Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Fish and Other Matters

I woke up last Saturday morning feeling brave enough for adventure. By that I mean brave enough to take all three kids somewhere on my own.

I love travel and taking day trips, but with three kids, and three with wildly varying interests, as well as trying to save money, we haven't really attempted much in the past year. In fact, as I thought about it, the only place I'd taken the kids was to a maple sugar house up in western Mass last March. That trip had featured a screaming newborn and me coming down with something, and really had just been attempt to prove to the world that I could, yes, hit the road independently with all of them.

But that was eons ago. I realized we hadn't gone to a museum, aquarium or zoo in well past a year. It was time. An aquarium about an hour away that wasn't too outrageously pricey or too large and overwhelming seemed like a good choice.

"Ethan, we're going to go to an aquarium today!" I announced when he came downstairs for breakfast a little later.

Pause. And then, "Awwww. I don't WANT to go there."

I knew it. I knew this was the response I was going to get. I took a deep breath and said very evenly, "But it's going to be fun."

"Do we HAVE to go there? I want to go to a waterpark."


This is the trouble with these types of plans, especially if I have to take the kids on my own if Dan is working. Anna loves every tourist attraction and will linger at each exhibit faithfully reading each sign. Ethan wants to blow through everything in five seconds unless it has a button. And Chloe just needs to be kept occupied in the stroller.

Packing a diaper bag, grabbing stuff for the kids to eat for lunches so we didn't spend our lives' savings at the aquarium café, and listening to Ethan's non-stop whining sucked away much of my enthusiasm like air slowly leaking from a balloon.

By the time we were ready to leave (of course nearly an hour behind schedule) I was starting to get mad.

"I DON'T want to go there. I don't like aquariums!" Ethan was insisting.

"And I'm tired of trying to do things for you kids and you never appreciate it!" I yelled back. I won't say there weren't a few tears involved.

In the car I sniffled and tried to think of a plan. What could I do to ensure Anna enjoyed the aquarium and got to actually see a few exhibits, and to help Ethan enjoy the experience just a little bit better? I wondered if I could give him some sort of assignment if he got antsy. Maybe he could count all the fish in a certain display or we could do some sort of "I Spy" game. Maybe I could promise a reward. That would, of course, miff Anna, who would wonder why her brother deserved extra prizes when we were already getting the treat of the aquarium. Trying to explain these things is sometimes difficult.

As we drove the amount of precision and planning it was taking just to do a family activity started to feel like a lead weight. At the same time, looking out at the sun and then Long Island Sound from the car brought back a sense of calm. A big part of me knew Ethan wasn't just being a brat, but that it was part of his make-up to have trouble focusing on an activity he didn't really care for. At the same time, I feel as if it's our duty to almost force him sometimes to do these sorts of things. How will he get along in life if he only chooses to do everything HE alone wants to do?

Our aquarium visit started with a parking garage and elevator -- two pluses for Ethan. The place was not too large and not too small, and just the right length of time away to make us feel as if we'd gone somewhere without the kids getting too antsy.

Inside there were jellyfish and touch tanks and the centerpiece, a big tank with at least 5 sharks inside. This caught Ethan's attention.

We watched the seal feeding time and looked at some other displays. Anna thankfully realized she was not going to be able to stop and read every single fact and Ethan with some needling managed to slow down (a little) and look at some of the fish. Chloe (thank you, God!) was a happy as a little clam sitting in the stroller, looking at fishies, and chomping on teething cookies.

We headed back to the big tank since a scuba diver was going to be jumping in and then taking questions from kids via a microphone hook-up. Everyone in the museum had the same idea. Soon this not-so-large space was completely jam-packed. Somehow Anna and Ethan had ended up directly against the tank but at an angle where they couldn't actually see the scuba diver. I was crunched into a corner with Chloe in the stroller and couldn't move an inch. I decided this was as good of a time as ever to attempt to feed her some yogurt. As I finagled things and handed her the spoon while the older two sat blessedly uncomplaining, watching fish in the tank, I felt for a moment like Super Mom. We were doing this! I savored the moment, because of course, these moments are always fleeting.

Then we looked at a few more displays, convinced Ethan it was NOT appropriate for him to play in the under 5 children's area (he looked like he wanted to wrestle the toddlers), and allowed Anna to do a few touch tanks on her own (Ethan's not into that) while we visited an interactive area.

After about three hours, we were done. Outside the sun was bright and it was gloriously warm for December. The kids hung out on a little playground and we walked to the shore of the Saugatuck River that was just outside the aquarium entrance. There -- joy of joys! -- we realized there was an actual swing bridge just to our right, and as we were looking it turned to let a barge through. Bonus for Ethan!

Heading home, I felt simultaneously tired but satisfied. The trip hadn't been perfect but what trip is? Chloe had been a dream. Anna wasn't disappointed. Ethan had expanded his world a bit.

I thought about the teenager we'd seen on the playground. I'd known as soon as I'd seen him. He was obviously autistic and most likely non-verbal.

I'd heard the parents chatting. "This would be a nice place to come back to sometime on our own," and "There were a lot of things we blew right by to get out here." I'd seen them inside, too. I'd seen the dad navigating the son around people and saw the way he didn't really look at the exhibits but wandered past them, possibly taking note of things others never saw. (I remembered Ethan at the Bronx Zoo gorilla exhibit a few year ago, commenting excitedly about the Exit signs.)

I wished I could have said something to these parents, but the situation hadn't been right. So I had watched and thought...thought about how I'm sure they didn't want pity, but how they had my empathy. I thought about how I needed to be thankful for all that Ethan COULD do...but that it was okay to be worn down sometimes by his quirks. I thought about how we HAD to keep doing these things. We had to expand his world, to let him know he had to try new things. We had to ensure Anna got to enjoy things she liked while sometimes accommodating her brother. And Chloe? Well, Chloe was going to be an expert at going with the flow.

Then we went home and Ethan asked me about 23 times if he could have screen time, and eventually disappeared into the world of Nintendo DS. And we realized later we'd left his coat at the aquarium.



Such is life.

Friday, December 26, 2014


Snow can wait, I forgot my mittens.
Wipe my nose -- get my new boots on.
I get a little warm in my heart
when I think of winter...  - Tori Amos, "Winter"
Ethan's class had a project recently in which they all had to pick a holiday to learn and write about. He picked New Year's. I'm pretty sure it's because last New Year's Eve he was at his grandparents house and they let him sleep in a tent in the living room, play on the Kindle in there, AND stay up until midnight for the first time ever.
His talk about New Year's brought back memories so vivid I could almost smell and touch them.
I read an article recently about how (for whatever reason), the more resilient kids seem to be the ones who have stories passed down to them from their parents and family members. I'm not sure if that means the sort of random visceral memories I tend to have about childhood happenings or the big stories about overcoming and adversity and coping with change. Neverthless, I tell my stories, and my kids for the most part bear with me and only half listen. So I write them here and feel a little better.
Ethan mentioned New Year's, and suddenly I remembered countless New Year's Eves, pretending to sleep, waiting for my dad to come home. He played drums in a polka and later a 50s/60s band and always was out playing for something that night. Well past midnight he would come quietly into the house and lay "goodies" on the foot of our beds. They were party hats and noisemakers from whatever event he'd been playing for, and I waited for them every year.

I remembered those nights when the heavy snow was flying, of lying almost asleep while being serenaded by the comforting hum of snow plows headed up and down our little street. On a school night the sound was assurance we'd probably have a snow day the next day. On those nights when I was tired of winter, I'd lie there with my eyes closed and fix my mind for a few moments on summer. If I was very still and concentrated, I could imagine the sound was not a snow plow but the hum of motor boats on Flying Pond up in Maine.

I remembered snow days at the end of our dead-end street where a bunch of the neighborhood kids went to go sliding (not sledding, mind you, in central Mass. it was always "sliding"). We lived on a dead end street that ended at a small hill heading up to the town's ball field. The plows would push great piles of snow to the foot of the hill. We had two paths leading down that would conclude in a fantastic jump in our sleds over the snow piles and into the driveway of the four-family row house where my grandmother lived.

The picture window in her living room looked out onto the hill and to all of us. How many times did I race down, fly through the air, come to a landing, and see her standing there, watching us with delight and just a little hint of worry that someone would get hurt?

Then when our noses were running and our fingers and toes were getting numb, we'd pile into her house and strip off our wet things, which she'd throw in the dryer. We'd dribble snow all over her kitchen as she made us hot chocolate and presented us with cookies. A half-hour later, we'd be out there again in our warmed up snowsuits and mittens and hats, ready for more.

