Heaven Stooped Low

“We fail to understand the Divine, not because we aren’t able to extend our concepts far enough, but because we don’t know how to begin close enough.”

Abraham Herschel-

August 15, 2022

I took the kids to eat at a fast food restaurant yesterday after church. The Cracker Barrel had waiting lines out the door, the air conditioning was down at Noodles & Co., and so we ended up–first-world famished–at a run-down Burger King in Pueblo.

The entrance was partially demolished and blocked off with yellow caution tape, almost as if a car had crashed through the front door, and a hand-written sign suggested using the side door as an alternative.

But the alternative entrance looked like a grocery store parking lot lined with shopping buggies filled with sleeping bags and any other tattered possessions their homeless owner had accumulated along the way.

Sufficiently deterred, I pulled out of my parking space around to the drive-through window, which–to my dismay–was only accepting cash. The lobby register was equipped to take credit cards, the staticky voice politely informed.

Grayson growing edgier by the minute, I resigned myself to a dine-in Whopper, and circled back to my original parking spot, where Grayson, Reagan, and I filed out of the car toward the buggy-lined door.

A waif-like man beat us there and was holding the door for us while fixedly staring at the ground. His hair looked like it hadn’t seen a dollop of shampoo for weeks, but when he hesitantly lifted his pale blue eyes to meet mine, I noted they were kind, albeit heavy-laden; and their watery softness stood out in stark contrast to his deeply etched and weathered skin.

Inside, a homeless man was curled up in a chair, loudly snoring away with his filthy shoes propped on the table. My kids exchanged nervous glances but followed me toward the register, regardless, where we arrived just in time to overhear the recently door-holding man barely whisper, “Just a hamburger please,” before plunking down a pile of change–mostly pennies–on the counter. He was visibly nervous as he slid and counted the coins one at a time, and grew further exacerbated when a man toward the back of the line loudly muttered, “Jesus, how long is this going to take?” before irritatedly slapping a dollar bill on the mound of coins.

Now fully flustered, the door-man forgot what number he was on, and had to start counting all over. The young girl behind the cashier smiled apologetically at the approaching manager, who had, in the meantime, wandered over to assess the hold-up and the ever-increasing line.

His head was bare as an eight-ball, and every last square inch of his revealed skin was covered in tattoos. Strands of looping earlobes swung back and forth as he walked, further highlighting the two gaping holes that lacked the structure of their customary gauges. He looked the part of a fast-food manager, I wryly (and critically) mused to myself.

Stepping forward, I offered to add the door-man’s hamburger to my order, but the manager brushed me aside with a wave of his arm. “No worries, I got it,” he said, sweeping the change off the counter into his free hand. I asked the door-man whether I could buy him anything else, and he quietly added from beneath lowered eyes, that, yes, a drink might be nice.

After thanking me, he shuffled meekly to the end of the counter as if he wished to disappear, and I leaned over to asked whether he might like some fries or onion rings too.

Suddenly, the manager’s swift movements caught my attention, and I caught him quickly sneaking an oversized box of fries into the man’s paper bag. Our eyes met, and he winked as he stuffed an extra burger into the bag.

At once, the scales fell from my eyes and the manager’s heavily-inked skin was revealed as the canvassed dwelling tent of God. Joy trickled from the corner of his winking eye, and his face was awash in white light.

There, in line at Burger King, I stood exposed and naked in my threadbare garment of judgment, while the tattooed manager was regally robed in his charitable works, and the door-man vested in a simple, yet splendid robe of humility.

Even so, the nearness of the Divine, was sufficient to cover me–even me.

Truly, there are angels among us.

~

It’s early morning, and the sun has yet to show it’s face over northeastern mountain peaks. A loud thump to my left alerts me to the fact that–yet another–bird has flown into our living room window.

I look over to behold the tiniest, most pitiful of creatures laying in an all-wrong position on a board of composite decking–its wings intermittently twitching and flapping. Assuming it to be a near-death flutter, I pull my chair closer to observe the strange transition between life and death.

I note the bird’s faint yellow underbelly and the white markings around its eye, and assess it–perhaps incorrectly–to be a Warbling Vireo. Much to my husband’s amusement, I’ve taken on the self-appointed role of “Family Ornithologist,” thanks to my new Merlin Bird ID app.

As I’m voyeuristically observing the bird’s sacred transition, Cadence, our German Shepherd, lets herself out the front door, and automatically walks up to the ailing bird and rudely nudges it with her nose.

With what seems like its last dying strength, the bird hurls itself over and its head flops back in an unnatural position. Certain that the light is now surely passing from its eyes, I return to my reading, mentally committing the task of discarding the dead bird to my daughter.

Half-an-hour later, Nala, our dingbat of a Golden-doodle, comes sauntering out the front door to lay her head in my lap, completely failing to observe the little bird I believe to be deceased.

After a round of morning scratches and pets, both dogs notice and re-notice the bird. They sniff, circle, and then to my chagrin, begin poking it with their noses. Surely, they won’t eat a dead bird, I wonder to myself, cringing.

Suddenly, Cadence flips the bird upright with her nose, and I observe that its eyes are now wide-open and glossy black. It’s hops across one, then two and three planks, then leaps off our porch and flies effortlessly to a nearby tree.

I sit, stunned, as I take in the complexity of such a simple moment, and ponder on the quote I’d just read, “We fail to understand the Divine, not because we aren’t able to extend our concepts far enough, but because we don’t know how to begin close enough.”

Self-admittedly, I lack the ability to extend my concept of the Divine “far enough,” for it is here that I find my words and mental capacity simultaneously reaching their end.

Perhaps this is the holy ground where has God has drawn a line in the sand, thus demarcating the end of language’s capacity and the early frontier of contemplative “unknowing.”

