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

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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

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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)

Screenshot 2020-03-21 at 7.46.58 AM

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-

 

 

 

Intentional Silence

undulations“Individuals, like nations, must have suitable broad and natural boundaries, even a considerable neutral ground, between them. I have found it a singular luxury to talk across the pond to a companion on the opposite side. In my house we were so near that we could not begin to hear, we could not speak low enough to be heard; as when you throw two stones into calm water so near that they break each other’s undulations. If we are merely loquacious and loud talkers, then we can afford to stand very near together, cheek by jowl, and feel each other’s breath; but if we speak reservedly and thoughtfully, we want to be farther apart, that all animal heat and moisture may have a chance to evaporate. If we would enjoy the most intimate society with that in each of us which is without, or above, being spoken to, we must not only be silent, but commonly so far apart bodily that we cannot possibly hear each other’s voice in any case.”

~An Excerpt from Walden by Henry David Thoreau~

 

It has been said that words are the most base form of communication.  In a time when everyone is concerned with finding their voice in the world, we forget the impact and importance of silence.  When we speak constantly, people stop listening.  Words that might be valuable, get lost in the sheer projectile volume.  Life gets big and chaotic and turbulent and if we rise to challenge it, we immediately begin to get lost in the noise.  This does not necessitate a passive, apathetic approach to life.  Practically, we must rise to meet to whatever stands before us.  But we cannot forget the value of first withdrawing into ourselves to subdue our inner turmoil.  When life gets big, we must get small.  If we mindlessly rush headfirst into pandemonium, we will only add to the cacophony and delirium.  We feel the need to say the right thing, do the right thing, and forget that silence is also a viable course of action.  How many problems in life could potentially be solved by just stopping, and waiting in silence?  The Tao Te Ching states that, “No one can make muddy water clear, but if one is patient, and it is allowed to remain still, it may gradually become clear of itself.”  If we are able to resist the urge to constantly fill time and space with empty and urgent words, silence becomes not only an ideal choice but also a familiar and comforting companion as well.

 

We can make our minds so like still water

That beings gather about us that they may see, 

It may be, their own images, 

And so live for a moment with a clearer,

Perhaps even with a fiercer life

Because of our quiet.

~The Celtic Twilight by William Butler Yeats~