Sunday, July 29, 2012

Maine: A Love Story

Just after you cross the big green bridge into the state of Maine on 1-95, see the sign on the right, big and bold. "Maine: The Way Life Should Be."

My Maine is not coastal lighthouses or rocky beaches. My Maine is off the highway and into the woods, into tiny towns and villages sprinkled with lakes. Our camp is in an area not far from where the mountains begin.

Old Vienna post office, just down the road from Flying Pond

I've spent time in Maine at our camp nearly every summer since my mother did before me...and my grandfather before her...and his father...and his father's father.

Camp Road

Our camp (in Maine they are camps, mind you, not cabins), was the first on Flying Pond in Mount Vernon. My great-grandmother was married on the porch under the hemlocks, the same porch we now sleep on, nearly a century ago.

I love this place, despite its lack of indoor plumbing and internet access. Or maybe because of. The camp is timeless. While I have moved several times, while I no longer have the houses of my childhood to visit and remember, while life circumstances may change and people come and go, the camp is always there.

At night the loons call to each other over the lake, a backdrop to our dreams. In the day the wind whispers through the hemlocks. At the water, motorboats hum by, or canoes. We wave hi as we sit at the beach and read or swim or play.

My Maine is drives to the mountains or to Farmington for Gifford's ice cream. My Maine is picking sweet blackberries or blueberries and searching for signs of bears and moose in the quiet woods. My Maine is state fairs and small towns and a slower way of life. 

When I was a child, on snowy nights during long winters, I would lie in bed and conjure an image of the camp. I'd pretend the sound of the snowplows heading up my street were actually the motorboats on Flying Pond. I knew then that summer was always waiting. The camp was waiting for me. God willing, the camp will always been waiting for us to return. 

I think we all have a place like Maine, like the camp. It's a place of wonder. For some it only resides in our hearts and memories. Others are blessed to savor that it's still real.

Friday, July 27, 2012

He's Not Ready. Yet.

Last week for the kids was very busy: Vacation Bible School with 100+ other children every morning from 9-12 at our church, then swimming lessons every afternoon (minus the thunderstorms) from 5-6:30. Never mind Ethan's play group on Wednesday in the middle of the day.

Every day, as I saw Anna run off to meet her little friend or to jump into the pool effortlessly, I thought again how easy most things have been for her. Or maybe I mean us. Don't get me wrong: she can be shy; she has her moments. But overwhelmingly, bringing Anna to VBS or swimming means just signing the papers, dropping her off and waving a goodbye that she never sees because she's off, disappeared, ready to have fun.

Every day, I remembered last year; I remembered how important it is to not forget. Last year I wasn't sure Ethan would be up for the four-year-old swimming class with typical kids when this summer rolled around. Last year Ethan did VBS but cried the first day, clinging to my legs, and had a special helper sit with him most days, holding him close through the music because it was too loud and overwhelming.

This week both kids attended VBS and Ethan was no longer frightened but rather eager to go. This week both kids went to swimming for the first time. Anna got passed up to the next class (this year's class was a repeat), and so did Ethan. He's starting to swim! He loved the class! For the most part, he was able to follow directions and hold his own just fine.

I must remember these things and give thanks for them, when I look at those areas in which Ethan's progress is still agonizingly slow.

"Did you play with anyone at VBS?" I asked one day.

"No, I played lonely," Ethan responded. (This is his word for alone. In this context he was not using it in a negative way in the least.).

"Which toys did you play with?" I asked another day, referring to the time spent with the preschool kids down in the church's nursery.

"I don't know," he answered. "The teacher said 'no touching the buttons on the CD player.'"

I pictured it, Ethan alone, playing with his first love, a CD player, while the other kids giggled and pushed around the cars or tossed around a ball. He often brings his CD player down from his room and plugs it in in different places around the house. This is fun for him -- not setting up trains or building with Legos.

I saw Ethan have one interaction with another child at VBS. It was to inform him that the baby toy he was trying to play with needed batteries. I can't help but smile at that one. When we're at different people's houses, he looks not for kids or toys but for fans to plug in or turn on and off. I think it helps soothe his anxiety.

At swimming, I encouraged him to greet his little friend, the one who's house we've visited before. I watched them. I watched Ethan amaze me by jumping fearlessly into the pool, by dipping his head under and retrieving rings. Anna was scared to do that at his age.

I also watched him not once make an overture to anyone else there. He tolerated them, yes. But he didn't seem to particularly care that the other kids were there.

"These thing are not like a switch going on and off," his developmental pediatrician said a few months back, speaking of the changes I hoped to see in him relating to play and socializing. "Picture it more like beach erosion."

And while I don't necessarily care for the image of wearing and rubbing away at an essential part of who my son is, I know what she meant.

The core challenges of autism can't be changed or even improved with a snap of one's fingers. In just a few months' time Ethan has started recognizing sight words and can almost tell time, but the social piece

With that slow movement comes the impatience on my end, and the tension between how much we do to help him learn and grow vs. accepting his very real challenges and really, just accepting him.