Regardless, it is in this micro-moment that I sense the meaning of “close enough.” It is here, that I sense God’s “smallness” and the way He condescends to fill the fragments–the slivers of time–to bring life and light to motionless birds, tattooed skin, and defeated, pale-blue eyes.

~

As I found my way to a table and began doling out burgers, the soft-spoken door-man began unwrapping his at a nearby table. I stood to introduce myself and invited the man named “Adolfo” to eat with us. Re-wrapping his burger, he let me me know that people made him nervous, as he was more accustomed to being alone. I told him I understood as he turned to shuffle out the door, the feel of his leathery hand still fresh in mine.

But it had been “close enough.”

The Divine had come “close enough.”

The Chains That Bind Us

July 23, 2022 – Part 1: Regarding Fear

Yesterday, Arin and I spent an hour-and-a-half hiking up and down the grassy knolls of our new property and exploring the winding ravines that snake through the bottom of what I’ve secretly labeled “the scary forest.” 

Right off, we saw a coyote big enough to be a wolf trotting off into the scary forest, thus confirming my belief that that’s where all the limb-tearing creatures abide. And just last Saturday, a motherless baby bear emerged from down there after I’d spent an hour sitting on my porch in the pre-dawn darkness, listening to the deep and gravelly grunts of what I (later) understood to be her mama. Not only that, but a few days ago, Arin discovered a deer skull and hollowed-out carcass atop a rocky ledge—most likely the handiwork of a perching lion. 

All-in-all, I’d say the scary forest is not on my top ten list of places I’m dying to explore.

Later that afternoon, Arin and I took Grayson and Arin’s mom to the Royal Gorge Bridge, where I tapped out on Grayson-duty and relinquished his crossing-the-highest-suspension-bridge-in-the-country caretaking to Arin. (High places and I don’t mix well, and Grayson completely tips the scale). Instead, I focused on remembering to breathe while coercing myself across the gently heaving bridge that dangled from strands of measly steel cables. I held on to my mother-in-law’s skinny arm for dear life, wholly forgetting that it was I who was supposed to be supporting her. 

Afterward, Arin spontaneously opted for a detour up Skyline Drive, a narrow, one-lane road flanked by steep drop-offs on either side that more than adequately lived up to its name. Curling the brim of my baseball cap tightly around my eyes, I turned all my attention to the Wordle of the day, squeezing my cell phone like a rubber stress ball. 

By the time I got home, I was exhausted and flat-out discouraged by how much of my day was spent feeling anywhere from mildly anxious to outright panicked.

I never used to be such a scaredy-cat; rather, quite the contrary. I was the fresh-faced, twenty-three-year-old mom sitting relaxedly on a bench at the Tampa zoo as my eighteen-month-old son climbed up and over the jungle gym—alone and unassisted. Older mothers with pinched and worried faces hurried over, “just to make sure I knew where my baby was and what he was doing.” Their concern always confused me—how else would my son learn his limitations and capabilities if I didn’t give him the space to try? Back in those days, I rode roller coasters with reckless abandon, went for midnight swims in the ocean, and took solo late-night flights into Detroit to watch my sister play volleyball—and never once did I think of being afraid.

But then Grayson, our Autistic son, came along and taught me—over and over again—the meaning of fear. He was the child I swore would never live to see Kindergarten. When enraged (which was often), he would suddenly dart into five lanes of oncoming traffic, open his door and attempt to leap from our moving car, or shimmy over our second-story railing and threaten to jump—and all before the age of five. 

Therefore, after living years and years in a steady state of flight-or-fight, I, the mother who was once young and cool-as-a-cucumber, can barely remember what it’s like to feel the absence of fear.

Somewhere along the way, as one catastrophe piled on another, something inside of me began to shrink and shrivel, and my ordinarily expansive soul-space grew tight and gnarled as an atrophied muscle. I started perceiving once trusted civil servants—like teachers, doctors, and police officers—as enemies, and the world—previously open and inviting—turned dark and threatening as the scary forest. It was then that I started feeling afraid. All the time. 

I nearly jumped out of my skin when I once snapped a pencil underfoot in the dark. Little boys riding bikes down the street made my heart race as I frantically searched my memory, only to recall that Grayson was in school. And the sound of my cell phone ringing turned my throat dry as the Sahara desert. 

This compilation of fears—accompanied by the new sensations from the day prior—caused me to linger in bed when awakened by a bright white moon at 4:00 a.m. this morning. Normally excited for the start of a new day, my feet typically hit the floor and head straight to the coffeepot the second my eyes flutter open. But today, I heaved a weary sigh and pulled the covers back over my head to block out the streaming moonlight and avoid another day with myself. 

I felt tired of being afraid, sick of battling my fears day in and day out; I just wanted them gone. I imagined ripping them from my chest like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, then hurling them over the edge of the Royal Gorge Bridge where they could never bother me again.

 I’ve experienced enough crises to know that trauma can get “stuck” in your body, which is part of the reason I wanted to move. I needed at least eighty acres to bleed out all the chaos from our past—the police restraints and hospitalizations, our oldest son’s rollover car accident, the disgusted glares from strangers at the grocery store, the nightmares of Grayson falling and falling through layers of black space…

But today, there doesn’t seem to be a mountain big enough to handle all my fears, and I worry they’ll remain trapped inside me forever. I lay there under the covers in moonlit darkness for a long time; then, finally roused myself and started writing: Yesterday, Arin and I spent an hour-and-a-half hiking…

Just the day prior, my sister, Dani, had texted me a page from Susan McCain’s new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, and something about it had struck me, although I couldn’t put my finger on it then. So I went back this morning and reread, “I believe he’s telling us, It’s enough to be aware of it, and to feel its sting. Because this, in the end, is what connects us all…By turning his experience into poetry, Issa invites us to the shared story of being mortal, the communal longing of being human; he guides us to the love that I’ve always felt to be the unseen power source of all those sad songs with which we’ve inexplicably filled our playlists. This is the ultimate paradox: We transcend grief (or fear, in my case) only when we realize that we’re connected with all the other humans who can’t transcend grief because they will always say, because we will always say: But even so, but even so.” 