And I remembered the ball field, white with snow. I remembered sometimes climbing to the top of the hill with my sled but taking a moment to pause. I'd chew on a piece of snow. Sometimes I'd lay back as if preparing to make a snow angel and just look and listen. I'd watch the gray sky spread out above me and the snowflakes flying. I'd listen to the hush that seems to fall on the world around you when it's snowing and hear the wind as it swayed the trees around me. I'd feel a peace that rarely I felt at any other time.

And then I'd be off down the hill again, swerving to miss the trees and cresting over the snow pile, heart pounding, then hitting the slushy pavement, the plastic underbelly of my sled making a long scraping sound that gave me a nails on the chalkboard type feeling.

These were just regular days. There is nothing monumental or profound here. Except, maybe there is. Maybe any memory that envelops you with warmth -- even those of the most bitterly cold days -- is something extraordinary. Maybe any recollection that brings to mind feelings of fun, of feeling safe and daring and secure and brave, of feeling loved, is something worth treasuring and grasping with all of your heart.

I hope my children are collecting many of these.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

For the Love of Geeks

I love geeks.

I love nerdy types; guys in glasses with scruffy haircuts who look down at their shoes when talking to you; band geeks and computer guys and people who get really excited over things like model airplanes and ham radios and facts and books.

So is it any surprise that I am kind of secretly really happy that my oldest seems to be discovering her "inner geek?"

I try not to write about Anna here, but this time I can't resist, because I don't think she'd mind too much, and because it's such a positive.

Here's the thing: she's 10. And 10 these days is when things start to get rough.

Do you remember? Do you even want to remember? Do you remember those years of trying to figure out who you really were, to test the waters and see if it was okay to just be you, even if you wasn't exactly like everyone else?

When I was Anna's age, like her, I was full of contradictions. I stunk at sports but my first obsession (read: crush) was the Boston Red Sox. Particularly Roger Clemens. I played with dolls but got dreamy about a boy in my class. I liked to read and write but felt bad about liking reading and writing because it seemed so "nerdy."

My daughter is not me, of course. She is less sensitive, already has better hair/fashion sense, is more crafty, less musical (but a great singer) and would never willingly watch a Red Sox game. But like all tweens, she's trying to find her place.

First, a few years ago, all the girls wanted to practice singing and performing during recess, and she just wanted to read books. Then last year, she followed the lead of a few others and started to get into hair and lip gloss and watching You Tube video "shows" with American Girl dolls acting like bratty teenagers and I thought, "It's way too early for this."

To complicate matters, she attends a very small school where there aren't a lot of options for friendships. Meaning, if you aren't fitting in with one group, you can't just up and try to work your way into another.

Until this year. That's when two new students, a boy and a girl, arrived. And they're true, bonafide geeks. I mean this in the nicest possible way. One is obsessed with all things Pokémon and confesses to sneaking and playing video games in the middle of the night. The other is a matter-of-fact, face full of braces, confident girl gamer who has no need for peering in the mirror every three minutes (as Anna was getting into the habit of doing).

And suddenly, Anna has found her "gang." It helps that her dad is a tried and true geek. The kids love their time playing on the WiiU with him and watching obscure shows he's pulled from the dark recesses of the internet (i.e. "Mysterious Cities of Gold," a highly regarded cartoon from the eighties the average kid today has absolutely never heard of). Anna loves to read; she loves to spout off facts; she's passionate about science. That doesn't mean she still doesn't like to attempt new hairstyles or wear (a little bit) dangly earrings. It just means it's okay to be her, with all of her incongruities.

The school Christmas play last week -- we got to attend and watch our "shy with grownups" girl act her heart out on stage. Afterwards, she hung with her two best buddies. They talked about Pokémon characters. I told them about the days when Anna's dad was so obsessed with computers he was locked out of the computer room by his parents -- until he took the door off its hinges when they weren't home. The best thing was how happy they seemed. Especially my girl.

I don't know if Anna feels the same way, but I know why I always liked geeks. It's because from early on I realized they were sweet, and they were safe. The shy guys weren't going to act like the jocks (I called them "backwards hat guys") and belittle me. They were more sensitive. Somehow they were likeable even when they were being obnoxious.

When I think of geeks, the first thing that comes to mind is high school band. A table full of guys sat right next to my group of friends (who were just one step off from full-blown geekdom, mind you). They were ridiculous and hormonal. They used to sit there and say all together in monotone voices, repeating the lyrics from a song back then:

We don't have to take our clothes off. To have a good time. Oh no. But it helps.

But you knew they were just talking, because none of them had girlfriends. And you knew if you tripped in the hallway and left papers trailing everywhere, they'd be the first to help you pick them up.

On the last day of his senior year, I asked one of those guys to sign my yearbook. He was a fellow clarinet player who badly needed a haircut, was about 50 pounds overweight, and was always asking with his friends, "Hey Debby, how's Dallas?" (apparently after some series of porno movies back then). He handed my yearbook back to me and disappeared before I could read it. I'm pretty sure I never talked to him again, after that moment. When I flipped to the page, my jaw fell to the floor:

You're great, wonderful, kind, considerate, intelligent, beautiful, hardworking, and a superior clarinet player. I think that if you stopped worrying everyone would see these qualities more clearly and love you for who you are. Good luck and I'll see you around.

This is why I love geeks.

Go for it, Anna. Hang with the people who may not dazzle everyone outwardly, but who may just be hidden gems inside.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Snippets from Autismville

I don't have anything big and profound to write about. We're just plugging away at life here; trying to make it through to the holidays all in one piece (I almost wrote "peace;" that must be a Freudian slip).

In the moments when the house is quiet and the kids aren't home or Chloe's sleeping, I can think over the days and smile instead of huff and puff about things. This especially applies to Ethan. When I'm removed from his quirks and his energy, I have a much bigger sense of humor. Since right now I'm staring at the tree and my house is only a half-disaster, sitting here and taking a moment to actually breathe, and I'm thinking...

...I'm thinking about the math word problems that have come home with Ethan in the last week or so. He's supposed to write a subtraction or addition "story." In typical Ethan-fashion, once he picks a theme, he sticks with it until he's beaten it completely dead. And so, for a number of days now, I've read:

Once upon a time there were 20 lions. They lived in Maine. One went away. How many were left?


Once upon a time there were 17 elephants. They lived in San Francisco. Two more came. How many are there now?


Once upon a time there were 11 owls. They lived in Seattle. Five flew away. How many are left?

I'm pretty sure all of the cities he's used come from NFL team cities.

...I'm thinking about Ethan's complete abhorrence for the microwave being left with any seconds remaining. I tend to heat up my coffee and stop it too soon. Without fail I will always hear, "Mama? Can you please press 'clear' on the microwave?"

...I'm thinking about how Ethan's ideal world is when breakfast is served to him exactly this way: bowl of oatmeal, plate with banana, slice of cheese, and a vitamin, cup of juice or milk, napkin. If I forget the napkin, he makes sure I know. If we are out of an item, the next thing I hear is, "When are you going to Big Y to get more?" If I put too much milk in the oatmeal, he is not pleased. If I give him something else for breakfast, he's not thrilled, either, but I feel I have to sometimes, or he's going to get just too darned rigid.

...I'm thinking about being nagged in the car by the worst backseat driver, EVER. I have been accused of going too fast, going too slow, leaving my blinker on, being in the wrong lane, and running red lights. Of course, he's usually right, but to say after a while this gets rather tiresome would be an understatement.

...I'm thinking about the door to Ethan's room, which is covered with signs. One says "Closed." One gives the "hours" for his room. One is complete gibberish. And then he's taped a "book" up there that he decided to write last week. Its title? "Top Seconds." What is "Top Seconds?" Ethan had me tape a bunch of papers together (yeah, we can't find the stapler right now). And then he took a toy top we'd found at the bottom of the toy box, started spinning it, and began documenting each time how many seconds it took the top to stop. And so, his book contains pages and pages and pages of, essentially, numbers and nothing more. He was quite proud of this accomplishment.

...And I'm thinking of this bundle of energy who is such a great big brother. He's come a long way from the day he found out he was going to have a sister, not a brother, and ran out of the house crying. He calls Chloe "my baby" and wants to play with her the minute he gets up in the morning. In the afternoons we stand at the door and wait for him to get off the bus, and Chloe starts shrieking and bobbing up and down with excitement when she sees him walking up the driveway. Now, if only he would stop considering his little sister an appropriate wrestling partner, we'd be golden.

