one at a time

January 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

Before we were a family of four, I drafted lists of good intentions for who I would be when we were no longer three. At the very top of my list was a pledge to set aside time to devote to each child – separately. One at a time.

I understood that I was better when my attention wasn’t divided, but I could not yet know how I would grow into another version of myself; that I would find beauty in the chaos of both children unraveling my frayed sense of order. More importantly, I did not anticipate the ways they would complete one another.

Last Thursday, our children sharing cookies after an evening band performance, the conversation overlapped in a family shorthand of movie quotes and comedy skits. These moments of frenetic stillness, times when the dishes stay put and we linger unhurried in the noise of our thoughts, these are the reasons I’ve returned to a commitment of fewer distractions, less multitasking, and uncluttered weekends. Singular conversations and collective contentment.

Small moments, together.

One at a time.

save me a space

January 16, 2017 § 8 Comments

It’s the smallest request, to hold a space for someone to belong. There is perhaps no greater kindness than to offer such generosity of acceptance to one another; no greater space than home in which to teach belonging except school. This is the heartache I have been sounding out for over a decade as I help my children navigate the broken spaces of their education.

I have written often these past years of academic challenges and the emotional harm of exclusion, but these themes were offered new insight last November through an online parenting course offered by Brené Brown. I’ve long admired her research on shame, but this course offered a discussion on belonging and fitting in that gave me a new language for contextualizing the challenges I have encountered as a mother raising special needs children.

I posed this question (specific to my son) towards the end of the curriculum:

How do we address subjects of shame and belonging when raising children with special needs? My sixteen year old boy (son) on the Autism Spectrum cries openly, fails colorfully and speaks genuinely, he has been made to feel “other” for these behaviors/qualities we celebrate and cultivate in adults.

In an effort to keep my question concise, I edited the following from my submission to the live Q&A session:

He has given his younger sister a model of masculinity I think is both rare and exceptional; his emotions and vulnerability, the brave and authentic way he navigates mixed messages underscores a deficit in social norms.

Maybe one day there will be a parenting class to discuss the significance of belonging over fitting in as we look to inclusive classrooms to model empathy and diversity.

Privately, in my personal notes, I mused:

I’ve also been thinking about how we categorize children, offering preferential treatment that harks back to an unhealthy selection mentality; students who are deemed gifted are granted an exclusivity of privileged resources that in turn limit the potential of a larger population with an assumption of inequality. 

This last wondering was specific to my daughter’s experience, but inclusive of so many misunderstood, stereotyped children. Those students ranked by generic test scores that exclude intelligence we cannot gauge in standard testing, but whose grit and resilience have made them stronger learners for their personal challenges. What might these children become if offered courses that encourage and inspire new passions?

I want to pause here to acknowledge the obvious deficit of editing. I debated tidying these thoughts into something beautiful, but there is an uncomfortable truth in the mess that I want to preserve for the integrity of my own experience. I am publishing them today to move them from the stagnancy of my drafts to better own them as an essential part of my story.

I considered offering a shorthand of harmful past experiences in the interest of identifying a pattern of exclusion that illuminate the essence of fitting in over belonging, but I want to speak instead to the rare moments of extraordinary kindness – of invitations to belonging.

For my son it was one teacher offering a safe place where others could not push, mock, tease or taunt for one period each day of his middle school career. During those three years she provided him his first experience of belonging, in which he was allowed to invite friends and breathe a sense of safety and acceptance not available outside her walls.

For my daughter, the experience came last year as a result of an administrative oversight after our move when she was allowed to perform academically by assumption of ability over predetermined restrictions. Her school saved her seat when paperwork dictated they shuffle her into another space. It was only after our daughter was offered an opportunity to thrive outside the limits of labels that we watched her excel along a trajectory of her own determination that exceeded expectations.

This is the truer gift of parenting children with special needs, the way in which we reframe understanding by potential; looking past the unspoken rules of fitting into social scripts for success to a more wholehearted place of belonging just as we are. It demands championing learning over testing, character over accomplishment; teaching children to save a space for one another with acceptance and appreciation.

