The Chains That Bind Us

July 23, 2022 – Part 1

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

Christmas Humility Comes Early

An “amusing” half-day in the life of a mom and a kid with Christmas anxiety

imagesWednesday December 21, 2016                                                                                                              

3:00 p.m.     Grayson gets in the car with an amazing bag of Christmas goodies from his teacher.

3:01 p.m.     He immediately gives everything away to his sister because “it’s stupid.”

3:02 p.m.     …and quickly takes half of it back because “it’s actually pretty cool.”

5:30-5:45 p.m.  A flurry of questions concerning what time we will have to leave to get to church, how long church will last, how long the drive will last to get to Christmas dinner destination, will we eat or open presents first, if we will open presents all at once or one at a time, if he can open Christmas presents alone in a room instead of with everyone, how we will get all the Christmas presents back to our house, etc…etc…etc…etc…etc…

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The Loathsome Hover Ball

8:30 p.m.       Grayson is allowed to open one early present after asking a mere 50 kajillion times.  He looks at the half-spherical soccer ball that lights up and gives the appearance of floating  (that I THOUGHT he would enjoy), somehow manages to clench his entire face almost completely shut, throws the ball on the ground 3 times all while jumping up and down and raging about how stupid it is and crying hysterically.  I’m simultaneously trying to hush the muffled laughter of four other children so things don’t entirely explode.

8:31 – 9:00  p.m.     A series of going down to his room to cool off and coming back several times eventually ends in him agreeing to practice the CORRECT way of graciously opening a present that you don’t like and keeping unkind thoughts “in your brain,” to which he adds upon the conclusion of our practice session, that next time, he will wait until he’s calm to tell them that they didn’t pick out a good present.  Sigh… I give him an “A” for effort (as I’m trying to keep the simultaneous exasperation and laughter “in my brain”).

9:02 p.m.          …aaaannnddd he  is fighting with his sister over who gets to play with the AWESOME soccer ball and trying to think of a good place to hide it where no one will be able to find it while he sleeps.

9:15 p.m.         Grayson decides to move all of his presents down to his room so that he can open them alone in the dark in peace and quiet.

9:16 p.m.         He decides that upstairs is actually better and returns them all to their spot under the tree.

9:45 p.m.        He is sleeping!!!  Husband and I giggle and plan next year’s holiday game – everyone has to act like Grayson when they open their worst present.  Grayson opening “bad” presents is rapidly becoming an annual tradition that we have learned to find a certain amount of humor and endearment in.

9:50 p.m.        Mom labels presents from #1-7, worst to best, so that he will know what to expect and wraps a jar of pickles to practice on in the morning.

Thursday

5:33 a.m.          I am awakened to thunderous footsteps tearing through the house and a breathless child excitedly telling me that he opened another present but don’t worry it was an electric toothbrush that clearly wasn’t for him because it was dumb (it was for him).  I tell him I don’t care if he opens all of his presents.  I want to sleep.  Leave me alone.

5:34 a.m.       He is back to tell me that he won’t open any more presents and maybe I should hide them…just in case.  I tell him in the most patient words I can muster to get out and never come back.

5:35 a.m.       He’s back again.  He wants to know what he should do with the toothbrush.  I’m getting up as I can see that this sleeping thing is clearly not going to work for me.

5:36 a.m.       I’m stumbling (literally) to get coffee and explain my disappointment… “I like to watch you open presents…Daddy isn’t even here…I’m going to have to keep all your presents in my room so you don’t do this again.”  Grayson looks at me with his eyes filling up with tears, his chin starting to quiver and explains to me in a cracking voice, “I just wanted to practice so I could do a better job at opening my presents.”

5:37 a.m.        All of my irritability and sleepiness drain through a single tear trailing down my cheek.  I shut my mouth and stop explaining and start listening.  As hard as it is for me, it’s harder for him.  I hug him and tell him, “Good job.  I’m proud of you.”   Thank God for my early Christmas gift  – a dose of humility and a reminder to slow down and sit with him in his world.

Autism, Judgment, and Love

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“Levitating” with a shovel implanted in the ground

I am the mother of an 11-year-old boy with a diagnosis of autism and a love for magic, levitating, yo-yo’s and recreating things he’s seen on YouTube.  He makes me laugh and cry harder than any of my other children.  Over the years I have grown pretty thick skin.  I rarely notice the stares if he loses it in public.  I am mostly used to the judgment.  I have been told by a stranger at Costco that I should have left him at home when he pushed his sister.  He has been nudged by the boot of an unknown man and told to “mind his mother” when he was pitching a fit on the floor.  When I locked him out of my car in the parking lot of a mall because he was hitting me, the woman in the car facing mine took off her sunglasses to glare and shake her head at me (I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear).  To be certain, I am not impervious to these occurrences, but they have become a part of life to some degree; my new normal if you will.