See, this is good. Now I'm smiling, despite the fact that I woke up at 4:40, Chloe woke up not long after screaming with yet another clogged nose (but she went back to sleep after a while!), and I'm still not ready for Christmas. It's amazing what a cup of coffee mixed with hot chocolate and a perfectly silent house will provide for a least, for Ethan's mom. I think it's called perspective.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Don't Go At It Alone

Eons ago at another church I attended, this immensely talented woman used to write entire musicals, and in one I had a solo that involved dressing up like a cowgirl. It'd be too difficult to explain this play, but let's just say picture the Island of Misfit Toys from the Rudolph Christmas special, and you'll have a bit of an idea. In this play I was a cowgirl, and I had to get up on the stage alone and sing forlornly a song that went something like:

All alone on the saddle I ride
'Cross the desert underneath the sky
No one near me to hold me down
I ride the saddle alone
...and so on and so forth. When the part got assigned, I remember being slightly miffed, because my character seemed so pathetic -- and because she'd captured my own personality, spot-on.
Yeah, I'm an introvert. I live in my head. I don't mind a day spent alone or eating a meal by myself in a restaurant (with a good book, of course). In a car full of bantering people I might just be gazing out the window, thinking. I think, then speak, and prefer small groups or to chat with one person during a noisy party.
Over time, though, I've realized that introverts still need people. And others out their need introverts and what we have to offer.
This past weekend, I was again reminded.
Friday night. I'd heard about a free event held at a local bounce place for kids on the spectrum. We'd attended in the past and had a lot of fun, but in more recent years I've felt almost guilty for going. My thought was that if my child is not profoundly affected by autism, why take up a slot from people who most benefit from these types of events? My child can go to Bounce Town anytime if he wants with minimal issues. It just felt weird; almost like stealing.
But we went. The place was packed. As always, those attending ran the gamut...from children who had trouble dealing with the noise and crowds and sat hunched in a corner, hands over their ears, to many others like Ethan who you'd have trouble identifying at a quick glance as being on the spectrum.
As I stood while Chloe crawled at my feet, watching Ethan bounce and slide, I found myself in several conversations with complete strangers. I'd forgotten this. I'd forgotten that special needs parents, especially at events like this, tend to jump past the small talk and get down to business. We're all usually so grateful to be with others who understand; who know the lingo and who aren't going to judge anyone's behavior; who are walking out similar stories.
I'd forgotten that events like these are unquestionably not just for the kids. They're for the parents as well. They're opportunities to make connections. And while our stories may not be the same, and I may not have similar struggles as those dealing with more intense issues, I can still relate better than the average parent off the street. Not only that, but I have my brother's history. I have another story I can share, another way to let others' know that I am listening and that I understand.
When did I begin to believe that I didn't need this?
The next day, the kids were with the grandparents and I knew I had to attempt another shopping trip for some dress clothes after a nightmarish experience a few days prior. I had planned to spend the afternoon in solitude, willing myself to buckle down and focus, but at the last minute changed my mind. I texted a friend to see if she wanted to go out to lunch. We met up and it turned out she needed to go shopping, too, so after lunch we braved the traffic and headed back to Kohl's.

Normally I shop like a man: in, grab something, and get the heck out of there. But sometimes that doesn't work. Not when you're having trouble finding something to wear that looks halfway decent and isn't crazy-expensive.

Christine and I ended up spending two hours in the darned store. We found clothes, tried them on, looked in the mirror, and started over again. We helped each other find items and sought each other's opinions. I made the oh-so-vital discovery that I don't need to stay shackled to the confines of the Petite department but can look for possibilities elsewhere.

I still loathe clothes shopping. But I've been reminded that shopping with someone else can make a dreaded experience a lot more fun.

This is not news, some of you may be thinking. I guess I'm talking to the introverts out there. Or maybe those who have convinced themselves that relationships are just, well, hard. I know, I've been there. But really: It's okay to need people sometimes. We don't have to be the cowgirl, always soldiering on, trying to hold the world on our shoulders, convinced that we're just fine, thank you, on our own.

Maybe we are. Maybe we do love solitude and introspection. But maybe there are times we need to crack our world open just a bit and let others in. And in the process, we allow them to see everything we've been holding inside, and all that we have to offer. And what a truly awesome exchange that can turn out to be. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mindful Christmas

So far, so good.

This holiday season I've found myself at about a 4 on the Stress-o-Meter rather than the usual 9.8. I've been trying to figure out why in order to make this a habit rather than an aberration.

It's certainly not because of anything I'm doing. My shopping's not done. Christmas cards have yet to be sent. Christmas cookie decorating? Not yet. The tree is up -- just don't look in the back, where we didn't bother to hang ornaments.

I guess it's all about a state of mind. Has anyone else noticed that sometimes the entire holiday season seemed to fly by and we never even thought about it? I mean, we did stuff and we raced around and got things and went to parties and did traditions and never really stopped and breathed in a single moment?

It reminds me of the time I achieved a lifelong dream and attended the parade in Boston after the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. At one moment I sat there juggling a video camera and regular camera, switching back and forth, and a voice screamed in my head, "You're missing the moment because you're too busy trying to capture the moment!"

What's sad is that we have to be so intentional, so mindful about being mindful, about staying in the moment. This should be a way of life and yet seems so contrary to how most of our lives are structured.

After ruminating I've begun to see why a few choices we've made are helping make things a little calmer this year. I thought I'd share...not to give someone another list to check off, or to concoct a formula for a perfect holiday, but to perhaps help someone else out there just a little...and maybe to serve as a reminder for me next time around when I will inevitably fight the usual holiday/high expectations/ultra-stress demons.

So, here goes:

- Fewer gifts
This year, we're doing the three gifts per child a la the Three Wise Men (plus a stocking) thing. This is certainly due to financial considerations, but also because they just have too much stuff. And our house is too small to collect much more. Hey, if it's good enough for Jesus, I tell them, it's good enough for them.

- Scaling back traditions
I LOVE decorating cookies with the kids (and unfortunately love eating them as well). But for years we've used a lot of our baking time to make cookie plates for the neighbors. This means that I stress about how they're making or decorating them since someone outside immediate family might actually eat them. This year we're decorating cookies -- for us. They can make as big of a mess as they want and who cares if they smear too much frosting on their snowman or we overcook the gingerbread men? We're the ones stuck with the final results. I may bake quick breads for the neighbors, which leads me to...

- Do the things you love to do
I enjoy baking. I don't enjoy shopping or crafting. So it makes sense that I'd bake things for people rather than try my hands at yet another Pinterest craft. Anna loves to craft. She spent a good deal of time recently with my mom making ornaments and gingerbread houses because my mom has the materials, the patience, and the know-how. I created about three (not-so-great-looking) ornaments and was done. I refuse to feel guilty about this any longer. I also love sending and receiving Christmas cards. So while fewer and fewer people do this, I'm still going to, not because I have to, but because I like to.

- Do the things you don't LIKE to do, but HAVE to do, cheerfully
When you allow time for the things you enjoy doing, those times you're stuck doing something you don't care for during the holidays, it's easier to have some self-control and at least try to be happy about it. I used to abhor going to Dan's work holiday party. There's nothing I hate more than schmoozing and fake small talk. I realized I felt a lot better when I just sucked it up and tried to have the best time I could rather than sulking. These days I no longer have that party to attend, but I have already had to deal with shopping on a Saturday at the nightmare that is the Buckland Hills Mall/Evergreen Walk area this time of year. As a person who already hates to shop, I've found the only way to get through this is with a sense of humor.

- Find ONE meaningful spiritual tradition to adopt
This is tough. I know so many people out there who do so many cool things to get their family involved in "the true meaning of Christmas" or to help their kids better understand the "real Christmas story," and some of it ends up being pretty elaborate. I can't even seem to follow our pastor's suggested tradition about hiding the Baby Jesus from your nativity set until Christmas morning. I keep losing him!

On the flip side, attending Christmas services or having your kids sing in the church choir or act in a play to me isn't a family tradition. It's just, honestly, more busyness. For a few years now we've checked out a living nativity held at a park in a nearby town on a Saturday evening before Christmas. Similar to going to look at Christmas lights, that night we go to look at Jesus. If we can maybe have one meaningful faith conversation that comes out of that night, I'll feel blessed. Although actually, these conversations rarely end up being planned. They usually come up when you're least expecting them.

- As Elsa sings, just "Let it Go"
I guess this is the biggest one of all: letting go of expectations. There is nothing that has caused me to be less in the moment during the holidays than that voice whispering about what I should be doing rather than leaving me focused on what is.

Maybe my child won't want to play with his new presents but will prefer his old standby toys.

Maybe I'll stumble over the words during the Christmas solo.

Maybe the cookies will burn and my tree will lose its needles before Christmas even arrives.