If I followed my Floortime book to a "T" for example, I'd be playing one-on-one with Ethan for up to six 20-minute sessions a day. I'd limit his screen time to less than an hour.

But to whose detriment? Do I do that and ignore my daughter...myself?

This, I think, is the big question facing so many special needs parents. There is this delicate balance between letting go and giving up. They are not the same. Somewhere in the middle resides God's grace.

I can hold on to that, and to the very many things for which I am thankful.

Then in the midst of that, I can trust we are held. And I can still hold on to hope.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Don't Break the Silence

We're still doing swimming lessons, and Anna's lesson is first. That means Ethan and I end up sitting, waiting and watching the kids splash in the pool. Usually the playground right near the pool is way too hot, and right now Ethan's afraid of getting massive static electricity shocks from the slide.

We were sitting on a blanket in the shade a few days ago while a group of women chatted animatedly in back of us at a picnic table. Their conversation was spirited and mildly distracting. I think they hadn't seen each other for years and were "catching up."

"Why are they talking?!" Ethan whined, irritated.

I think what he meant was, why are they talking so loudly and distracting us. Ethan tends to want to zero in on only one sound at a time; it's difficult for him to "multi-task" his ears. That's what I think he meant, but then I wondered if he also wasn't wondering why they were sitting there talking, as if he couldn't comprehend that there could be pleasure in carrying out a conversation. This both saddened and amused me, then awakened a memory.

Years ago when Anna wasn't much more than a baby I started attending a mom's group. We were all sitting at tables in groups and discussing some topic like "the importance of relationship." I remember at one point (foolishly, I suppose) confiding that sometimes what I most enjoyed was when I took Anna to the park or library and we were all alone. I mentioned the stress I felt sometimes at trying to maintain a conversation or make small talk with other moms I didn't know.

Another mom there just didn't get me. Maybe she didn't get introverts in general. "Wow," she said without even thinking. "Maybe you need to get on some medication or something because it sounds like you have some issues."

Five minutes later I had discreetly excused myself and was sitting in a bathroom stall, tears spilling down my cheeks, wondering if it was okay to be me.

I think relationships of all kinds are vitally important. I think it's wonderful to meet up and chat and connect and have a generally great time. I also think there are a lot of us out there who maybe like to observe, drink in, speak less, think more. That's not such a bad thing either.

Sometimes I can't help but think about how full our lives are with noise. The music and the TV and the phone and the computer are eating away from the practice of not multi- but single tasking. I find it so hard to focus on any one thing sometimes when so much is vying for my attention. I wonder if this is how people with autism feel all of the time, barraged by their senses and perceptions, by the world coming at them from all directions.

Quite a few years ago now one of my friends spent months in England and when she returned shared a tape she'd made of a girl she'd met who made beautiful music. This young woman composed songs and played piano, and one of her songs runs through my head to this day. I don't remember all the words, but I remember this, these few lines, these sweet words she sang, her own little vision of what God might whisper to any one of us:

In the stillness child, I am there.
In the stillness child, don't fear.
I'll never let you go...
Don't break the silence.
Don't break the silence.

We hear that term "breaking the silence" and think something completely different. We know it's a good thing, referring to one speaking up against evil and injustice.

And yet sometimes, it's true. Don't break the silence. Linger in our conversations with God and wait to hear. Hold our tongues when it would be prudent. Listen to a friend or our child without one ear tuned to the narrative in our own mind.

Ethan needs to learn how to converse and socialize, there's no doubt about it (I too need to crawl out of my shell sometimes). But he's got something going for him. He values the stillness that comes with just listening to the breeze in the trees around the town pool; the train whistle in the disance; children splashing in the water.

I wonder often how many things I would hear if I chose to be still. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Summer Evening with the Bells

This post makes a lot more sense if you start here.

Last night we finally made it. True, Ethan's bell obsession has faded the way I knew it would. He doesn't really have an obsession right now, which is rather refreshing. He may no longer be completely enamored with churches and bells, but we had a feeling he'd still enjoy the carillon concert on the lawn of the church Dan grew up in.

We were right.

We arrived at Trinity United Methodist church, found our spots on the lawn, and got our sandwiches and chips.

Ethan kept an intense eye on the bells and asked about 147 times, "Can we go up in the tower to see them?"

Lots of people turned out on a warm, breezy evening.

We managed to honor Ethan's request and finagle away up the tower. Here is the carilloneur (a woman from Norway who may or may not have spoken English) playing.

We wound our way up this cool staircase.


And got right to the biggest bell of all, which she promptly began banging very loudly. Both kids stood frozen in fear, so we made our way back down.

After more music on the lawn and a few cartwheels and races on the grass, it was time to go home.

You know what I loved? Dan was the one who remembered we had to bring Ethan to the carrillon concert this summer. Some dads long to relive their childhoods and connect with their sons by urging them to play ball. Others long to pass on their love of computers, or fishing and hunting. I know sometimes Dan feels disappointed because he's just not sure if Ethan will have the interest or ability to build model rockets or other types of models with him. Things like that frustrate Ethan due to his fine motor issues. Never mind that no one on my side of the family ever attempted to build anything.