I realized that as much as I want to rip the fear from my chest and chuck it over a bridge, it is this fear that keeps me connected to others; for it is our pain, our suffering, and our lack of control “that guides me back to the love that is the unseen power source of all…”

Regardless of how desperately I long to rid myself of my fears, at the end of the day, I must value them for the gift they truly are. They are the thorn in my flesh that leads toward compassion and away from pride; they’re the link that binds me to my fellow co-laborers in life, and they’re the constant weakness that remind me to depend more fully on Christ, the ultimate and most pure source of strength. 

Perhaps one day, my fears will magically evaporate, and I’ll find that I can breeze effortlessly across the Royal Gorge without a second thought. Or maybe, and probably more realistically, I’ll continue battling, struggling, reminding myself to breathe, and occasionally pulling the covers back over my head to find some relief.

But even so, even so…

May our struggles be blessed.

Skyline Drive

Donning the Sacred Faded Polo

Here is Grayson, my sixteen-year-old Autistic son, on his second day of work. No, he’s not the kid sitting on the stool with the blurred face. He’s the one hiding behind the white “Skip the Line” sign. A family friend has entered the movie theater, so Grayson has ducked out of sight until she has gone.

“It was natural,” he later explains, shrugging indifferently, and then I have to explain why it was not.

“How would you feel if you walked into a theater and the person who was supposed to be taking your ticket hid from you?” I ask.

“It would be weird,” he snickers with a raised eyebrow (as if speaking to a moron), and then sloowwly connects the dots. “Ohhhhhh, I see,” he replies, freshly enlightened, “It’s weird to hide from people when you’re working.”

After a long belly-laugh ending in tears, I take a serious moment to reflect on the significance of the day. My son – the one I never expected to live past his fifth birthday due to an apparent affinity for darting into traffic, the one I had to peel off my leg all the way through grade school, the one who still follows me and talks nonstop through locked bathroom doors – that kid applied for a job two weeks before his sixteenth birthday just because “it felt right.” That kid walked into the theater for his interview ALONE because “it would be weird” if I came with him. That kid – the one who hasn’t worn anything but sweat pants with elastic waistbands since, well, basically forever – donned a pair of slacks with a little silver clasp and a button (that he still struggles to fasten), and wore them without complaining, simply because “that’s what you do when you have a job.” And that kid, who has only recently been allowed to stay home alone, walked into his first day of work by himself, without even a backward glance, because, “well, not to be mean, but you might embarrass me.”

Never have I ever so welcomed that well-worn phrase from one of my teenagers.

Several weeks prior, I sat through his four-hour orientation (so I, too, am technically qualified to work at the Metrolux). Grayson had never done anything of the sorts without me, and I wasn’t sure whether he’d bolt through the front doors in a rage, the way he’s done so many schoolyears prior. I squirmed in my seat when the topic of sexual harassment was brought up in the cheesy 1980s training film. Even at sixteen, Grayson has no clue about the birds and bees, and as far as he knows, the word “sex” simply refers to gender. Onscreen, a perverted manager with a thick, caterpillar mustache scooted a young employee out of his way by grabbing hold of her waist and murmuring a sultry “excuse me” in her ear. The scene closed with a deep-voiced narration, “To be safe in the workplace, just keep your hands to yourself.”

Shortly after, we found ourselves in the projection room. Grayson, an avid movie buff, was geeking out over witnessing the inner workings of a theater, and I watched my son (who has ZERO spatial awareness) squeeze through the crowd for a better view. He sidestepped, hands held high above his head as if pressed up against a building on a narrow ledge, and his motions struck me as odd. I had never seen him work so hard to avoid knocking into people. Soon enough, he worked his way back to me in the same awkward manner and loudly whispered in my ear, “Mom, I tried real hard not to do sexual harassment. Did I do good?”

His innocence often overwhelms me, simultaneously revealing everything that is right in this world – and also missing. He possesses a purity long-lost and buried, and I deeply aspire to his level of simplicity.

I watch him get ready on his first day of work. He has planned his whole day around his three-hour shift. Taking no less than four showers, he eats promptly at 2:45 (to avoid getting hungry), then takes yet another shower at 3:15, and remains locked in his room until exactly 3:30. I call to him at 3:29, but he refuses to budge – I had said we would leave at 3:30, he informs me, and 3:30 means 3:30, not 3:29. He speaks in that same voice of disdain, implying my ignorance. Once in the car, he enters the address on his phone and proceeds to rush me the whole way, conceding that maybe I know what I’m doing when we arrive at 3:55 – precisely on time.

I sit in the car long after the double metal doors swallow him up. The lump in my throat makes me feel like I just dropped off my preschooler at work. What if he needs me? What if he gets scared? What if he has to use the restroom and can’t rebutton his pants? Will he remember to cover his mouth if he coughs? Wash his hands? I call my husband to confirm whether it’s safe to leave, then slowly roll out of the parking lot, looking back over my shoulder several times. I fully expect to see Grayson chasing after me, wildly waving his arms, flagging me down because he’s changed his mind as he’s so often prone to do. But those double doors remain shut until 7:01, exactly one minute after his shift ends.

Grayson plods to the car, feet dragging and head hung low, while the apprehension rises in my chest. Has someone been cruel? Does he hate it? Is he going to get in the car and EXPLODE? I brace myself for the worst and he hoists himself into my 4Runner, buckling up without a word. I begin firing questions as fast as I dare, knowing full-well how overwhelmed he is feeling.

Me: So, how was it?

Him: Fine.

Me: Were you nervous?

Him: No. But my legs were shaking for some reason.