Maybe I won't hear from that relative I'd been hoping to connect with or will run into that same person who makes those same hurtful comments.

Maybe yes to all of these things. But maybe I can find those moments to just listen to that favorite Christmas look out the window at the stark beauty of bare find joy in my children's laughter rather than in finding them the perfect gift. Maybe I can stop working to digest the totality of the Bible's Christmas story or to find some new revelation or take on things that I hadn't thought of before or try so hard to make sure I'm not forgetting Jesus that I do indeed, forget. Maybe I could just sit with one thought, like Emmanuel. God with us. Wow.

Maybe, just maybe.

And if you celebrate Christmas and you have had similar struggles, I hope this for you, too.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


It's that time of year again (not that I need to tell anyone else that). The non-stop Christmas station "Holly" is back up on XM radio. Our pastor (love you, Pastor Dave!) has given his annual talk on Christmas traditions that includes discussion of orange danish, epiphany, cheesecake, and the true spirit of the season. We're slated to light the advent candle next Sunday, which, if you heard about last year, you'll know why I'm throwing my hands up in the air and asking for another large dose of grace.

Pinterest is near meltdown mode. I've sworn off attempting any more craft creations because -- it's time to face reality once and for all here -- I'm not crafty. People are posting shining happy photos on Facebook of chopping down Christmas trees and cutting cookie dough. Someone's packing Christmas boxes with their kiddos for the poor and someone else is creating a Advent Calendar complete with little treats for the children to open each day that directly link to the Christmas story.

I wonder and wonder: How to instill a tradition that means something? How do get us through the holiday with a little less "Where's the rest of my presents?" (that was Ethan at his birthday, literally) and a little more, "What can I give?" How to stop the kids early from getting on the treadmill of going through the motions and doing, doing, doing but rather to stop and reflect and understand what Christmas is and what it is not.

This is not as easy as it sounds. My kids are not saints, they are typical kids. In addition, Ethan doesn't like dealing with abstract concepts, and it's very hard to just sit him down and have a serious talk. Every time I've attempted sitting around and talking about the Bible's Christmas story, or flipping through catalogs to see where we might donate and help others, using in part some of their money earned raking leaves, he's up and gone. He wants nothing to do with it. My children are not sweet and wide-eyed, full of earnest desire to unselfishly give to others.

They're kind of like me.

I think: What can I give them? I think: Am I giving them what matters, what will matter when they need it most?

I remember a video we watched in our MOPS group not long ago. It was about helping your kids to be brave. They talked about letting them try and fail...letting loose some of the cords we hold onto way too long...urging them to do the hard thing, to not give up.

All week, in the midst of Christmas and expectations coming on like a winter blast, I think of the video, and I think of Sunday, at church.

There is a boy, a young teenager, whose body has been ravaged by cancer. Part of one leg has been amputated. There are nodules on his lungs. He just had a mass the size of a hand removed from his brain. And yet - he holds on to no resentment. A few months ago, God came into his life. Today, somehow, he is not swayed by everything happening to him. "It doesn't matter," he says, "because Jesus is my friend."

There is a woman, middle-aged, who had not just a marriage but a love story. She came to our MOPS group several times to share. I'd rarely met someone who seemed so passionately, madly in love after years and years of marriage. She and her husband used to hold a Valentine's Dance at our church and dress up and ballroom dance. This smiling joy of a man developed a malignant brain tumor last year and died earlier this week. Through a surely broken heart and unspeakable pain, she is shining through with an unshakeable peace and a steadfast faith. She's immersed herself in worship; in spending time with God. She mourns, yet rejoices. She hangs on to the hope that lies far beyond this present world and this simple, drab shadow of a life compared to all that is to come.

This Christmas my kids are going to fight and ask for too many presents. They'll snitch dough and the too-thin reindeer legs will break off the sugar cookies. Chloe will most likely devour a few tree needles before I can catch her. We may send off our donations at the last-minute, and Ethan may or may not care.

I can't wave the wand and make them "good little Christians." And maybe that's not what God even wants. Maybe He just wants an earnestness of heart and a trust that holds on even as it falters. Maybe he just wants a mom who still fiercely loves her children before they've arrived at spiritual maturity. Maybe He needs us to just take our baby steps and He'll meet us there.

I think I have to remember: Some things aren't taught as much as they are lived. And some seeds will only sprout when the test inevitably comes.

Maybe I need a new prayer. Maybe I need to pray that my kids will be not good, but brave. Brave enough to hold on. Brave enough to trust. Brave enough to rest. Brave enough to know they are always loved, in the midst of every storm. Brave enough to not grow up and put aside their faith as one would a childhood myth. Brave enough to believe. Like the boy and the woman who have lost so much, in different ways, yet know that they are found.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Autism and the Holidays: Something to Remember

We've visited my parents' house several times lately, and I've wondered how bringing a 10-month-old who's pretty mobile to a place with not many baby toys can actually seem relaxing.

I couldn't put my finger on it at first. I still spent time following after her and taking inappropriate items out of her mouth. I still kept having to take her away from the kitty litter box and the open dishwasher.

Then I remembered Ethan.

Let me try to articulate this. With a typical child, you bring him somewhere and of course need to keep an eye out for him while he's a baby and toddler. But once he reaches a certain age, usually around 2 or 3, his curiosity and desire to either play or do what other kids are doing means you start to be able to let him "roam" a bit. Parents then start have a chance to sit back, take a breath, and enjoy hanging out with the "grown-ups" while their child plays independently with other kids or toys.

Autism parents rarely get this kind of breather.

I'll share Ethan's example, although it's not a great one, because he knows how to get along much better at these types of events now. There are some parents still having to keep a tight reign on their "child" with autism who is 40.

Ethan didn't require extra supervision because he was an out-of-control, hyperactive child who would trash people's houses. He didn't throw tantrums. He just didn't like a change in routine, and he didn't care as much about interacting with people. That meant: Wherever everyone else was gathered, he wanted to be doing something else. And he needed to spend time with some kind of object that brought him comfort from the stress of a changed routine. These were usually unconventional items or activities such as sliding a screen door back and forth over and over, opening and shutting doors nonstop, flipping light switches, or looking for the hose outside to trace the path again and again.

When we are with relatives these days and all of the little cousins are around, I see the way they flock around Chloe. I realize how much time kids spend on interaction that we don't even notice. I honestly never knew how much time young children take just looking at each other, exchanging subtle gazes and other gestures. At gatherings and especially during the holidays, adults cook and gab and catch up on each other's lives; meanwhile a gaggle of kids usually forms somewhere, led by the older ones, with the little ones trailing along wanting to do everything the big kids do...

But if your child isn't interested in interacting -- that child, who is not trying to be bad or irritating or rude to the others, often goes off and does something else, often something considered "inappropriate."

I wish others knew, or would remember, how many parents of kids with autism spend a good deal of the time during holiday get-togethers in a quiet room apart from everyone a bathroom where their child wants to play with the basement...outside. These parents can hear the murmurs of laughter in the distance. They would love to be taking part in conversation. Maybe they'd love to be sitting in a comfy chair able to focus just on chatting rather than always wondering what they're child is doing or how to keep him calm.

I wish others would keep in mind that the first thing most parents of autistic kids think when they hear holiday gathering is stress. They know they will spend a good deal of the time trying to keep their child comfortable with a change in routine and scenery. They won't get much "downtime." They will possibly miss special moments. They will see the other kids playing together and watch the way their parents are able to let them go and play without even thinking about it, and their hearts will hurt a little. They will return home most likely more exhausted than when they got there. They will be counting down the days until the end of the weekend or holiday break when their child can get back to their schedule.

If I could implore you, please, remember these parents as the holidays approach. If you see one at a get-together, the best thing you can do is leave the festivities for a few moments and seek them out. Go to where they are and spend some time chatting, or connecting with and helping with the child, if that's possible. Involve the parent in adult conversation. Let them know you really, truly care and want them to be a part.

And if you ARE that parent, please know: you are not forgotten. I am thinking for you and praying for you, during this wonderful, difficult time of year.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Saturday. The leaves in the backyard were calling our name. I reminded myself how I wasn't going to freak out at the kids and be a drill sergeant about raking. We'd do what we could do. Live and let live. Let it be.

Yeah, all that Zen stuff worked for about five seconds. Why?

We were running against the clock. I knew we'd have to rake while Chloe was sleeping because I didn't want her out in the freezing weather with the cold she'd been fighting. Only -- Ethan wanted to play. The kid spends 8 hours at school every day with 20 minutes of recess. I couldn't blame him for wanting free time. But I didn't like the way he was throwing a fit. It seemed to be there should be some sort of basic understanding that I was the parent and he was the child and not that I would make him rake all day but was expecting him to spend 45 minutes helping mom out too much to ask?

