Children who arrive at Tanager Place need assistance, support and understanding—and a team with expertise to help them chart a new course. Through intervention and therapy, children gain valuable tools and write their own stories of success.
For the longest time, I didn’t know my life was so much different than what other people my age were doing. I guess, to be honest, I didn’t take much time to think about that. My time was spent making sure that my brothers and sisters got the attention and other things they needed at home. There were always clothes to be washed, hair to be brushed, homework to be done and meals to be made. And, of course, kids need time to play and someone to play with. It felt like the more I did, the more that needed to be done.
Pretty soon, I was Courtney, both sister and mother. I couldn’t stop because I couldn’t bear to let anyone down.
The funny thing is that I really didn’t start out trying to be everything for everybody else, but that’s how it ended up. And the more I gave, the less I had left for myself. I believed that if I didn’t manage things, keep us moving forward, we’d just stop. I couldn’t stomach that, so I kept doing and managing more and more until I was in so deep that I couldn’t get myself back out. That’s when I came to Tanager Place.
It wasn’t really that Tanager Place saved me. Don’t get me wrong—this, all of it, was a struggle. I felt like I was wandering around, lost in some dark cave. But no one reached in and simply plucked me out. The people I worked with here gave me a map and a flashlight so I could find my own way.
I remember one of my first days in Expressive Arts, looking around at all the other projects in various states of disarray and thinking to myself, “Ashley, what have you gotten yourself into?” If I hadn’t been so strict with myself, not wanting to let go in front of others, I would have cried right there on the spot.
You see, just like some of the other kids you’ve met tonight, I’ve had some problems. I’ve done some things and had some things done to me. So, to put it mildly, I’ve not always been a flexible person. Look up “control freak” in the dictionary, and you’ll probably find a photograph of me.
Everything in my life needed to be just so and in order, because I had to control everything around me. If I couldn’t control it and make it be the way I thought it should be, I didn’t want any part of it.
One of my first projects was a circle drawing, and I can’t tell you how much time I spent keeping everything in the lines—only within the lines. It was meticulous, just the way I liked it.
But always, always, always drawing inside the lines, and only inside the lines that someone else put in place, didn’t offer much freedom. It didn’t really make me happy, or allow me to show the world who I was.
Learning to do things another way, to take some chances, wasn’t easy for me. But I also knew that I needed to be more balanced if I wanted to let more of myself show in my projects and in my life.
So, I learned to take a deep breath and sigh. I began to sit quietly, just taking in the moment. Eventually, perfection wasn’t my only goal.
As my art became more fluid, filling with the colors from the world around me, my life became more flexible as well.
My art is beautiful not in spite of its imperfections but because of them. So am I.
Sitting here tonight, I know you can see Cal, the real me. I’m no longer hiding behind anger. I no longer hate everyone and everything. But it wasn’t always that way.
I wasn’t one of those “lucky” kids. I was touched—abused, in a really bad way. I didn’t want it to happen and definitely didn’t ask for it, but it happened just the same. After that there was no way I was going to let anyone get close to me. I didn’t want anyone to know that I’d been touched like that, and I didn’t want it to happen again. I learned that if I was angry and mean, people didn’t want to be around me. But it’s a lot of work to stay so angry all the time.
So, I thought that if I could just be someone else, even for a little while, I’d feel better. I began going to the Art House, and I used the supplies there to make myself a crown and a gown with a long train. When I put those things on, I felt different—like I was royal, strong and important, worthy of getting respect from others—but also of giving it. Wearing the costume, I began to think about leaders and how they should treat the people around them. That’s how I became my own person, the person I imagined I could be.
I’m not “over it”—whatever that really means. But it feels good enough for right now not to need to hide myself from you. It feels good just to be here, and just to be.
I’m Saul, and although I might look perfect, I’ve learned lately that I’m not. I’ve also learned that is OK.
It was a big lesson for me, one that took a very long time—and one that almost destroyed my relationship with my mom.
My mom has health problems—fibromyalgia—and she doesn’t always behave like the moms you see on television shows or read about in books. People were always coming into and out of our house, and I didn’t like that. I want things to be in order, and I feel confident when I know what to expect. Our home wasn’t like that. Most of the time it was chaos.