Me: Was the person who trained you nice?

Him: Yeah. His name was Joe. He gave me knuckles and told me to try to speak clearly.

Me: (breathing a silent prayer of gratitude for Joe)

Him: I did what you said, mom. I tried real hard to make eye contact with everyone. But I’m pretty tired now so I’m just going to not talk for a while.

Me: (with hot tears swelling in my eyes) Okay, buddy, that’s fine. You did great. I’m so proud.

We arrive home, and he walks straight to his room where he hangs up his uniform. I’ve never seen anyone take so much pride in a faded burgundy polo. He places it centrally in his closet, where it won’t touch another shirt – he doesn’t want it to get dirty. I observe, more fully understanding the meaning of “sacred.”

Several days later, I text his elementary, middle school, and high school teachers, “Grayson recently started his first job. I never thought we would see the day and never would have without your help. His victory is all of ours. Truly, it takes a village…”

There have been many days that I’ve felt like ducking behind a sign to avoid seeing someone I know, so I stand amused and amazed at the audaciously authentic life my son dares to live. There have been weeks I’ve struggled with motivation – lingering in my elastic-waisted sweat pants far too long – and feel inspired by the way Grayson innately knows when it’s time to put on a pair of button-up slacks and get to work. And there have been seasons when it’s been hard to look people in the eye because of the emptiness I feel inside. Yet I am in awe of the way my autistic son forces himself to meet a stranger’s gaze and feel even more humbled by his honestly – how he openly admits when he’s tired and needs a moment to sit in silence.

I can’t quite get past the shock of Grayson’s first job. It holds within it the shimmering promise of normalcy I’d surrendered so long ago. Hope floods in, replacing my fearful “what ifs” with possibilities, and I wonder, “What if he’s able to get married someday? What if he can learn to drive? What if he is capable of living independently?”

I marvel at the invisible timeline that resides within Grayson – the way he just knows when the timing seems right, the way he marches forward without looking back. Furthermore, I marvel at the One who has instilled such an unknowable way of knowing within my son. I feel inspired to trust beyond my small way of thinking, to see farther than my limited line of sight. For, how much more will He, who nurtures the sparrows and lilies of the field, care for my son with His tender-loving mercy?

I will cherish this photo of Grayson forever. Whereas I initially saw a boy humorously cowering behind a sign, I now see a man-in-the-making – one who is courageous enough to try, to step out, lift his gaze, speak clearly, fumble with buttons, and risk being laughed at. I see one far nobler than I: my sixteen-year-old man-child, just striving to be worthy of a faded burgundy polo.

.

Bearded Delicacies and Midair Suspension

Photo by Robert Goldenowl on Pexels.com

I sit in my pajamas on a cold, metal chair. This particular chair contains more holes than metal, so my flesh presses awkwardly through thin material, bulging and filling all the spaces the metal is not. This chair sits on a hotel balcony that hangs, cantilevered, six stories above ground level — five stories too high for my liking. I keep the back of my hole-y chair pressed tight against the sliding door behind me. 

From my perch in the air, I observe workers plodding about in neon yellow construction vests, their steel-toed boots tamping new ruts into freshly churned earth. They hoist awkward sheets of plywood onto miniature-looking backs, then rhythmically begin the trek to retrace their steps — one-two, one-two. They shuffle to the beat of an unknown drum — back and forth, back and forth. Eventually, the piles of plywood grow. So much effort, so little to show. 

As I monitor their progress, a burly brute of a man grabs the handle of an excavator, and in one fluid motion, leaps from soil to seat. He is as light on his feet as a dainty ballerina, and I humorously imagine the effort it would require for me to do the same. When he pokes at buttons and pulls on levers, the massive digger roars to life — a robotic extension of his beefy frame. It spins and pirouettes, then delicately taps on concrete as if cracking a fragile egg. Eventually, the cement fractures and splits, but the two halves cling stubbornly, still bound to each other by a measly strand of rebar. With tremendous patience, his steel fingers separate one portion from another, with the tenderness of a mother prying toddler from toy. After a great deal of cajoling, the concrete relents. Two weary pieces allow themselves to be scooped up in his metal bucket, and are in turn, gently tucked into the dusty bed of a gigantic dump truck. Something about this combination — so strongly masculine, yet deeply feminine — moves me, and I close my eyes in search of a thought that refuses to materialize. I press the flanks of my back further into metal chair-holes and continue to watch in awe. 

High overhead, a nylon canvas is stretched round and bulbous. It drifts, striped and colorful — a floating big-top in the sky. The words “WILD WEST” are printed in bold, capital letters, and an open-top basket dangles precariously beneath. Bodies with dot-sized heads bob about, their nearly invisible arms of thread enthusiastically pointing out miniature landmarks below. The balloon fires and rises in the cool morning air, and I envision myself aboard such a flight. I’d undoubtedly curl myself in the roundest of balls and stuff my trembling body tight in a corner. My scrunched-up eyes would be begging, willing the ride to end. No, never would I ever. 

The awe within me stirs, swells, and manifests in hot, pooling tears. What intelligence of humanity has enabled us to soar in a basket at two thousand feet, suspended by nylon, fueled by flame? What brilliance has allowed such morning contemplations, from a balcony six stories above the earth, constructed from earth’s elements — thine own of thine own? For that matter, what genius has made it possible for me to recline a mere twenty-two inches in the air, supported by a metal chair mostly riddled with holes? 

I consider the controlled delicacy of a twenty-five-ton excavator that maneuvers with precision beneath the calloused hand of a bearded, pot-bellied operator, whose maternal patience currently far exceeds my own. I think of the colony of vested laborers, carving tedious, monotonous treads to put another meal on the table, to pay off one more bill. Day in and day out, they survive the mundane — perhaps the most admirable trait of all.

