Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Model Citizen

After following directions down gravel roads in Maine, the picturesque house nestled in the woods almost looked out of place. This house had  perfectly manicured flower beds weaving around the lawn, beckoning people to come closer. No cars could be heard from the nearby roads so the soundtrack was only of nature. The song birds were singing their stereotypical pretty songs as I parked my car behind other cars and walked into the house.

The door was open and a friendly voice called me into the living room where people were setting up. Up and up the narrow staircase went as my feet carried me to the bathroom door. Once inside, I could hear and see the workmen dotting the backyard with their tools and ladders. The bathroom door locked with a 'click' and I began to disrobe. Naked inside the beautifully decorated bathroom, there was a moment of hesitation. The insecurities of my body tried to bubble up to the surface but were quickly muted by the draping of my silk robe over my body. 

Down and down the narrow stairs my bare feet carried me back to the living room where I was expected. Placing my purse by the draped chaise lounge, a purse which had the important things like my car keys and my clothes, the only thing left to do was lose the robe. With all eyes on me, I removed my robe and reclined into the gorgeous piece of furniture in the center of everyone.

"Your left elbow was higher."
"The head was a little more to the right. Yes, there."
"That foot does not look right."
"Can someone move those books of the table, they are blocking me."
"Your hair was... oh yes... like that."
"Is everyone good? Let's go for 20. Okay?"

Hearing the ticking of the egg timer, I focused my eyes on a grand antique clock directly in front of me as every muscle in my body began to try to relax. The sound of papers, pencils, paints, canvas, easels, and water blocked out the pounding noise of the workmen just feet away. Never making eye contact, I scanned the room as people fell into their own rhythm. 

So began my first nude modeling session.

Growing up with an artist for a mother, modeling started before learning to walk. She would take photos and create drawings based on those pictures. Being the first born, I had a baby book with hand drawn pictures of me being an adorable child. When I became old enough to understand the phrase "don't move" my mother upgraded to sketching me directly. Lounging in a way I felt comfortable looked 'artistic' or 'stylized' so more and more the sketchbook would come out. The only downside to modeling would be the occasions I'd read a book and come to the end of it when my mother had just begun to sketch.

During the difficult time of battling the forces of darkness, my father, the sketching stopped. If someone compiled all the sketches my mother has ever done of me there would be a sharp transition from a chubby cheeked blonde child to a tall red headed 20 year old; the cheeks and eyes always stayed the same. Unlike child stars, I was fortunate enough to go through puberty without it being recorded in any way. My hiatus from modeling ended midway through college. My mother, the one who started me years before, was the restart of my modeling. Her drawing groups were in need of models and I was in need of cash. She had been an artist model before and thought I would be perfect for the position.

My hesitation came from the nudity part of the job. I've never been modest, truth be told, but those were situations with others in various states of undress. Nude modeling requires being naked while fully clothed people look at every detail of your body. I worried about imperfections like scars or blemishes or bruises. What would they think of me? It was the nakedness, being vulnerable in a room of strangers or peers, that terrified me.

I was terrified before I ever booked my first session.

My mother reassured me that artists care more about the model not moving than some physical attributes I thought important. They were not looking at my unshaven legs or if my roots were showing. They only wanted a model who would not move at all, which is surprisingly tricky for those who have never done it before. I was a form, an image for them to draw and nothing more. It didn't matter if it was a bowl of fruit or a cat or a nude, the artists were trying to capture an image. 

She was right, of course.

My body was a flesh colored bowl of fruit.

Since restarting modeling, my opinion of the human body has...shifted. The body is a beautiful thing. It is a vessel we have control over, for the most part. Our bodies tell our life story in pictures, shapes, and contours. You can tell a lot about a person by their body. It is not just what the body looks like, but how it moves and how it rests. The beauty of the stripped form has nothing to do with sexuality, it is just raw human essence. Across centuries and cultures, the human form connects all individuals who have lived or who ever will live. In a world where everyone is separate and distinct, it is so amazing that we share a basic template of appearance. 


So many different combinations! It really is amazing if you stop to think about it.

The vulnerability of being nude never really hit me. Yes, I have been nude in rooms of strangers dozens of times so far but I have never been truly naked in those situations. My body is inspiration, a blueprint if you will. Some of the art created looks nothing like me because the artists made the choice to use a different face or different hair. I'm fine with nudity, but nakedness is something else entirely.


There were four of us in the car driving southbound on Interstate 95 in the evening after preforming in a show together. The car was warm with laughter and conversation between good friends. We all knew each other well and I considered these women sisters in my crazy Vaudeville life. We did not just get the social niceties afforded for passing acquaintances, we took interest in each others lives and shared the bond only other artists can have. The bond connecting the type of people who value beauty in the world and actively seek out ways to bring more beauty into the world. Artists who take 9-5 jobs to be able to live sequin dreams instead of only seeing others while wondering "What if".

