Singer-storyteller Karen Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate U.S. history at UCR, is currently part of UCR’s Gluck Fellows Program of the Arts, a program designed to bring the arts into the community. Her performances include traditional songs and stories from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean that address the work of peace, the maintenance of community and the challenge of change. She has performed at New York’s Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum.
I didn’t really want to go. Not that I would have refused. I am a performer and a Gluck Fellow and I had agreed to give 10 performances for underserved populations in the city of Riverside. So, when the form said “rehabilitation centers,” I checked it.
Mind you, nobody was asking me to clean sewers or dig ditches. Or balance a checkbook, by God. Those are things other people do well. I tell stories and sing. I connect with people and we laugh together or are saddened or awed. When I’m speaking to the room, my job is to be the voice of the community the room becomes. Some people call it performance but I prefer to call it sharing the Mind of God. Out loud.
I just wasn’t chomping at this particular bit. Rehab centers? Isn’t that just another way to say nursing homes – the “old folk’s homes” of my childhood? Except for one spectacular experience in my native New York City, 20 years of performance had taken me primarily to other venues: museums, classrooms, auditoriums, festivals and clubs – even a few seasons at the Central Park Zoo.
But I had promised to go and I did. The experience changed my vision and transformed my mind.
Slowly but inexorably, like the coming of the dawn, I saw beyond gurneys and wheelchairs to beauty, courage and kindness. First, there was that little woman in a wheelchair. Her head, round and smooth rising above her housedress, was the color of a ripe pecan. As was her head, so was her face: soft, round and unwrinkled. A few wisps of pale, soft-looking hair rose above both and her teeth were very few. A young Latina had rolled her in and stood behind her rubbing her shoulders – a gesture I thought particularly gentle and kind.
The woman herself regarded me intently and as Brer Rabbit went into his antics she began to laugh without a sound. Softly, at first, but with gathering intensity, her face filled with mirth. I can’t remember seeing her stop. Beauty was redefined for me on that day.
And then, in another facility, it was Sunday afternoon – visiting day. As I began to tell the Caribbean story of the rooster and the cockroach, I noticed another woman in a wheelchair. She had a delicate cameo of a face, slender and slightly caramel. She sat with quietness as if she had had a long acquaintance with it though her hair, pulled back in a dark bun, showed no visible sign of gray. Beside her sat a man with the same beautiful face – her grandson, perhaps. As I moved through the story - the Rooster entreating his friend to help him work on the farm they had bought together while the cockroach feigned illness – I took every opportunity to glance at this beautiful pair. Finally, I got to the song and dance and the instructions.
“Now put your hand on your hip and your finger in the air,” I told them.
It seemed that she was not strong enough to perform even the simplest of these tasks alone. To make sure that she could take part in the story, she held up her finger and – just above her lap – he held up her hand.
Rehabilitation centers are not easy places. Even in the best of them, a chilling specter of mortality hovers. But in the best, care rises to challenge that specter with beauty, courage and kindness. The Gluck is part of that challenge: have Gluck, will bless.