I think we are on the verge of something remarkable and I’m saving a space for all of us to consider the difference between fitting in and belonging.

body of thought

January 15, 2017 § 2 Comments

It started with an excruciating pain during an unfamiliar exercise. Despite my admonishment of physical resolutions this year, I was swept up in a sudden need to move and threw myself enthusiastically into a new routine.

My efforts at stillness had quietly underscored the way I use movement both for avoidance and empowerment. Restless distractions that allow me to cloak worry in productivity are intimately related to the way I use exercise to purge those feelings I struggle to name.

Yesterday, inventorying for injury in a posture of submission to a very immediate sense of vulnerability, I tested the smallest movements with patience and settled among my thoughts.

Our bodies are great teachers in crises.

My body demanded I identify the harm and tend to the moment at hand. There’s a certain power in naming what hurts, allowing ourselves to speak directly without apology for weakness.

There is also humility in acknowledging what worked once may not serve us now. Freedom in accepting that our needs and abilities change over time.

Images can be deceptive; a body may appear healthy, but hide a deficit of strength. Similarly one can appear weak while exercising great strength.

Lastly, we teach our children as much in good health as we do in injury and sickness. It is natural to tend to another in need, but there are great lessons in self-care.

In those moments of stillness as I tested my body for stability and considered how I had changed, what I might need, and the actions that would best nurture healing, the thoughts I had been circling in movement all week settled into place and I marveled at the way life invites us to presence.

This past week my son wrapped up another academic term with finals. The end of anything brings the beginning of something else and we’ve been chasing significant change with unconventional choices in anticipation of his new term.

There has been great joy in the anticipation of these adjustments, but also remorse and grief for the years I held my son accountable to a pattern of commitments that contradicted his needs for another’s impersonal trajectory of success.

For all my efforts to parent outside the mainstream language of success, I’ve bought into patterns of parenting that conflicted my earliest days of motherhood; days before labels invited comparisons that bred fear and worry. For years I gauged good enough and belonging by unfortunate standards akin to fitting in.

While verbally celebrating my son’s individuality, I was shaping his future with a mass-produced machinery of normal. If A, then B. Never accounting for a factor of C.

There is so much more to this moment. I’ve been gathering my thoughts, privately, trying to decide how to mark this milestone in writing as we embark on a new adventure. It was strange that a physical injury is my introduction to sounding out these changes, but so it is:

Name the harm.

Understand what worked once, may no longer apply.

Recognize that images are deceptive, one can appear weak while exercising great strength. 

Our actions speak more loudly than words, our children are listening to our choices.

on presence

January 11, 2017 § 5 Comments

Today’s wind is bitterly cold, uncomfortably so to small patches of exposed skin. It was a day to tidy indoors or disappear into a story, but my dog is immune to the cold and was overdue for a walk. Her needs demanded my attention and so I layered carefully, mindful of the temperature.

It was on this walk, my hair flying wickedly around my hat and scarf, that my companion explored slippery puddles of ice and brittle grass. She understood this was her time and so she savored each minute greedily, her joy as visible as the breath that escaped my scarf.

No matter my discomfort, there was an infectious enthusiasm in my dog’s delight. I began looking in earnest for her next distraction, paying closer attention to the landscape and less to the discomfort of the cold. Halfway home I found my own treasure, easy to miss footprints left in concrete by a small bird.

I was tempted to remove my gloves just to feel the small indentations in the ground, the miracle of something so fragile forever cast in the weight of something whose strength snaked against the bulk of earth beneath it.

Like a child the weather was forgotten for the adventure of discovery. My eyes scanning our surrounding for a new diversion. Returning home I wonder, what magic might we discover beneath our feet if we only pause long enough to find the beauty hidden just under our nose?

priceless

January 9, 2017 § 4 Comments

Yesterday, in a loud high school cafeteria (six hours into a rescheduled extracurricular competition) my daughter appeared in the periphery of my attention, accomplice in tow. Two eager faces on a mission I was happily unaware; any caution they endeavored to exercise made irrelevant by the unveiled delight they held recklessly in check.

The girl, a stranger to me, stood taller for the enthusiasm that threatened to buoy her from my daughter’s side. My daughter weighted them both with her aggressively polite certainty.

