Earlier this month I traveled to Iceland with a group of differently wired teens from my son D’s school. Iceland is an extraordinary place: traversing its starkly magnificent terrain, you have a vivid sense that you’re standing on planetary crust, its transformations unfolding before your eyes. D’s school—I’ll call it A3—is an extraordinary place too.
A3 is described as a school for kids who learn differently, but in reality it’s not just about learning differently, but about thinking differently, acting differently, being differently. Or just being different. Some of the students are on the autism spectrum, some have attention challenges, some have sensory issues or social anxiety or gender dysphoria or learning disabilities of various types. Some have no diagnosable condition but are there because it’s the first place they’ve found where they feel comfortable and welcome.
How to describe the beauty and challenge of that day? How high and steep the dune, how fine and bright the sand? How the ocean—no, Lake Michigan (ha, I wrote ocean!)— spread out below us, an impossibly pure colorscape, gradations of aqua, turquoise, teal leading out to a deep true cobalt?
We were at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in the Northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. We were traversing the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive when we stopped at #9, the Lake Michigan Overlook.
At first I tried to stop D and E from rolling down the nearly vertical dune, fearing they’d lose control, plummet over the edge and disappear. They started rolling anyway, tentatively at first, stopping and starting, looking back. I glanced uncertainly at my husband—I’ll call him H—and he, ever the cautious one, shook his head. I called, half-heartedly, Boys, come back. They ignored me, of course, and I discussed with nearby adults whether it was safe to go down. A couple with toddlers shook their heads and left. But then a man with two young kids, maybe 7 or 8 years old, appeared on the horizon as if by magic.
In December of 2016, less than a month after the elections (yes, those elections), I traveled to Taiwan for a production ofThe Fourth Messenger, the musical I co-wrote with the incandescent singer-songwriter Vienna Teng. It was as bleak a historical moment as I could remember, and I was in deep need of inspiration. Fortunately, I found it.