After a good show and in the privacy of the darkness, also after a nice Rum, I talked.

My strongest medium so far is not with oils or with watercolor, but words.

So I talked about my father and I talked about myself.

The story I've told so many times, I sometimes forget it belongs to me and not someone else.

In a world where silence gives power to secrets it always was my mission to reclaim the power.
My power.

I wrap myself in stories, both good and bad, to cover my body. Some stories show my smile, in my eyes or with my mouth. Other stories let you see the scars, never noticed until pointed out. My modesty does kick in at times because not every can see me naked, most people I can't trust to see me like that. Some have run from my nakedness as they are startled to realize their own nakedness. Others become angry and think my nakedness vulgar. I take no offense as I redress before them. Nakedness is not for everyone.

The reason for my nakedness or nudity is the same; to give inspiration to others.

My friend reached over to hug me after I finished talking. The car was silent as the passengers in the front thanked me for sharing a piece of me. My hug continued as my friend had no words strong enough to give, but needing to let me know she felt my words. We drove on the fog covered roads towards our homes. There we would undress alone or with partners or with pets; our own stories written on our skin and in our movements.


Well I fell asleep in my bed wearing the same clothes I had preformed in and still wearing my makeup.

It was too cold to sleep naked that night.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Social Standards

"Prison Break."
"Well there is a show called that on TV."
"Do you want to check it out?"

This all took place awhile walking around in a space similar to what I imagine the brainspace of an ADHD 8 year old boy looks like; a Sega themed amusement park in Japan. I was currently venturing with another student from my College because we had a free day and this sounded like an interesting side trip. Located at one end of a giant mall in the town of Odaiba, Joypolis is filled with lights and sounds not recommended for anyone with a seizure disorder. There were floors of arcade games, rides, some interactive activities, and lots of colorful game-console-themed decorations. Almost of the attractions requiring active comprehension, like a 3D Sonic the Hedgehog movie, had English subtitles. It didn't matter if the arcade games were only in Japanese because some things like "Whack-a-(insert random character)" or any racing game is pretty universal. 

This brings us to one of the 'interactive' attractions, 'Prison Break'. Now the person I was venturing with spoke a little Japanese. She was able to understand the ride guides who warned us this attraction was only in Japanese. I, on the other hand, did not speak Japanese beyond knowing the names of my favorite Ninja Warrior (Sasuke) contestants. They let us join the queue for the ride after we assured them our language barrier wouldn't be a problem and we'd still enjoy the experience. When it was time for our group to go into the 'attraction', we had no idea what to expect because we had no idea what we agreed to. (Author's Note: If you can't tell by now the 'no idea what I'm agreeing to' thing happens to me more than the average person.)

Our group consisted of us, two girls from a small college in Iowa, and four other people who were Japanese. We stood along a fake barbwire fence as the leader, a man dressed in a grey prison uniform, told us directions. I'm also pretty sure he was telling us a story at one point because he became very animated. I tried my best to pick up some keywords, but he registered my confused expression and came to talk to us. Our conversation took place with pantomime and what simple words we could share between the language barrier. Instead of the detailed description given to the others in the group, our explanation of the attraction was pretty much "Follow and be quiet." As the person unofficially voted 'Most Likely To Not Understand Anything Going On', I gladly took my position as the last person in the single file line walking into the next room.

The next room began the 'Prison', a darkened labyrinth scattered with jail decorations straight out of a Halloween store. The path was dimmed but I could still see everyone in our group, including our leader. I paid attention to everyone ahead of me and copied what they were doing. We moved down the hallways braced against the walls in exaggerated creeping motions.  After each turn, our leader would turn around and talk to the group. Sometimes this would be about jail obstacles that were clearly obvious and easily comprehended by even...well...me. Other times I believed he was explaining the story unfolding because there were no visual hints to what he was talking about. Everything was going smoothly, as smoothly as pretending to escape a jail while not comprehending any verbal instructions can be: Until we reached a block in our path.

This 'Block' was a dead end of sorts and made us turn back in the direction we came from. So we all turned around as the leader went to the 'new' front of the single file line. This lovely little turning business meant I was now directly behind the leader at the front of the line. We continued to sneak along the walls until we came to a giant open room. With a serious expression on his face, the leader turned and gave us directions. Now he could have been telling the others about his very uncomfortable underwear he had to wear today because it was laundry day and nothing else was clean: I had no clue what was going on as he walked on. I knew the game was "follow the leader", something children and ants do on a daily basis so I continued to follow him into the room.

Very quickly there were spotlights in the middle of the room focused on our fearless leader.
And me right behind him.
Not everyone else, just me.
Apparently the serious face was not about his underwear choice but actually instructions to wait at the edge of the room while he "went ahead to make sure it was safe".
The colloquial abbreviation FML seemed very appropriate at that moment.

