I wan’ eat the food!”

“I wan’ goooooo!”

And so, more often than not, we hit the bookstore, or the game store, or the reading group, or even a downtown restaurant that knows us so well, they’ve practically reserved her a table. I’ve lost count of how many people recognized her slight frame, warm smile and massive red purse as we go out and about.

It’s impressive. Hard to keep up with sometimes, but impressive.

And it’s a good reminder to look past assumptions.

We’re not good at that. In fact, we’re pretty awful. A recent MIT study found that false news stories circulate more easily on Twitter than true ones, attracting more interest and prompting more retweets. Facebook users are no stranger to the phenomenon, either, frequently posting items that can be proved false in 30 seconds – if anyone bothers to look.

But why bother? After all, we know what we know. And if something reinforces that belief, well then it must be true, right?

Taken to its extreme, it leads to a life of surface impressions and confirmation bias, whether it’s called the bubble, the echo chamber, or the privileged perspective. It’s an easy way to live, if you can call it living. And it’s a lot like driving with a blindfold – however much fun you may be having, you can hurt a lot of people without ever realizing what you’ve done.

It takes more effort to see what’s really there.

Missy doesn’t hide very much. Heck, she wears her feelings on her sleeve in letters the size of the Hollywood sign. But if someone doesn’t want to look past the disability and the speech difficulties, they’d never see the fuller life beneath.

Facts aren’t a hard thing to find on the internet. But if someone doesn’t dig beneath their favorite headlines, they never see the proverbial “rest of the story” or if there’s even a story at all.

Prejudices and biases are fragile things at their foundation – but only if you bother to push.

Get out. Look closer. Question what you see. There’s always a story worth learning, if you take the time to hear it and not just the version in your own head.

And if you’re after Missy’s story, I sure hope you’ve cleared your calendar. And that you really, really like dancing.

Art from the Heart


I came home from work one night to find my office had become an art gallery.

Construction paper of red, blue and yellow festooned the walls, covered with paint, with stickers, with bits of tape. “Bowling got canceled today,” my wife Heather offered by way of explanation.

And it did explain.

Regular readers may remember that Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, loves bowling over almost anything else in life, with the possible exception of a car radio set to ’11’ blaring the greatest hits of Face. Long before her Wednesday trips to the alley, “I wan’ go bowling” will be heard at regular intervals.

So with a bowling date foiled, something else had to take its place. For Heather and Missy, it was an “art afternoon.”

The result was simple joy, both in the making and in the seeing.

Obviously, Missy’s not the first person to channel frustration into art. It’s well known, for example, that Beethoven’s “Pathetique” came to be after the composer failed to bowl 300 in a crucial league game (the fact that his biographers blame instead his disgust at his hearing loss is clearly a cover-up). You use what you have, transmuting pain or intransigence into beauty.

It’s something I got to see at very close range, a few years back.

In Emporia, Kansas, there’s a coffee shop called the Javacat-5. Local artists decorate the walls with their work, which can be just about any medium, just about any style. One day, the paintings were a vivid, piercing form of abstract art I had never seen, slashes of blue or of red, a sharp internal rhythm made visible to all.

I interviewed the artist, a young woman who had never really considered a career in art before going to school on an athletic scholarship. Her life probably would have stayed a series of win-loss records for the next few years except for one thing.


Crippling ones.

Team sports were out of the question. Any sports were out of the question. And so, she decided to paint out her pain – to take the lights and colors that assaulted her at regular intervals and put them onto canvas.

The results were staggering.

It struck me – and it strikes me now – that if that can become something striking and awe-inspiring, anything can.

Life gives us a lot of excuses to quit. Often very legitimate ones. Physical pain, emotional stress, loss beyond what any person should be asked to endure. Even minor frustrations can add up into something seemingly unbearable, where we want to become 9 years old again and hide under the covers for a couple of hours.

But there’s a power in those moments, too. And if we can find a way to use that power, however difficult it may seem, the moment can be transformed.

The science fiction author Spider Robinson once cited the Laws of Conservation of Pain and Joy: “Neither can ever be created or destroyed. But one can be converted into the other.”

No one says it’s easy, any more than smashing atoms is easy. But it starts by not stopping. By finding somewhere else, anywhere else, for the hurt of the moment to go.

That’s how you get piercing beauty on a canvas. Or enduring music from a piano.

Or, once in a while, innocent and vivid strokes of paint on sheets of construction paper.

It’s an experience not to be missed. Especially if it’s been Missy’d.