I feel humbled and overwhelmed. Subtle greatness surrounds me in a world full of ironies where solid matter floats, fueled by an invisible heat lighter than air. Masculinity and femininity collide in a solid chunk of metal, in a roughly bearded man — then lightly pirouette and begin to dance.  Concrete foundations are cracked like an egg with the flick of a human wrist, and I sit effortlessly suspended six stories in the air on a concrete balcony in a metal chair full of holes. I am held by nothing, by everything, and miracles engulf me. 

Finally, a question emerges and the meaning grows clear: how do I live more days — floating free, suspended, and held — rather than curled up in a ball, eyes squeezed shut tight, willing the ride to be over? 

Extra Ordinary?

Photo by Nigam Machchhar on Pexels.com

I had a dream last night. I guess it was more of a nightmare, really. I was auditioning to be an actor in my own book, which of course, makes zero sense whatsoever. But such is the way our brains seam together the jumbled pieces of our lives while we lay sleeping. My old college volleyball coach was running the audition, and although I had written the book, she kept telling me I was reading it wrong – my expressions weren’t quite right, the intonations slightly off. She would work with me and do her best to help me but at the end of the day, I wasn’t exactly right. I just didn’t have “it.”

I woke up with tears pooling in the corners of my eyes and still don’t think I have fully woken, although it is now late in the afternoon. The feeling has lingered and dampened my day. Most of the time, I feel healthy, strong, proud of who I have worked so hard to be. But sometimes, a simple nonsensical dream invokes my broken parts, my hurting parts, the parts that tell me hard as I may try, I will never be enough. I am destined for a life of average-ness, these parts remind me. And they speak with such authority that I am meekly tempted to agree.

My sweet husband tries to reassure me and informs me that I am above average in everything I do. That in all of our years together, the only average thing he has ever witnessed has been my feeble attempts to cook fried chicken. I laugh through my tears and counter his comment. Regarding fried chicken, I am highly deficient. The damn obstinate breading just won’t stick! He wants me to see myself in the way he sees me, but his viewpoint is biased, so I disregard him as a flawed character witness.

I go on a walk to shake off my dream. The sun is abnormally warm for this time of year, and I know I should savor it. But my haze follows me and dulls the sun’s rays.

A phrase emerges to the forefront of my mind, one that I saw in bold letters on a recent advertisement – BE EXTRAORDINARY! Extraordinary? Extra – ordinary? What does this strange word mean? Is that the same thing as being more average? Is extraordinary better than normal or just a double-dose?

I wonder what I am striving for in wanting to be better than average? To whom am I comparing myself? If I consider myself to be “average,” would being extraordinary simply mean being more of myself, more fully me? If I don’t step up to fill my own shoes, who else is remotely capable?

More questions than answers today, but suddenly, I notice the sensation of sun on my face. My muddled haze is gone, and my insides feel settled and not quite so angry. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be extra of my ordinary self, to let go of the striving desperation and fall headlong into faith and trust.

I become aware of birds calling one to the other, and their uniquely “ordinary” calls lift my spirit from my own depths. They are only doing what they have been created to do, yet it is, of course…extraordinary.

Broken Ribs, Homeless Boys, Police, and Self-Doubt

Photo by Ryanniel Masucol on Pexels.com

Monday, my dad slipped on the ice at our house and broke four ribs. Tuesday evening, my husband and I were winding down in the hot tub after a long day, and when we got out, we couldn’t find Grayson – our fifteen-year-old autistic son. As we were searching the house and property, our daughter called. Her voice sounded hot and quivery. Are you missing anything?! Because the police found Grayson wandering around the Walmart parking lot – barefoot and in his robe. He stowed away in my trunk, and now he’s pretending he doesn’t know me, and he’s saying he’s a homeless boy. I’m so embarrassed. Mom, what if that lady didn’t call? What if I never knew he was there and left him behind? (silent sniffles)

For once (Hallelujah!), Grayson didn’t run from the police, and they didn’t chase him. The two officers were so amazingly wonderful and let our daughter assume the lead role. My husband and I jumped in our car and drove to Walmart, reasoning with Grayson over speaker phone the whole way. Eventually, I was able to talk him down, and he peaceably walked back to my daughter’s car to wait for our arrival. The situation was resolved easily enough without traumatizing restraint, arrest, or catastrophe.

Yesterday, I got another call from the local police over a matter still ongoing and too personal to share. It left me reeling and struggling to breathe. That one will take a bit longer to get over. The issue was turned over to the Sheriff and Child Protective Services, and I found myself once again staring at my phone all day, waiting for “the call.”

All that in three days.

Now it’s 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, and I’m sitting down to work on my memoirs for the first time this week. I’ve lost three days of writing and only have a short one today due to a brainstorming meeting at Grayson’s school. Thoughts swirl in my head alongside the chaos, making it impossible to hear the quiet voice inside. How am I supposed to write about the previous mess of my life while still currently living in its midst? Self-doubt swoops in and consumes my motivation. What were you thinking? Who do you think you are? You can’t write a book. It’s impossible. You suck. This is too much.

I have no good answers today, and I lack the energy to engage. Maybe it’s true, I say to myself, but quitting is not an option.

I write a quick blog to clear my mind, then open my memoir to plod ahead. Maybe it won’t be any good, maybe I’ll never get published. But I’ll certainly never know unless I try…

There by the grace of God, go I.

The Fear Behind the Fear (COVID-19)

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During this strange and unprecedented time, I have been amused by the humorous memes and videos that have been popping up on social media. Parents have been instantly thrust from their roles as busy professionals to homeschooling, full-time, stay-at-home caregivers. While it is so good to laugh at ourselves and find humor where we can, I have to wonder at what lies behind the memes.