Quickly processing what was going on, I raced back to the group. The group was entertained by the HIGHLY exaggerated motions of our leader as he tried to dodge the spotlights while comically avoiding the 'bullets' dotting the wall around him. No one could see my face burning with embarrassment at not understanding the simple directions everyone else understood clearly. After it was 'safe' to pass, we quickly moved on to the next hallway. A voice sounded from a speaker as a dummy in a electric chair twitched and howled in pain. We ran out a set of doors and we were 'free'.

As social creatures, we tend to fixate on language when we communicate. How many times have you heard a person said they were concerned they had "said the wrong thing"? There are right words to say in certain situations and to certain people. People would also agree that there are also totally wrong things to say in certain situations. Care to take a guess what a person with a disability characterized by difficulties with social interactions does on a semi-regular basis? If you guessed "say the wrong thing", you should pat yourself on the back.

I can say with complete authority that 92.4% of my anxiety comes from social interactions: specifically being misunderstood or misunderstanding people.

I grew up being misunderstood from a young age. It was not just others who didn't understand what I was trying to communicate, I didn't know how to verbalize what I wanted to communicate! So it began with colors. Colors were emotions. Emotions are those things that make your face move in different ways to match the feelings in your stomach. This is how a child with Autism learns to communicate with the world outside of our head. We assign invisible labels to everything while cross-referencing, cataloging, and storing for later use. Every single second of the day begins as a constant struggle between the safe world in our heads and the scary real world where there are so many rules when talking to other people.

As a kid, I hid my Autism by playing a game similar to "follow the leader"; I was an echolalic mimic. Watching T.V. and Movies, I learn not just what people were saying but how they were saying it. I assigned labels to characters and studied the jumbled mess laid before me. Communication was learning scripts of what to say and when to say it. This was what people did, they talked about specific things. As a child, the subject of conversations were limited and the scripts were repetitive. I enjoyed the company of my mom's friends because they talked about fun things and I got to play with new scripts.

The scripts grew as I encountered more situations and needed something to say. I needed to say the right thing. Life became more stressful as the situations grew exponentially and I had school work to do as well.  Somewhere it stopped being about just knowing the words, I needed to learn social cues and body language played a huge part in what was the 'right' thing to say. Going to an all-girl High School, I became a constantly anxious about saying the wrong thing. This continued in College when the addition of romance brought communication barriers to a whole new level. The anxiety affected my health to such an extreme degree, I have not really been 'healthy' until 2012.

Last year is when I stopped constantly having the chest pains from anxiety. I was hooked up to heart monitors as a child because my panic attacks lead doctors to believe I had a heart condition.

For the first time in my entire life, I did not get strep throat once in twelve whole months. The immunologist said I had my own dormant type of Strep that was not contagious, but only affected me when my body became too overwhelmed with stress. Getting strep happened to me on an average of four times a year.

I wasn't constantly in pain. My back stopped being tense and my muscles could relax for once. I would grind my teeth so badly from stress, there was noticeable damage and constant jaw pain from the time I was 12 to 17. No more jaw pain and a recovery plan from a dentist with "marked improvement".

My Secret?
I'd like to say it was years ago, but truthfully it was only very recently I fully understood.

The words you say don't always matter.

It's not that you are saying the wrong words, but communication is not as simple as always knowing the right thing to say or understanding the precise meaning of every word you hear. Communication is a very complicated experience involving multiple people with the potential to get things jumbled purely by accident. There are people in my life I can look at and have entire conversations with our eyes. With other people I run out of words long before there is any hope of getting my point across. It's not that I don't have to sometimes work to be appropriately social, I just know what scripts to pull out at certain times and I know the times scripts don't matter.

I'm not going to completely destroy a friendship by accidentally saying something really stupid. I finally gave myself permission to relax an accept that fact. The difference between being alone and lonely is the choice. Having the choice to remove myself from the rest of the world is empowering. Being isolated due to my failing social skills was devastating. 


In a different place and time I was a little blonde 8 year old in a sundress walking by a park in Seville, Spain with my family when I saw a group of children playing on the grass. They were laughing and having fun playing the same games I was excluded from on the recess yard. The craving to belong hurt on a level I hope most people never know.
It was my father, a many who to this day doesn't understand me, who told me to go to them.

"I can't speak Spanish."
"It's okay."
"They won't understand me."
"That's okay."

Walking up to the group of ten or so children, they all stopped to look at me.
I heard my heart race in my ears.
My hands became so sweaty that I was afraid to wipe them on my dress so I held them out to my sides.

"Hola" replied a little boy standing closest to me.
"Me llamo Brigid"
"Me llamo Jesus" replied the little boy as he moved to grab my hand.

We played in the park until the lightning bugs came out. Saying "Adios" to my new friends, my family left to find dinner and end our night with our regular walk around the illuminated city. I actually fell asleep in my dinner that night. It was not just exhaustion, it was happiness that overwhelmed me the most. The language barrier between me and the other kids did not hinder me, it made me not worry about saying the wrong thing so I could finally be a kid. A kid like everyone else.