The next hour involved tears (his and mine), threats, warnings, encouragement, complaints, yells, and yeah, a bit of raking. In the end, Ethan left his chores to go smash ice, lost his screen privileges, and later earned (only a little bit) back by doing lots of extra work for mom. I was left feeling simultaneously relieved, stressed because the whole thing had been too hard, and sheepish because after all, this was raking leaves, and I just needed to chill instead of seeing our stand-off as a reflection of my failure to be a good parent.

Later we went to Target (Yes. Again.) where I proceeded to hit a mini-pothole in the parking lot with the cart, and the sudden stop in motion caused Ethan to smash his nose into the cart handle, hard, and began spurting blood everywhere. Especially on the white section of his new winter jacket. Then he began wiping his nose on mine. I tried not to yell about the coats and get us out of the middle of the street. Inside the store we were quite a spectacle. Ethan's hands were literally covered in blood. A few supervisors appeared out of nowhere and offered to hang out with the girls while I got Ethan cleaned up in the bathroom. Then one manager offered Ethan popcorn and a Slushie. Suddenly, all was right with the world.

"See," I said to him as he sucked the frosty blue chemicals, "sometimes in life bad things happen, but then even good can come from them," trying to take advantage of a "teachable" moment.

"Yeah, like people giving you food," he said, crunching popcorn.

Um, yeah. That.

The next day was Sunday, and I was singing at church. This means I leave the house very early and in glorious silence get to enjoy the sunrise drive to church while most of the rest of the world is sleeping. While driving there I was thinking about how often I get nervous about singing (whenever I have a solo or something of that nature). I was thinking about an interview with (worship leader) Kim Walker-Smith, how she had talked about falling off a stage one time, and how she said to just be bold and go for it. Even if you mess up. Mess up big, and move on.

I liked that.

I thought about what it would be like to just have fun and not always sweat over every detail and analyze every single thing and about the burdens that would be lifted from my shoulders.

I thought about singing unabashedly and not wanting to crawl under a rock if my voice broke or wavered.

I thought about how the more I THINK about anything, the harder it is to actually DO anything.

I told myself it was time to start doing, to be ready to mess up, and to have some fun. Whether it was singing, or life.

We got up on the stage for the first service, and my mic wasn't on and I wasn't quite ready and they started 30 seconds earlier than I expected which meant no one could hear me singing a certain part...breathe in, breathe out. These things happen.

Then second service we were about to start and I realized the wires to my ear buds were incredibly tangled and I spend a number of "blonde" moments trying to unravel them and get out the knots and realizing how very, very silly this was. I couldn't stop laughing.

With every one of these little seemingly inconsequential moments I felt something drop off. I think it was the weight of perfection. And every time it did, I felt a little more free.

I wondered about doing life this way, about how to not see every mix-up as a sign that I'd failed at everything. All or nothing thinking has been a path I've tread down for way too long.

I thought of doing my faith this way, about not being so scared to reach out and share, or to help someone hurting.

I thought about all of this, on and off, throughout the morning. I sang and realized how much more fun it was to sing when you realize mistakes may happen, and it's okay. I know, I know. Even a kindergartener knows this. But some of us say we know it, but don't live like it.

Then we went to my parents' house, had a dinner I didn't have to cook and watched a glorious amount of football (these days I treasure just being able to SIT and do one thing rather than running around multi-tasking), and the cousins made gingerbread houses (well, except for Ethan, who of course had to watch football) and then they all invented a game that involved jumping from halfway up the stairs onto a giant beanbag at the bottom, and Chloe crawled around and watched them like it was the greatest thing ever.

Yup. It was a weekend of ups and downs. The best part was being able to let the "downs" go.

It's like that old song, the one in the commercials around here now: Everybody wants to be...closer to free...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Short Share

Ethan's first grade teacher has an assignment for them each morning. When the kids come in, they sit down and write a few sentences about something that's been on their mind. They accompany what they've written with a couple of pictures. Then they have a chance to read what they've written out loud during their "morning meeting" on the rug.

It's called Short Share, and I'm convinced that the assignment should be a requirement for all early elementary students.

Short Share is the best. I wish I could save every one. I've set aside at least 5 or 6 so far because they're the type of thing that will be priceless in 20 years.

Short Shares give us an idea of how Ethan is progressing in his handwriting as well as his drawing skills, and storytelling ability. Better than that, they give us a peek into what he's thinking about and what he considers important.

Ethan is quite meticulous when it comes to his Short Shares. He plans them in advance; sometimes days early. I've heard him on Saturday mornings talk about what he was going to share on Monday. He thinks about the pictures he's going to draw. (These are still, by the way, very similar and usually rudimentary, even by first grade standards. We've all, his teacher included, accepted that art is not his strong point.) He also thinks before he heads to school how to spell words correctly (i.e., "Mom, how do you spell Patriots?"). He also at times tries to cram in every possible bit of information that he's pondering, even if it's on completely unrelated topics. Hence we have, from the other day:

To translate: Actually the Patriots played the Colts and the Patriots won! the score was 42 to 20. I woke up at 2:30 am and then went to bed at 10pm. Any way this is dangris. I was on the highway and I saw a truck on fire. it's true! And Eloanor why weren't you here for 3 days?

Of course, as with most first graders, there's no filter on what he writes, and not much elaboration. So the teacher doesn't know that when he says he got up at 2:30 a.m., that's because his little sister woke him up and he decided not to go back to sleep, and that he ended up taking a 2 1/2 hour nap in the late afternoon, which made him wide awake to watch the Patriots game until halftime.

I often wonder what his teacher thinks of all the Short Shares she's seen over the years. I can only imagine. I'm waiting for the day Ethan writes something like, "My mom and dad were arguing last night" or "My mom was crying because I wouldn't stop crawling under the table during dinner and goofing off."

Usually short shares are statements, but lately Ethan's been turning them into questions for others in the class. He also keeps playing around with certain figures of speech, which is why we keep seeing the words "anyway" and "actually." Yesterday's short share read:

I have a question for you kids. Do you know how much is a dollar? It's 100 peenys. Anyway guess what my birthday is coming up!

Usually short shares are about sports or something fun he's done, but sometimes he's shifted to other topics. Once he got political: 


"I agree with Luke because I also think that tom foley is good for aur state. But danol molloey is still goviner that means danol malloey is goviner for about 4 years.
One time he even called his teacher out with a question:
Befor school I played in the snow. Anyway I had a fun time at the feld trip and Mrs. rumrill I have a question why were you sitting in seat 24 on the bus?
Sometimes he'll write about something that we had no idea was important to him until it showed up in the Short Share:

I watched Pokeomon last night. Pokeomon is on netflix. Pokeomon even has a theme song it goes I wanna be the very best dad dad dadada and that's all I know from the song.
I don't know the whole song.
And sometimes Short Shares have helped us see something Ethan's been concerned about, even if he doesn't outwardly show it. I think my favorite was this one, as Anna's broken arm was healing:
My sister got her cast off. I am so happy. My sister still has a part that needs to be heled but it's not enough to get the cast on. Mommy told me that. 

I only wish I had something like this from Anna's earlier years. Thank you Mrs. Rumrill, for providing us with this treasure trove!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Redeeming Middle School

Not long ago I found myself doing something I never thought I'd do: I took out some of my old diaries from junior high and started reading them to Anna.

Anna is 10 1/2. She's technically in middle school now, even if it's in a very small Christian school where everyone has known everyone for years. This is new to us. We haven't parented a middle-schooler before. And in my case, it's bringing back some no-so-wonderful memories.

Here's the thing: entering the tween and teen years to me feels like barreling quickly down a road where there's a big Danger sign looming ahead. Or maybe that's being melodramatic. Maybe it's more like construction ahead, and the words are Use Caution. Okay, so this analogy is not working, but my point is that I know what's coming, and I don't want to scare her, but I also don't want her to be blindsided.

And so I took out some of my old raggedy journals and began reading. I'm not sure if Anna thought I was crazy or was insanely curious. I quickly learned a number of things:

I watched a LOT of TV when I was 12. While I may have had writing talent, it wasn't reflected on the pages. My diaries would never hold a candle to any sort of Anne Frank-esque masterpieces. How many times did I need to write about episodes of Growing Pains or Mr. Belevedere?

Also -- I was a very, very oversensitive and resentful person, who was often angry at everyone.