But I think this is part of what parenting is about. We love our kids for who they are, and for what their interests are, instead of attempting to mold them into mini versions of ourselves. We let them be who they are.

We let them be.

I love my family.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Plunge

Ethan before his first swimming lesson

In the end, I suppose the most extraordinary thing about the moment turned out to be the fact that it was so, well, ordinary. 

There's no need to talk about the mini-meldown that occured when Ethan learned his very first swimming lesson would conclude without a visit to the sprinkler pool. Or the fact he wasn't really interacting with other kids and had a bit of trouble paying attention at first. There's no sense in dwelling on earlier in the week, when Ethan surprised us with a destructive streak that involved rubbing a rock across my parents' car and causing damage and us not knowing if he really understood what he did or whether or not he was sorry. I just needed to get all of that out of the way, because today, my boy was in the town pool, having his first swimming lesson, a lesson with typical kids, and you know what?

He did darned well.

Last year I wondered. Who am I kidding? This morning I wondered: Would he be able to do it? Would he stay in the pool, focused, able to follow what they were telling him to? Would he just want to goof off, or worse, as back in our playgroup days way back when, completely retreat from something completely unfamiliar?

I had the obligatory brief chat with the instructor, the heads-up in case Ethan seemed a bit "off" to him. That's what I feel like we deal with often these maybe I could get by without explaining his situation, but sometimes, it's a must. Just in case. A pool situation? Defintitely a must.

Two seconds before they went in, we saw my friend's little boy heading over. This was his first class, too. I watched the eight kids follow this teenage guy who didn't really strike me as the instructing type. He was rather...laid back. The kids got in the water and he didn't really look around to make sure all of them were not, say, jumping off into the deep end or running into the locker rooms. He definitely didn't have that mom "always on" radar instinct. I couldn't pull my eyes away for awhile. Ethan went underwater and took a moment to come up. The guy didn't even notice. I noticed...that Ethan suddenly had his head up above water, and was laughing. He seemed so free.

And so, for 30 minutes, this little bunch of 4- and 5-year-olds kicked and splashed and dunked. "Do the ice cream scoop!" the instructor shouted, and there was Ethan, attempting to make the right motions. "Go over to the wall and put your hands on it," he commanded gently, and Ethan was the first one over there. I saw him on his stomach, allowing his legs rise to the surface. We'd worked on this together and he hadn't liked the feeling. But there he was, kicking, and then blowing bubbles.

There he was, suprising me.

There he was, having the time of his life, finally getting to do what he had watched his big sister do for the past three summers.

There may be times in the future when we have to go the special needs route, when it comes to classes or certain activities. But I know now that I owe it to my son to first try. Try the activities for regular kids. Treat him as much as we can as if he is one. Don't sell him short. Don't assume what he can't do but first test to see if he can.

Ethan took a fearless jump into the pool today. He wasn't the only one taking the plunge.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Lollipop Man

We are in the church basement, picking up Ethan from the nursery as we do every Sunday. As soon as I take his coloring paper and we head back to the stairs, Ethan's eyes light up.

"Is he here this week?" he asks.

We all stomp up the stairs to the foyer. We all go searching for the Lollipop Man.

I don't know when the tradition started. I'm going to say sometime back in the late winter or spring. I don't even know who the Lollipop Man is. Our church is big, with three services. We go to the second one, and in the past I don't remember seeing this wizened old man, always in a tan blazer, who stands in the lobby as everyone is pouring out of the service and readying to leave, and hands out little lollipops to any child who wants one.

The lobby is as usual filled with people, but right away I spot him.

"Ethan, there he is!" My boy walks up to him, shyly, but smiling at him straight on. Anna is right behind. The man is bent over with age. He has a kind face. He is everyone's grandpa. I wonder if he has grandkids (or even great-grandchilden) of his own, and if they live far away, and if he misses them.

Both kids reach out for their treat, this little sweetness in the morning.

"Thank you," I tell him, as I always do, and as always, he just nods.

Back in the car, the kids' mouths full, Dan asks, "Did you see the hat he was holding in his hand?"

I hadn't.

"He's a World War 2 veteran. U.S. marines."

I think about that, as we drive home. I think that there are many other things I could thank this man for.

I think about what it would be like to be one day fighting for the security of the world. And another day to wake up a much older, much slower man, candy in those same hands, smiling at the little ones.

I am reminded once again that there are different ways to be a hero, and different ways to serve.

Our lives are seasons. At one point we may be on the front lines, doing our part to change the world. Other times, our mission may shift. Maybe we impact lives one person at a time.

The deeds may be smaller, but no less important. There are many ways to touch the world; to show God's light. Maybe it's being a friend or bringing a meal. Maybe it's writing a card. Maybe it's caregiving for one who is sick, or caring for your children, day in and day out.

Maybe it's bringing a burst of joy to little people, like the man with the lollipops.

Years ago, this man was a hero. My children know him as a hero of another kind. I see him as a reminder to never despise where I am right now.

There is always a way to touch my world.