When I first came to Tanager Place, I was very angry and disappointed with my mom and our situation—and I didn’t like that about myself. When I first began to work through it, I wanted to completely change her, wanted her to do only the things that would make me comfortable. But even when I figured out what I wanted to say, I didn’t know how to say it. So I began to create a music CD for her. I picked out the songs that conveyed what I needed to say.
And, once I had the CD planned, I knew I needed to create a cover for it. I chose our favorite colors—blue and purple—and worked tirelessly with chalk to make that cover perfect. Now, if you know anything about art, you probably know that trying to be perfect while working in powdery chalk is a challenge.
Some days I wanted to pull my own hair out because I couldn’t get that chalk to stay where I wanted it. The blue flaked into the purple; the purple dusted onto the blue. But then one day I just stopped and looked at it. There was vibrant blue and passionate purple and an entirely new color where they came together. My work wasn’t perfect—not even close—but it was perfect for us, showing how we could work together, each giving a little, to create something more and better than we can on our own.
I’m at that age where I’ve started looking at colleges. One of the personal essay prompts asked me to write something about myself that is important but not often seen by others. I’ve been going back and forth about that question because I’m not sure the really big thing is something a college admission worker wants to read. I’m not sure it is something anyone really wants to know.
I’ll just put it out there—treat it like a bandage and rip it off quickly. I was sexually abused by my father.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to rehash all the details—not because I don’t remember, but because scars are for polite, mixed company and gaping wounds are for emergency rooms. And each time I pull those memories out, the wounds are reopened.
But I will tell you that what happened also came between my mother and me. She didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, and that chiseled away at our relationship. I didn’t want anything to do with her, anything to do with myself or anything to do with anything that reminded me that we were both women. I protected myself at all costs—shunning the color pink and anything remotely feminine about myself.
That’s the person I was when I first began working with ceramics in the Art House. I made solid pieces, eventually with details that soon became my signature. I’d mask the glaze, keeping it only in certain areas, which became my style.
But, as happy as I was working on these pieces, I couldn’t stop looking at the Doll House. As I learned more about how I was protecting myself from memories of my mom and the abuse, I couldn’t ignore the Doll House any longer. I began to make pieces for it—leg lamps, flowers, a bird’s nest and even a few that connected mothers with children.
I also began to work in the Music Room. Actually, I worked very hard there because I don’t have much natural music talent. Still, I played in a band. And, during a recital, when I was given some silly little kid’s song—Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star—I treated it like a ceramic and made it my own. Forget the little star; my sparkle put the North Star to shame. I’m not bragging. That’s what people actually said to me after I performed.
That’s what people notice about me these days—how I’ve become my person, how I strive to make things my own.
Thinking again about that college essay, maybe the important, hidden thing isn’t the abuse, but the resilience it took to move forward.
Honestly? I went to music therapy, but I wasn’t really there. The instruments, especially guitar, came pretty easy to me, and I guess I liked playing, but I never really saw the purpose.
That was true about lots of things in my life. I just had a hard time getting excited or finding any joy. It all seemed so useless and empty. What difference did it really make whether or not I could strum this chord or that, or if I could string enough chords together to make a song?
Seriously, how many people do you know who make a living playing a guitar? And, no, you cannot count the people living under the bridge and playing in the park. Even if I was good at it, where could it possibly lead?
But, I kept taking lessons anyway. It wasn’t hard work, and it wasn’t long until I was playing pretty well.
I’d been noticing this younger kid, about 7 years old, who was watching me as I practiced. He seemed to really get a kick out of it. So, one time I asked him if he’d like to hear “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” He nodded and moved a little closer. When I started playing, he started tapping along with his foot and smiling.
When the song ended, this kid asks if I’ll show him how to play. So, I began to teach him a few chords. Each time he’d get it right, he’d smile and laugh. Pretty soon, I was smiling, too.
The next day I ran to music; I couldn’t wait to tell my teacher that I was also a teacher.
I was discharged not too long after that. The kid? He’s still taking guitar lessons, but not from me. I’ve been a little busy playing in a band.
And, yeah, I know this may not wind up being how I make a living. But, I’m still pretty young. There’s time to figure it all out.