Reading through the pages, and later hearing Anna recount stories from school (so-in-so's mad at us so she sat with the boys; I couldn't find a partner for the field trip because so-in-so always wants to be with her new friend now) makes me wince and recoil. It's kind of like whenever I remember the time I sprained my ankle really badly after tripping over a huge hemlock tree root up in Maine. I kind of shudder. I can still feel it.

Anna entering her tween years is making me relive mine. And I'm wondering: what good can I squeeze from this?

All I have to do is stop for a second and in a wild rush, I remember.

I remember walking into a new school year and suddenly realizing everyone cared about how everyone looked now, and wanted to talk about who liked who.

I remember being excited when a boy I liked call me, only to find out he was just calling to find out if my friend liked him.

I remember the list that circulated in 8th grade in which the boys ranked the girls on a scale of 1 to 10 and how my friends and I scored solid 3's.

I remember walking into a store to buy a school uniform and the clerk saying we were going to need to find something in the "chubette" section.

I remember the girl in gym who used the words from this commercial always on at the time ("Move over bacon, here comes something much leaner") to taunt me, which lead to my secret crash-diet.

I remember the fake love note from the boy who knew I liked him, who very much did not like me but just wanted to get my hopes up.

I remember my nickname -- Plastic -- because I didn't know how to properly blend foundation on my face.

I remember the girl who stood up in Social Studies and announced she hated me and that I was so ugly.

I remember the night at the school dance in which no one asked me to dance and concluded with me fighting back tears at the bleachers while listening to Tiffany belt out "All This Time."

I think of all of these things, and I know these are the stories that could be told in countless other iterations from millions of others. I think of these things, and I don't hurt anymore because of what happened to me but because I desperately wish I could prevent that kind of hurt from happening to my daughter.

I can't wave a wand and have her skip straight to 16. The only way out of this is through.

So what can I do?

I can pray. I can listen. I can remind her of who she truly is, in God's eyes, and that she is unconditionally loved by her family.

I can tell her, even if she won't believe me, that she WILL get through this. I'll never forget my friend's older sister, who was about 20 at the time, telling both of us that someday we'd look back at everything we were going through and see how silly it is. That we WOULD make it to the other side. That those people who seemed to have everything were just like any of us. I had trouble believing her, but I did hold on to those words for years.

And I can share my stories. I MUST share them because she has to know that she's not alone. That others have been where she is and we made it. I have to share them because sharing makes everything that happened worthwhile.

This is what I am learning more and more, these past few years: everything that happens to us can be redeemed. And everything can be of use. Even the long-ago taunts of mean-spirited kids.

I can give her the gift of my ridiculously detailed memory. I can unwrap these things so that she knows that these feelings that are so big and so painful and so raw have been felt by others. She doesn't have to be a victim. She can run this race and win. She's just got to take it one little step at a time, until she can look back with a wry smile and laugh. And pass her stories on to benefit the next one, just starting the journey.

Monday, November 10, 2014


"Ethan," I said as we were putting on his cleats, "you know whatever happens today, we're still very proud of you. You've all learned and improved your soccer skills so much." It was such a parental, Mr. Rogers-like thing to say.

We were headed to play the team that had caused us so much trouble the first game of the season. "Yeah, we're better now," Ethan said, brimming with confidence.

"You're right," I replied. "Just remember -- they probably are, too."

Eight weeks later, we were back on Field 4. Most of the kids on Ethan's soccer team, Portugal, were bundled up like little Michelin men (game time temp: 39 degrees). USA was waiting for us. Undefeated USA, I might add.

We were ready.

We were ready for their cheerleaders, their blonde phenom little girls, their Olympic-intensity coaches, and their mammoth American flag. We even had a flag of our own. Yes, one of the parents has Portugese relatives and had asked to borrow the flag they had flying outside their home.

A little bit of "friendly" competitive banter before the game

Walking across the field splashed with feeble November sunshine, I wondered exactly when I'd morphed from a nonchalant parent to one secretly hungry for blood.

I really, really wanted Portugal to beat USA.

You have to understand: I'm not a competitive person. I don't like to turn things into contests; I sometimes let other people win because I feel bad for them. Heck, I don't even like watching sports when my team is winning really massively on the road. I feel sorry for the local fans. (Well, except Yankees fans).

So what was THIS? Maybe it was the good-natured ribbing that had been going on between the USA coach and a parent on our team (apparently they know each other and work together). Maybe it was because USA in their undefeated, confident glory reminded me of too many Yankess vs. Red Sox match-ups. Maybe I really, really didn't feel like ending the season with Ethan lying on the field, embroiled in the Mother of all Meltdowns because they'd lost.

I needed to bite my lips. I didn't want to be one of THOSE parents. I didn't want to be a cliché. So I clapped and encouraged and told Ethan we would still get munchkins from Dunkin Donuts if he lost -- just as long as he kept himself under control.

As soon as they started playing it was apparent that both teams were very evenly matched. And as I'd said to Ethan earlier (I wasn't completely just spouting platitudes), Portugal's scrappy bunch of kids were much, much improved than when they'd started eight weeks earlier. It was sweet to see even the littlest ones get a few attempts at actually kicking the ball.

We scored first, and things were going swimmingly until Ethan "The Wall" (he's Mr. Defense) let a ball go past him and USA scored. Trouble.

He sunk into the goal, sobbing. We yelled from the sidelines, encouraging.

Then Portugal found some momentum and scored three goals. Only USA started to come back. They scored twice. Then they were heading down the field to score again and tie it. There had to be only 30 seconds in the game. My heart was pounding as if we were watching the Red Sox one strike away from winning their first World Series in 86 years. All I could see in my mind was the mammoth disaster that would ensue if USA tied the game in the last few seconds.

Time ran out.


Portugal handed USA their first and only loss of the season. We parents erupted. Someone ran out on the field with the Portugal flag. USA looked stunned. Ethan was grinning ear to ear.

We lined up the kids and took photos. We said our good jobs and thank yous and goodbyes, we passed USA holding a closing ceremony complete with trophies, and of course, we went to Dunkin Donuts.

"I gave USA their first lose," Ethan kept saying.

"It's loss, buddy, and not just you, the whole team," Dan and I kept answering back.

Looking back at the game (and the entire soccer season), it'd be fair to say that this was not the experience that taught Ethan how to deal gracefully with losing. They won their last six games, and Ethan was having enough trouble keeping it together when the other team would score individual goals, never mind win the game. Down the road, he's going to need to work on this.

But years ago I was not sure if Ethan would ever play an organized sport with typical kids. I just couldn't envision it. Yet here we were. And he'd loved the experience, most importantly.

If I had to sum up my favorite moment of the soccer season, it would have to be in this last game, when USA scored their first goal and Ethan began to fall apart. The other parents on the team know his story. I felt I had to explain why he got so...intense at times. And honestly, I didn't want people to think he was just a brat who hasn't been taught self-control.

When Ethan put his head down and started to cry, every parent on the sidelines started cheering him on, clapping and shouting words of encouragement. Someone started up a chant and others joined in: "E-than! E-than! E-than!"

For a moment, he gave us all a shy smile, acknowledging the attention. Then it all became too much. He turned his head away and put out his arm to us in a "talk to the hand" kind of way. And we laughed, not unkindly, because we knew he wasn't being rude. The moment had just become too overwhelming, in a good way.

That was the best part of the season. The compassion and understanding. The patience from his coaches. The chatting with other parents.

And yeah, the winning. I'd have to say the winning.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

More Than Fine

More than fine/More than bent on getting by/More than fine/More than just okay... - Switchfoot 

We were at a Bible study I attend for moms, circled around a table, one of several small groups that met in various rooms around the church building. Each of us were "checking in," updating others on how life was going, if there was anything we were stressing about, etc., etc.

In a flash I thought about everything I could say. I thought about the way so often we say we're doing "fine" when really what we mean is "I don't feel like troubling you with my burdens that would probably either bore you, scare you, or both." I remember a pastor saying once that "we could be walking around as if we're completely fine when really inside our soul is hemorrhaging."

I thought about the way I'd been reading a magazine the day before about this group of women that had met for dinner and conversation and to talk about one thing they were going to work on in the coming months, and how I'd seen their examples, their bad habits, their fears, and thought that I had every single one of them. About how often I think, "Where do I begin?"

I thought about how I could share the way Ethan's behavior the other night left me in tears. Again. That I lost my temper so badly I had to apologize, even while I was wondering how I was ever going to find a system of discipline that worked. About how other people out there are having their kids follow pretty Pinterest chore charts, and I can't even focus on chores because I'm just trying to get us through the afternoon without a meltdown.