Over and over, I have heard people asking for suggestions for ways to pass, kill or survive their time at home, and for ideas on how to stay busy. A fairly consistent theme that seems to be emerging in these funny videos looks something like this…1) person is excited for “down-time” 2) person binge-watches all possible NetFlix shows 3) decides they will finally try to sit and talk with spouse and/or kids 4) ends up melting down screaming into a pillow and ultimately finding a breath of relief in the bottle.

What seems to be lurking behind the humor, is the fear of 1) unstructured and unfilled time, 2) unlimited time with spouses/family members, and perhaps most predominantly a fear of 3) time spent alone. While on paper, and at our busiest, most people would concur that these opportunities are desired and necessary, even coveted. Yet, when the same opportunity extends its hand as a real and viable option, we panic.

Setting aside potential fears surrounding the actual virus and the economy, I have been thinking about the psychology of social isolation for a while now and wondering…what is it, specifically, that are we so afraid of? Upon reflection, it seems that when we find ourselves “stuck” at home with cleared schedules, and unfettered access to our spouses, children, and perhaps most importantly, ourselves…our deepest fear (if we are even able to silently acknowledge it), might be that we will come face to face with…absolute nothingness.

We know that all of the conversations we’ve avoided due to lack of time, all of the insecurities and nagging voices that we’ve drowned or kept at bay…will all be waiting for us in the vast expanse of time. I think that if we are honest, this might be the cause of our deeply-rooted and intensely personal panic. This is what keeps us binge-watching, searching the web, looking for ways to “kill” time. We will do anything to avoid being alone with ourselves.

What if rather than trying to “kill” time, we attempted to lean in and embrace time in its fullness, whatever that might include? What if we sat for a while, alone (gasp!), and let our thoughts and fears rise to the surface and breathe in the fresh air of honesty and unhurried moments? What if we allowed ourselves to feel failure, fear, sadness, anger, and pain…instead of evading, numbing, and tuning these emotions out? What if we allowed ourselves to acknowledge our internal emptiness and nothingness?

In one of my favorite (highly recommended) books, Sabbath by Wayne Muller, he says, “For some people, emptiness can feel fertile and spacious, alive with possibility, as a womb is ripe waiting for a child to come. But others feel emptiness as an ache, a void; something painful, in need of being filled. When we are empty, we feel unhealed; when we are unhealed, we can feel unworthy.”

It seems that this generation, perhaps more than any, is afraid of emotional pain. We try to fix, medicate, eradicate…but we will not allow ourselves to feel.

Could it be that we are a nation of stress and busyness mainly because we are unwilling to feel and acknowledge everything that hurts inside? What if we must first admit to, and then acquire a certain level of companionship with our emptiness and unrest, in order to find true peace, instead of settling for a tuned-out mental break from our internal torment? During this time when the literal world needs healing, what if we started by using the extra time to heal ourselves? A wise saint once said, “All troubles come from a mental outlook that is too broad. It is better to humbly cast your eyes down toward your feet, and to figure out which step to take where. This is the truest path.” This does not mean that we don’t help our friends and neighbors, but rather that we will best serve others when we begin to heal ourselves.

It is my prayer that we will be able to see the opportunities presented by this virus, as opposed to the fear and inconveniences. Suffering is not a new concept, but perhaps new to this generation on such a large scale. I pray that whether we suffer internally or situationally, we will all learn to suffer with patience, kindness, and gratitude, and that we will be able to teach our children how to do the same; and if by chance, you find yourself panicking at the thought of isolation…breathe, lean in, sit with it, and become acquainted or reacquainted with the glorious person that you were created to be.

 

“To come to what you know not, you must go by a way where you know not. Growth may not feel like growth, and we need encouragement that there is somewhere to go, if we are to sail on.”

-St. John of the Cross-

 

 

 

On The Need to Feel Normal When Nothing is Normal

An excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and an essay on special needs parenting:

“In our society, where two-legged, two-armed strong Black men were able at best to eke out only the necessities of life, Uncle Willie, with his starched shirts, shined shoes and shelves full of food, was the whipping boy and butt of jokes of the underemployed and underpaid. Fate not only disabled him but laid a double-tiered barrier in his path. He was also proud and sensitive. Therefore he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t crippled, nor could he deceive himself that people were not repelled by his defect. Only once in all the years of trying not to watch him, I saw him pretend to himself and others that he wasn’t lame.
Coming home from school one day, I saw a dark car in our front yard. I rushed in to find a strange man and woman (Uncle Willie said later they were schoolteachers from Little Rock) drinking Dr Pepper in the cool of the Store. I sensed a wrongness around me, like an alarm clock that had gone off without being set.
I knew it couldn’t be the strangers. Not frequently, but often enough, travelers pulled off the main road to buy tobacco or soft drinks in the only Negro store in Stamps. When I looked at Uncle Willie, I knew what was pulling my mind’s coattails. He was standing erect behind the counter, not leaning forward or resting on the small shelf that had been built for him. Erect. His eyes seemed to hold me with a mixture of threats and appeal.
I dutifully greeted the strangers and roamed my eyes around for his walking stick. It was nowhere to be seen. He said, “Uh…this this…this…uh, my niece. She’s…uh…just come from school.” The to the couple – “You know…how, uh, children are…th-th-these days…they play all d-d-day at school and c-c-can’t wait to get home and pl-play some more.”
The people smiled, very friendly.
He added, “Go on out and pl-play, Sister.”
The lady laughed in a soft Arkansas voice and said, “Well, you know, Mr. Johnson, they say, you’re only a child once. Have you any children of your own?”
Uncle Willie looked at me with an impatience I hadn’t seen in his face even when he took thirty minutes to loop the laces over his high-topped shoes. “I thought I told you to go…go outside and play.”
Before I left I saw him lean back on the shelves of Garret Snuff, Prince Albert and Spark Plug chewing tobacco.
“No, ma-am…no ch-children and no wife.” He tried a laugh. “I have an old m-m-mother and my brother’s t-two children to l-look after.”
I didn’t mind his using us to make himself look good. In fact, I would have pretended to be his daughter if he wanted me to. Not only did I not feel any loyalty to my own father, I figured that if I had been Uncle Willie’s child, I would have received much better treatment.
The couple left after a few minutes, and from the back of the house I watched the red car scare chickens, raise dust and disappear toward Magnolia.
Uncle Willie was making his way down the long shadowed aisle between the shelves and the counter – hand over hand, like a man climbing out of a dream. I stayed quiet and watched him lurch from one side, bumping to the other, until he headed the coal-oil tank. He put his hand behind that dark recess and took his cane in the strong fist and shifted his weight on the wooden support. He thought he had pulled it off.
I’ll never know why it was important to him that the couple (he said later that he’d never seen them before) would take a picture of a whole Mr. Johnson back to Little Rock.
     He must have tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame. The high-topped shoes and the cane, his uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue, and the looks he suffered of either contempt or pity had simply worn him out, and for one afternoon, one part of an afternoon, he wanted no part of them.
     I understood and felt closer to him at that moment than ever before or since.”