Fifteen dollars for a store-bought package of chocolate chip cookies priced unapologetically, and without any effort at deception, for $5. My daughter’s request was for $10, the balance of money needed (her own funds presently scattered in disheveled nooks of her bedroom).

My mouth and posture had already curled themselves, preemptively, around the shape of my no when instead my voice betrayed me with a whimsical, yes.

My daughter quickly drafted me a note of debt and I conceded curiosity to her obvious certainty. Watching her pick her way among the crowded tables, I lost sight of her momentarily.

It was the box I noted first. A large unremarkable cardboard rectangle, an almost institutional off-white shade that suggested mass-produced fare. My daughter walked with the box propped open, rounding the tables like a veteran waitress topping off half-finished beverages.

I marveled at the brazenness of her easy greetings as she navigated children from other schools with the familiar ease of one who has shared weekends in friendly competition. She returned to me, box almost empty, laughing over the pieces of humor and kindness that were volleyed between bites.

It was a completely irresponsible expense, a lavish gesture of goodwill that contradicted every ounce of good sense or frugality I possessed with an exponentially priceless return on a temporary investment.

 

strength in softening

January 6, 2017 § 3 Comments

There have been years past when the muscle of January’s resolve was built in rigorous physical effort. I wrestled post-holiday lethargy with exhausting exercise routines and swapped left-over sweets for restrictive meal plans. These were self-imposed limitations; I need hard boundaries and tidy markers of progress to carry me past preventable distraction once the novelty of my interests wear thin.

This year I’ve been exercising a different muscle.

Rather than chase an exterior image of health or pounding the pavement in a new direction, I’ve nestled into the sometimes uncomfortable practice of stillness; breathing into an intention of submission and softening against the hard edges of experiences I cannot control. I expected the generosity of self-care in this practice would make the act of stillness simper, more peaceful.

I was wrong.

In the moments when I am tired or anxious, I move with the hollow muscle memory of a sleep walker; pacing, snacking or reading my way into distraction. Like a child with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar, I see myself caught; breath held, body tense, mind racing to catch up to this particular moment.

I’ve had to turn my routines upside down a little; sometimes, literally, standing on my head to shake up my thoughts. I’ve swapped out coffee for tea and traded speaking for listening. I’ve started stretching when I itch to pace and filling my lungs with slow, intentional breaths when I’m tempted to consume empty calories.

Relaxing my muscles rather than muscling through.

I did not expect there would be so much action in stillness, so much strength in softening.

 

sharing words

January 2, 2017 § 3 Comments

My daughter is sounding out her One Little Word. Each year I invite both children to join me in my New Year’s practice. Lending them printed pages with rows of words, I challenge them to read the words aloud, to strike through those words that fall flat and create space for those words that whisper recognition.

It is a treasure hunt of sorts, there is magic in scavenging tidy rows of words for suggestions of self; fragments of dreams we see only in our mind’s eye and private hopes, intimate challenges and new habits. More than goal setting, it is a mindset for the days to come.

Last night I came upon my daughter stretched purposefully beside her lists, red pen in hand, striking and circling with a confident flair. Her posture was the same form she uses for drawing and writing, painting and molding clay; her hands moving with the same certainty she shapes thoughts into art.

I looked over her papers, marveling at the key code she had created for her thoughts, the place her marks stopped, and the large circle where she explained her choice.

She landed on one brief word, four letters that held together four other words. I won’t share her word, instead I want to honor some of the words that framed our conversation at bedtime.

The first was seek, so that she might seek out new roads. The next two left me chasing down a pencil to guard her thoughts. Adding my handwriting to her own this is what I transcribed for my daughter:

“Self-love (means) to love who you are and don’t let anyone else say otherwise. Shine so that when other’s don’t feel like they are enough, I can reach out to them.”

Her last word lead to others and we fell into a conversation about the intricacy of our words, the impossibility of a singular choice and the subsequent supporting characters.

Whatever our words, I hope there will be many more late night ramblings. That my children will continue to allow me to guard their words among my own. To share traditions and explore new goals as we support one another in becoming our best selves; collectively and individually.