I thought about how I've forgotten what it feels like to sleep eight solid hours; that I drink too much caffeine and tell myself I won't but wake up tired and start the cycle again. Or I eat and then get angry at myself for eating too much. About the way I still have oodles of baby weight to lose and how what I seem to have lost most of all is willpower.

I thought about how I could say I am tired of chewing my fingernails to bits and of the same old insecurities. That I hate that I'm almost 40 and still haven't a clue as to how to smartly apply makeup or do my hair. Or decorate my home. That I can't seem to stick to a budget, that Dave Ramsey would probably glare and wag his finger at me sternly. That I sometimes wonder when I'm actually going to grow up.

I thought about how I still have so many doubts and so many fears. I thought about the way, when I sing at church I hear such amazing things in my head, but when my voice actually comes out of my mouth and I'm up in front of people it never quite goes as beautifully. That's what my entire life feels like, sometimes. Potential that I'm not maximizing.

I thought about wishing I had a sister, because then maybe I'd be better at relationships with other women rather than being so darned brooding, so serious, so into books and intense things rather than fun and gossipy chit-chat and shopping. I hate shopping. I hate it more now since I have so many extra pounds to lose. And because I wouldn't say I have a lot of fashion sense. Or extra money to spare.

I thought of the ways I want to with purpose, selfless, teaching my kids to be giving and caring, sitting around the table doing Dr. Dobson-like family devotions, taking on Christmas giving projects, versus how things really are: everyone fighting over the computer, quibbling over things that don't matter. Am I living shallowly? How is it already my girl wants to YouTube Taylor Swift first and foremost? How is it my kids are complaining already about having to go to church or to do anything for anyone besides themselves? Were my own self-absorbed ways somehow oozing into their little personalities?

I thought of spending too much time on social media and knowing it, knowing that sometimes I just wanted to feel connected to other people, to feel as if someone else cares, that my life and my goofy self actually matter?

I thought of all the organizing I haven't done; all of the good intentions that don't mean anything; all the ways I feel I've failed.

I thought of all of this in a few seconds, and I couldn't stick with "I'm doing fine," because one of the few things I'm good at seems to be keeping it real. Even if others undoubtedly are put off by my over-sharing.

If you can't be at church and be real, why be there at all? So I mentioned how I felt: the sense of thinking that I have so many things to work on, I don't know where to start.

What I learned is that even in the midst of feeling like a failure, being real, being authentic, feels refreshing. And I learned that I'm not alone. There are others out there thinking similar thoughts; fighting similar battles.

There are no pat answers or quick fixes. That's not what Christianity is about and it's not what church is about.

I don't know exactly how I'm going to finally sleep well or stop being a worrier or be more organized or eat better. I'm sure it starts with a healthy dose of self-control and a determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other rather than throwing in the towel.

But before any of those things, I am reminded of that verse in the book of Matthew. Peter goes to Jesus and asks how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. He wants to know if seven is enough, but Jesus replies, "Not seven, but seventy times seven."

And I wonder if that's what I have to do with me. Forgive. Not to give myself the license to do whatever, to never work on things or improve or be disciplined. But just because living with the weight of everything you've done wrong or every way you're not measuring up is no way to live.

Every little failure is yes, a failure. But it's also a chance to learn. To learn to receive grace. And to learn to accept this flawed, temperamental self as clay that can still be molded. That can still become something more beautiful. That already is, when I catch just a glimpse of myself, the way God sees.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Don't Believe Everything You Hear

"Did you know that Bud Light is the official sponsor of the NFL?" Ethan announced during a recent Sunday football game.

I did know, in fact. We'd been seeing the Bud Light commercials non-stop. Along with a plethora of others.

Okay, so the older I get, the more I really, really can't stand ads. Well, except for the Super Bowl, when most people are watching strictly FOR the commercials.

But other than that, they're loud. They're annoying. More and more, they're inappropriate (Victoria's Secret ads, anyone?). The remote's mute button was made for them. Except -- in our house, when I mute a commercial, everyone (including Dan sometimes) either watches the silent screen, or calls out, "Unmute it! I really like this one!"

A long time ago (meaning college), I wanted to go into advertising. For about five minutes. Then I realized I'd quickly hate myself for convincing people they needed things that they really, truly did not need.

I clearly remember the day Anna got a stern education on the evils of advertising. She was about three, and I had just watched a news special about how slapping a familiar cartoon character on any old grocery item significantly increased a child's chance of wanting it. The clincher was when a kid was filmed preferring to eat a ROCK for breakfast rather than a cereal bar because they'd placed it in a box with a Sponge Bob picture.

Anna asked for some soup that had the Dora the Explorer characters on the can, and I was all over that. To this day she walks down the aisles with a discriminating eye, looking to see whose trying to bamboozle her.

Then we have Ethan. Oh, Ethan.

"Mama, you can get a new house for just $29.95!" he called out to me the other morning. We always listen to news on the radio during breakfast.

"Ethan, that's new windows for your house. And they're actually charging you two THOUSAND dollars, not 29."

In the car, driving to school one day, he spotted a satellite dish on someone's house. "It's time to get rid of cable and get Direct TV," he said earnestly.

"Where'd you hear that?"

"That's what they said on the commercial. We need to do that!"

Many people on the spectrum love commercials. In Autism World there's a lot of talk about scripting, which is when a person with autism lifts a familiar line from something they've heard or read and either enjoys repeating it over and over (sort of a comfort thing, or stress-reliever), or uses that "script" to appropriately apply in conversation. Ethan's done both, but usually the latter.

Commericals are perfect scripts, because that's really all they are: snippets meant to stick in our heads; particularly if they're set to music. Which is why I can't remember a lick of the Algebra I was taught, but nearly 30 years later I can sing to you

New Tato Skins got baked potato appeal
Because they're made with real potatoes and skins that are real


The political ads of late have sobered me to the fact that Ethan is not just listening to ads, he's wholeheartedly believing them. Thanks to our (no big surprise) contentious gubernatorial race here in Connecticut, the ads have been on the radio and TV non-stop. And Ethan has begun to state, "Dannel Malloy, he's on our side," and ask "Why doesn't Tom Foley care about us?"

In some respects, this has us trying to hide our giggles, but autism and gullibility are a very real thing. People on the spectrum take what's said at face value and aren't the best at thinking about the internal motivations that might lead someone to say one thing and do another, or speak untruthfully. The last thing we want is for Ethan to believe everything everyone tells him without blinking an eye.

And so we're starting to talk about this, just a little bit.

"Do you know what ads are?" I asked him the other day. "It's people trying to get you to buy something or do something, even if you don't need to."

I'm not sure how much he was listening, but hopefully this message begins to sink in, as the holiday toy ads come out in full swing. Or before kids at school ask Ethan to do something completely inappropriate just because they know if they tell him to do something, he'll go and do it.



Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Kids, Songs, and Courage

We were downstairs in the church basement after the service, and the kids were practicing for Christmas. Every year at our church the children sing a couple of songs during our special Christmas service.

I love, love, love watching my kids, and all the kids sing. (So does Chloe, apparently. Her little eyes lit up once they started.)

There was a time when I didn't know if Ethan would ever be able to handle getting up on the stage and singing. This is our third year, and the first two years went relatively well. He spent a good amount of time glancing at either his watch or the clock mounted high on the wall directly opposite the stage, but he was up there, happily singing, for the most part.

This is not something we would force either kid to do. But watching them at home, it's easy to see they love music. Anna is our lyrics person. I believe she (along with umpteen million other tween girls) wants to be the next Taylor Swift. Her goal is to memorize every song she likes within a few minutes of hearing it. These type of memorization skills (which she's inherited from Dan) have also served her well with drama. I've found all kinds of scraps of lyrics scribbled on papers in her room.

Ethan is the music guy. Like me he can figure out songs by ear and always seems to need to add a soundtrack when he's playing. It's quite funny, actually, to see him rolling around on the floor with toys that are "fighting each other," singing some sort of intense background music, or adding musical accompaniment while he's playing sports outside.

They both have good voices and Anna usually ends up with solos. Ethan, however, refuses them. The thought petrifies him.

And so there we were Sunday and once again "Ms. Marsha" was asking who would like to try for a solo. Wiggling hands went up into the air. Ethan's buddy right beside him sang the first solo. I love this little guy. He belted the words out, strong and true. The kid's got a great voice. And I noticed last year too how much he LOVES to sing. When his solo tryout was over, he couldn't stop singing. He kept going, through all the other solos. He didn't even notice. His dad gave me a sheepish smile.

I could completely relate. The kid reminded me of me, catching myself singing to the Muzak in the aisles of Big Y and wondering just how long I'd been singing without even realizing.