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     Tears, in glasslike sheets, now soak the lower half of my face, pouring down my neck, filling the concave spot at the base of my throat, running down my chest as if I were a human downspout directing a flood. This…now this I understand. Only one who has experienced judgment and rejection could write in such a way that captures this specific and underrated need…the intense need to feel normal, if only for a moment. Only one who has known the shameful embarrassment of standing out the wrong way in a crowd could appreciate the total joy of disappearing in blissful anonymity.

As the mother of an autistic child prone to violence, elopement, and very demonstrative public fits, I know all too well this craving to blend in, to feel normal – even if only briefly. During painfully public displays, I too have frequently caught the eyes of others, reflecting like mirrors, either contempt or pity. After years and years of such reflections, I can no longer remember what I actually look like. Somewhere along the line, these gazes have become my truth. I have, at times, come to believe that I am the despised beast or the pitied creature… this, and nothing more.

And so I’ve manufactured ways to convince others of my normalcy, that in turn, normalcy might be reflected back to me; and so that I might believe, albeit momentarily, that I lead a normal life. Like Uncle Willie, I stand erect, hide the cane, disguise my limp, shoot daggers at anyone who might threaten to give away my secret. Normalcy has become both my shield and my crutch. If I look put together, no one will know that I am a mess. If my house is well-decorated, no one will know that I am crumbling inside.

But somewhere along the line, “normal” began to lose its appeal. It became common and dull. I looked with fresh eyes upon my “high-topped shoes and cane, my uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue,” and I held them with the tender love and compassion of a new mother. I allowed myself the freedom to cry the tears long dammed, and in reverential silence, bore witness to the shame and embarrassment so deeply buried. I gave myself permission to grieve the looks of contempt and pity and the years of feeling anything but normal. I looked closely at the “me” who was hiding behind the protection and shelter of attempted normalcy and extended a soft hand to ease her transition into the light.

And as this timid part of “me” stepped forth in high-topped shoes, leaning heavily on a cane, thick-tongued and muscles yet uncontrolled, I grabbed her and pulled her close in an understanding embrace and softly whispered in her ear, “I love your cane. I love your high-topped shoes. I love your thick tongue. I love your uncontrollable muscles. Look no longer into the eyes of others for feedback; from now on, look only within. Enter the world, not as you wish to be, living the life you wish to be living, but enter as you are, living proudly the life you actually lead, back into the world as it actually is. Limp as you will, but limp with your head held high. For within that limp is contained all suffering, sorrow, madness, and despair. Within that limp is contained all things wild and uncontrollable, and within that limp is contained all love, joy, beauty, and depth of soul. Our humanity is held within each fragile and broken step we take, and so, do not hang your head in shame for that which is shared between all humans. Re-enter the world, still broken, still healing, and reclaim your rightful place within.”

Speaking the Unspoken Truth

**Spoiler alert – contains spoilers regarding the movie “A Monster Calls.” **

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Over Christmas break, I took my kids to the movie, “A Monster Calls,” based on the New York Times Bestselling book.  I had no expectations or understanding of what it was even about.  That being said, I managed to cry my way through the last half of the movie.  It is very rare that a movie grips my mind and thoughts long after the credits are through rolling.  But this movie was so poignant and in my opinion, touched on the very struggle of what it means to be human.

The story is told of a young boy whose mother is facing cancer.  He has a recurring nightmare in which he is holding onto his mother who is about to slip into an abyss and he cannot hold her any longer.  The boy repetitively wakes up just as he loses grip and she begins to plummet.  The long and short of the plot is that an ancient tree awakens and shares three stories and tells young Conor that after the third story, he will tell his story (nightmare) and will tell the truth of it.  The following is an excerpt from the book.  Forgive me for a lengthy quote but I cannot summarize in any way that would do it justice…

From A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

“Because, yes, Conor knew.  He had always known. The truth. The real truth from the nightmare…  ‘Please don’t make me,’ Conor said.  ‘Please don’t make me say it.’  You let her go, the monster said.  Conor closed his eyes tightly but then he nodded.  You must speak the truth and you must speak it now, Conor O’Malley.  Say it.  You must.  ‘It’ll kill me if I do,’ he gasped.  It will kill you if you do not, the monster said.  You must say it.  You let her go.  Why?  And then he spoke the words.  He spoke the truth.  He told the rest of the fourth tale.  ‘I can’t stand it anymore!’ he cried out as the fire raged around him.  ‘I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go!  I just wanted it to be over! I wanted it to be finished!’  And then the fire ate the world, wiping away everything, wiping him away with it.  He welcomed it with relief, because it was at last the punishment he deserved.

