And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

Last weekend, Michael, Olivia and I drove into downtown Milwaukee to see the Beyond Vincent exhibit, a full immersion digital exhibit of Vincent Van Gogh’s work. I bought the tickets months ago, when they first opened for pre-sale, after watching the news articles about it and seeing the exhibit pop up on Facebook all over the country. In this event, you walk into the “immersion room” and Van Gogh is everywhere – the ceiling, the floor, the walls, on structures at random places in the room. The exhibit moves, strokes appearing as if Vincent himself is there, showing you how he painted the different paintings, how his mind worked, phase after phase, work after work. The whole thing was in motion, and interspersed throughout were quotes by Vincent from letters to his brother and to others.

I was so excited. I was a little concerned about motion sickness, for both Olivia and me. Olivia can’t read or watch videos in the car, and she can’t look out the window of a train or a plane. I can’t do amusement park rides and I can’t look out the window of a plane, except at night, when I don’t have the impression of the plane dipping. But I figured it was worth the risk.

When we checked in, I asked the man taking our tickets if people were having issues with vertigo or motion sickness. “A few,” he said honestly. “But not many.” When I asked if there was an easy and fast exit just in case, he assured me there was.

And so we went in.

As we moved through the first part of the exhibit, which was mostly lit-up frames describing Van Gogh’s life, peppered with his quotes, I thought about how I had to carefully screen events like this for Olivia when she was little. Autism left her overwhelmed sometimes, too much sensory stimulation coming in, and so with each fun family event (Dora the Explorer LIVE, Blues Clues LIVE, the Care Bears LIVE, this, that, and the other thing LIVE) and school field trips, I had to consider the crowd size, the noise level, the lights and the darkness, where we would be sitting, could we make a fast getaway. I chaperoned on almost all of Olivia’s school field trips. In high school, when Olivia was a sophomore, her orchestra went on a trip to Florida and Disney, of course. We moved toward it cautiously, but the night before, both Olivia and I made the decision to pull out. I wasn’t convinced of her safety and neither was she. She was the victim of “mean girls” at that time, and I could all too easily see her being ditched in the middle of the theme park, where the kids were allowed to roam without adult chaperones.

And now…she is 20, soon to be 21. A college junior, majoring in art therapy and excelling in her studies. And we were about to move into an immersion room where Van Gogh’s bright colors and swirls and paintings that moved on their own, on the canvas, even before they were set to digital, would be all around.

And it caught me, as we were about to step into that room, how I hadn’t even thought about or considered Olivia’s autism before we came to this event. I only thought about motion sickness.


When the show began, it was just so surreal. It didn’t matter where you looked, there was Vincent. Swirls and scrolls and light. It struck me, reading his story before we went in, how one biographer said that, despite the public darkness that we see of Vincent’s life, the sadness, the slicing off of his ear, the suicide, his paintings show a different story. They are lit with joy. They are thick with it. In one quote from a letter to his brother, Vincent implored, “…find things beautiful as much as you can, most people find too little beautiful.”

Vincent found the beautiful. Despite. Anyway.

As soon as I read this quote, I thought of Olivia’s current cover photo on Facebook. It says, “The world is ugly. But you’re beautiful to me.”

Olivia finds the beautiful.

At one point, I was turning slowly, watching as the entire room became awash in Vincent’s love of blue, when I saw my daughter. She was standing all alone, her back to me, and Vincent’s blue was all around her.  She was taking it all in, her face upraised, her hands at her sides, her eyes open, her ears open, her body open.

She was in preschool when we nervously took her to Dora the Explorer LIVE. It’s a kid’s show, we thought. How bad could it be?

And then the crowd of thousands of kids was encouraged to shriek, over and over, louder and louder, “Swiper, no swiping! Swiper, no swiping! Swiper, no swiping!”

Little Olivia’s eyes slammed closed. Her hands slammed over her ears. Her entire body curled into itself.

I swept her up and ran for the exit doors, Michael right behind me. After about fifteen minutes of soothing repetitive rocking, soft humming, Olivia unwound herself and opened again. We went back in, but remained standing by the exit doors, just in case.

And now, here she was. Standing by herself. Open. Taking it all in.

And I hadn’t worried at all.

She is all grown up. And she is so much more.

Vincent Van Gogh. And my daughter. I don’t know who moved me more that day.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Little Olivia, when the world was so overwhelming.
Olivia in a frame at the Van Gogh immersion event.
Olivia and Van Gogh. Fully immersed. Open to it all.

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