"Would you like to sing a solo this year?" I asked Ethan when they were done, knowing perfectly well what the answer would be.

"No mamma," he replied solemnly. "The solos are when you sing the song ALL ALONE."

Outside, he saw his little friend leaving just in front of us. His dad had hoisted him up and was carrying him. "Bye Ethan!!" he called out. Apparently, this kid loves Ethan and was very happy to hear Ethan would be singing with him again this year.

"Mamma?" Ethan asked. "How come he is a little bit younger than me but he is brave enough to sing all by himself?"

"Ethan, lots of people are afraid to sing solos, not just you. Do you know there a lot of grown-ups who are too afraid to sing up on the stage?"

"Really?" He seemed shocked by this. I knew why. Ethan had a system in his head that had to do with age and bravery. The older you became, you more brave you most concurrently must become.

I've known little ones who are more brave than most of us adults put together.

"You know what's even worse?" he asked. "If you are up on the stage and it's dark and there's a big spotlight shining right on you."

I thought back to a year our church did Handel's "Messiah" and I had a solo just like that. I'm not sure if that spotlight illuminated that my entire body went numb and I was fairly convinced I was going to pass out.

"I know, Ethe. You know, it's okay if you don't want to sing a solo -- unless you're letting fear stop you from doing something you want to do. That's not good."

There was no answer. We got in the car. I think we both needed to sit with that thought for a moment.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lessons from the Third

We were at church on Sunday morning, and Chloe was rubbing her eyes furiously in a way that could only mean it was naptime.

"Remember those days," I asked Dan, "when we restructured our entire church schedule around our kids' naps?"

It was true. I had a distinct memory of telling people you wouldn't see us at the second service for a while; we needed to go to the first one so that we didn't mess with Anna's nap time.

This nearly sends me into hysterics now.

This is what I've learned in the past nine months, since Miss Chloe was born: All of those internet stories that get passed around, those cute little jokes about how parents treat the first vs. second vs. third child (i.e. first child drops his pacifier and you sterilize it; second you quickly wash it off; third child, you put it in your own mouth to clean it and pop it back in theirs), well, it's just about all true. I wrote about this last year. I had an inkling that maybe, just maybe, baby #3 would break me, in a good way.

I couldn't be more thankful.

It's rather strange, having parented a baby girl at the beginning of my thirties and now at the end. Sometimes observing Chloe learn and grow is like watching Anna all over again. Except for the fact that Anna had more of a temper while Chloe is laid back, they're very similar. They look the same (I think Chloe's going to have Anna's green eyes). They both hit most milestones (a little bit) early. They both have had very annoying picky-eating phases.

But Chloe is not Anna. And even more than that, I'm not the same person, the same parent I was nearly 10 years ago.

If I had to sum up each of my children's babyhoods with one word, Anna's would be Wonder. Everything was brand new. Ethan's would be Challenge. I say that because I had such a hard time adjusting to two kids; Ethan was fussier than Anna and so hard to figure out; and sadly because I spent a good deal of time worrying about why he seemed "different." And Chloe? I would say Grace, which happens to be her middle name.

Something about the third child has given me a better ability to let go...of household messes and chores undone. Of backyard responsibilities and PTO meetings and of being everything to everyone. I have by no means perfected this. I'm just getting a little bit better.

The third child has reminded me that I only have two hands and that yes, someone may be left out momentarily. But if I can just learn to breathe, I'll get to the other one. I may not have two other very young children. Yet the older ones still need help with homework...tying their rooms.

Child #3 has taught me that there are times I'm going to have to say no. That I may miss appointments sometimes, when my calendar has something scribbled (or more than one something) on every single day.

The third one has shown me that wow, everything gets messier and laundry piles up more quickly. But it's okay. It'll get done eventually. Kind of, except that we all know housework with three kids never gets completely done.

I've learned that giving her a bite of ice cream isn't going to permanently scar her; that the only way to learn how to walk is for me to let her fall; that sometimes it just makes a lot more sense to let her pull the books or DVDs off the shelf and have fun than to hover and scold.

Best of all, 10 years of being a mom means I look at my third, and I know how quickly this time will pass. Anna moved from Chloe's stage to the young lady she is today in what seems like mere minutes. With my third, there is the gift of knowing that time doesn't stand still, that every gummy smile and shaky step should be appropriately treasured, for the day will come very quickly that I look at my grown child and ask, "Were you ever really THAT small?"

I wish, how I wish I could go back to myself as a first-time mom and whisper a few of these secrets. Only: I know I wouldn't have listened. There are some things we only learn from experience; from time; even from failure -- not just in parenting, but in life. Hindsight is indeed always 20-20.

Wonder...Challenge...Grace. I love what my kids have taught me. I love especially what the third has taught me. Yet I know that someday, I will look back at my almost-40-year-old self and smile sheepishly; shake my head a little. Yeah, I'm a newbie at this whole (gulp!) middle-aged thing. There's no shame in that. If we're still breathing, we're still learning. We're still works in progress. I kind of like that.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Legos, Ethan-Style

So, it wouldn't be accurate to say that the Lego craze has hit our house.

We don't have Legos spilling everywhere. Ethan isn't begging for the latest Star Wars model kits at Target. You won't find him asking to go to Legoland or wanting to go and build something at one of those events they have at the library.

No, Ethan's not Lego-obsessed like the majority of boys his age, but we're celebrating over here nonetheless. In the last few weeks he's become Lego-interested. For the first time. Ever.

Me and Legos go way back. I LOVED them when I was a kid. Oh, I couldn't stand actually following directions and building something like a spaceship or a car. No, I just wanted a big tub of Legos, and I wanted to get creative. Actually, most of the time I wanted to build houses that I would then fill with Fisher Price people and act out various dramas. Yeah, and the house was usually destroyed by a tornado.

That was my Lego experience, which is why I've had trouble grasping kids and Legos today. Who wants to buy a kit with just enough pieces to replicate a picture that's on the front? What's the fun of that? Maybe if you're engineering-minded. I just don't get it.

That being said, I've wished for a long time that Ethan would get "into" Legos or really any kind of building blocks. I've tried to be patient because some of his lack of interest has really come down to low muscle tone and literally having trouble connecting the blocks and pushing down hard enough to make them stick. Then there's the whole creativity factor. Coming up with ideas has sometimes been a challenge, and yet those kits out there that show him exactly what to do are too complex and have pieces too small for him to handle with any kind of ease.

For four years now our experience with Ethan and blocks has been primarily me asking him to build something and him refusing and wandering away. Every once in a while he would half-heartedly build a tower. Never, ever did he care about bringing Lego people into the equation and acting out any sort of scene (the way Anna did when she was about 3 years old and on, building block houses for her My Little Ponies). After years of pushing I let the Lego thing go. If there's one thing I've learned about Ethan it's that you can't successfully MAKE him do anything, particularly when it comes to play.

A few weeks ago, out of the blue Ethan pulled out our box of Legos and started building. Right now we have the bigger blocks, the one labeled for ages 2-5, since they're easier to handle. He sat there on the floor for over an hour, telling me he was working on a house. And he spent another half-hour trying to fashion a "lock" out of a piece of string for the door.

A few days later, he wanted to build a house again. And then another day, again. Not only that, he asked for people to put in the house. And I heard him acting out scenes. They were eating in the kitchen. They were going for a ride in their rocket. Later they were going to bed.

Ethan's house is, not surprisingly, not quite typical. Looking at it, I have to wonder if he sees often in parts rather than a whole. There is a big staircase that leads to nowhere. There's a section he calls "the kitchen." There's a tall chimney that's not really connected to anything. There is the garage. But there's not one building that you could define as THE house.

On a side note, I find it quite funny that he had to build not just a garage but garage doors, as garage doors have been near and dear to his heart since toddlerhood.

The other day, after he spent a full hour building, I heard it for the first time: "Mom? We need to go to the store so we can get MORE Legos!"

Walking through the Target aisle later (not to buy said Legos; we just seem to live at Target these days because there's always something that someone, usually the baby, needs), I looked at the shelves of Lego kits and rolled my eyes. Ethan wasn't interested, either. What I wanted was a good, old-fashioned, big tub of plain old Legos, but they were nowhere to be found.

And so, in my own way, I will embark on the oh-so-common mom-quest to find my child the ideal set of Legos. His birthday's coming. Maybe by then he will have graduated to something beyond building a Lego house. Maybe, but then again, when I think back to my childhood, I see myself building the same house, over and over, filling it with people, and destroying it with a tornado. And no one called me quirky. Ethan can build whatever he wants to. I'm just glad he's playing.