‘It’s my fault,’ Conor said.  ‘I let her go.’  It’s not your fault, the monster said, its voice floating in the air around him like a breeze.  You were merely wishing for the end of pain, your own pain, and how it isolated you.  It is the most human wish of all.  ‘I didn’t mean it’ said Conor.  You did, the monster said, but you also did not.  Conor sniffed and looked up to its face which was as big as a wall in front of him.  ‘How can both be true?’  Because humans are complicated beasts, the monster said.  How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch?  How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour?  How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking?  How can a person be wrong-thinking but good-hearted?  How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen?   ‘I don’t know,’ Conor shrugged, ‘Your stories never made any sense to me.’  The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day.  You wanted her to go at the same time you wanted me to save her.  Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary.  And your mind will punish you for believing both.  ‘But how do you fight it?’ Conor asked, his voice rough.  ‘How do you fight all the different stuff inside?   By speaking the truth, the monster said.   As you spoke it just now.  Conor thought again of his mother’s hands, of the grip as he let go ~ Stop this, Conor O’Malley, the monster said, gently.  This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal.  You must listen.  You do not write your life with words, you write it with actions.”

The bare naked truth of the matter is that we all have secrets.  Perhaps we have never actively done anything horrifically wicked, but we have all had thoughts that would mortify us if spoken out loud.  I will be embarrassingly transparent regarding a personal example.  One day, my son threw a fit and ran away and was threatening to run into a busy road.  His fits are not uncommon, as a child with special needs, and it had been a particularly bad week.  As he ran toward the street, the thought flashed through my mind that if I let him run and there was a fatal accident, my life would be so much easier.  Of course I stopped him from running, yet I felt crushed under the weight of my hideous thought and punished myself internally for days.  This is one of many reasons why the above scene absolutely pierced my heart.  Anyone who has suffered or experienced grief also understands the desire for an end to pain, for an end to the isolation of it, for an end to the weariness of it.  After that incident, I did some intense soul searching and demanded of myself to know how any decent mother could ever even allow the faintest of such thoughts to be entertained.  I felt like a blasphemous cartoon character deserving of the proverbial lightning strike from the sky.

And so, many of us carry this needless guilt and shame.  We begin to identify with these fleeting thoughts.  We even may hate ourselves at times for thoughts we have, ways we have hurt others, and the supposed truth over who we are.  But herein lies the problem.  We are not the summation of our thoughts.  We are complicated beasts, as the monster so aptly points out.  It is possible to be wrong-thinking but good-hearted.  Life does not seem to have the same problem with dualistic truths as we humans do.  But we must learn to speak the truth.  We must own our morbid thoughts.  We must open up our dark, cobwebbed closets and let even the smallest aperture of light in.

Ultimately we must understand that the majority of our terrible thoughts do not stem from some deep-rooted wickedness within, but rather a wound that needs to be healed (“This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal.”).  Our ugly thoughts, our rage, our embarrassing failures all serve as an indicator to show us where we are broken, where we are suffering, where we need mending.  What good would it do to suture up an infected laceration?  It would only fester and rot and cause further damage.  This being the case, we still hide in shame rather than risk being exposed.   And so, we suffer while smiling and silently endure our infected wounds.  We would rather die than expose the truth.

However,  if we will be brave enough to speak that which is unspoken, we will find peace and freedom.  We will find that our thoughts, once uttered, become powerless over us.  The shackles of guilt and self-chastisement will fall away and we will realize that our thoughts are simply…thoughts.  They do not define us.  They cannot control us.  And then, we will reclaim the power to write our lives with our actions, instead of being tormented by our thoughts.

“Conor let out a long, long breath, still thick.  But he wasn’t choking.  The nightmare wasn’t filling him up, squeezing his chest, dragging him down.  In fact, he no longer felt the nightmare at all…” 

Why Write?

quotes_creator_20161228_225929I have had some unanswered questions rambling around in my head for a while.  Every time I sit down to write, they bother me.  Sometimes they’re almost enough to make me give up.  They are like a persistent child, knocking on the bathroom door and driving me crazy.  This redundant mental interrogation asks of me, “What is the point of writing a blog?  Why are you even doing this?”

It’s taken me a while, but I think I finally have the answer.  This afternoon, I sat outside Target, seething, trying to wait out my son’s raging fit over absolutely nothing.  I was pretending to not notice everyone’s curious stares, trying to look like a nice, patient mother, while wrestling with my not-nice and not-patient thoughts.  I couldn’t go into the store, I couldn’t get him to the car, so I just sat on the wall outside of Target and tried to make friends with my anger and embarrassment.

Upon reflection, I realize how many “outsides” I’ve frequented over the course of his lifetime…outsides of churches, schools, restaurants, grocery stores…always at the end of the football field, closest to the exit door at basketball games.  I have not made friends with parents or other adults because I knew I would never be able to sustain conversation.  I don’t talk on the phone unless he’s in bed and I try to go to the fewest places possible when he is in tow.  Please understand, I do not say this to complain or out of self-pity.  Rather, this revelation has helped me to answer my own question…

I write because for the first time in literally ten years, I feel connected with the outside world.  It makes me feel human and normal and not trapped in my own house.  I feel like I can share protracted ideas with other adults and have the space to listen to responses.  I write because like a man coming out of Plato’s allegorical cave into daylight, it is easier for me to write than to speak.  I write because it is something that I can genuinely, albeit meagerly offer of myself.  I write to leave a paper trail, so that if anything should ever happen to me, my children will know my heart and thoughts.  Finally, I write for myself.  When I write, time stops and my world gets small.  It’s like reconnecting with a long lost friend…I have forgotten how much I love it.

So to anyone who has taken the time to read, and especially to comment, thank you.  Thank you for helping me to not feel so isolated.  Thank you for allowing me the privilege of hearing your thoughts and ideas.  You will never know the gift you have given to me.   With gratitude…