But what I cannot handle, what absolutely dissolves my resolve and shakes me to the core is when someone shows me kindness.  Heaven help us all if a stranger stops and asks if I’m alright or if I need help, or even worse, tells me I’m doing a wonderful job as a mother.  I might actually drop and shed every last tear in my body.  I can be strong and keep a stiff upper lip.  But look at me with concern on a bad day and ask how I’m doing, and you might literally witness my complete and utter undoing.

There are many things in life that I do not know.  But the one thing I do know is this: impulsive judgment without understanding gives rise to anger and bitterness.  It builds walls and leads to retreat or retaliation.  Love however, can undo and rebuild in one swift movement.  It can pluck you out of your small world and drop you into the foreign land of another’s struggles.  In a world confused by what color lives matter,  who can use what restroom, and which politician will cause the end of the world, if we do not respond with love, we will leave only emotional casualties behind.

Consequently, when we find ourselves on the receiving end of unfair judgment, we are left with a choice. We can wallow in the pain, playing the part of a victim.  Or we can choose to release ourselves, and with gratitude, turn our focus to the goodness surrounding us.  We will see what we choose to see.  Even though I have, at times, been enraged by people’s cruelty, it cannot compare with the love that has humbled me over and over again.  I have seen my son bite his teacher and draw blood, and then watched them walk hand and hand into school.  Friends and family have searched for and then cooked meals that are free of the fifty billion allergens we avoid, just to give me a night off of cooking, or to make sure that my son has a special treat at family dinners.  Teachers at his school have given up their personal time so that my husband and I could get away for our anniversary.  I have received phone calls from school because one of my other children had unbeknownst to me, taken the needs of a physically disabled student upon himself, and was carrying the child’s backpack to class every day.  My dad regularly drives an hour each way to take my son to a movie so that I might enjoy a quiet morning in church alone. Finally and perhaps most importantly, I have been on the receiving end of the unconditional love of my son.  No matter how many times I lose it, or become irritable with him, or feel like I’m going insane, he tells me every night at bedtime without fail, “Good night, I love you.  You’re special to me.  I think about you in my heart.  I think about you in my peace.”  I don’t really even know what it means, but it’s beautiful.  Some nights, I brush over it, because I’m just so excited for him to go to bed.  But when I stop and think about it, I can’t really think of anything nicer that anyone has ever said to me.  And once again, I am undone.  Love has overcome the anger and frustration of the day and released me one more time from the snare of judgment (me toward myself this time).  I settle in for the night and fall asleep with the words of Mother Teresa in my heart, “Not all of us can do great things.  But we can do small things with great love.”

 

Reading Color

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Today I met the most amazing man.  He is an older gentleman from Greece and he writes (draws) icons for Orthodox churches. He was sweet and funny but what I found fascinating was his ability to see color.  Now anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit obsessed with color. I love the undertones, the way they change from wall to wall, from day to night. I love colors that look blue and gray and green all at once, to where you almost don’t know what color you’re looking at.  I would get a Ph.D. in color if there was such a thing!  This is very different than my husband, who when asked which paint swatch he likes best, responds with a shrug and says that they all look the same (bless his heart, as they say in the South).  But I digress…back to the iconographer. What amazed me about this man is that he not only can read color, he  knows how to MAKE it!  He can look at a color and know how much black and white and red and yellow and blue would be required to CREATE any color!  He knows what to add if it’s too dark or how much to add if it’s too light and what colors enhance the richness of others.  This might be silly but it honestly mesmerized me.  I’ve been thinking about it all day.  What talent and skill!

soulAnd so I have come to this thought tonight…what if we could look at people the way that this artist looks at color?  What if we could have insight into the creation of their personhood, how they became who they are…their ups and downs, sorrows and joys, the moments that have either broken or resurrected them, what they currently long for?  What if we could discern exactly what “color” to add to enhance other’s lives and beautify their existence?  How much more patient and compassionate would we all become?  What if we could learn to look at OURSELVES this way?!  What if today, instead of seeing my irritability and the dishes and the messes and everything that feels like a failure, what if I could look at myself like a color, complex with constantly changing undertones, drastically different in the morning light, but beautiful nonetheless.

But alas, my eye is not quite as developed as this skilled artisan.  I still see only in tones and shadows.  I do not look deep enough or close enough.  The late author Jonathan Swift writes that, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”  Oh, that I might have the eyes to see that which remains hidden in every person, and the knowledge of what to add so that fullness of color might be achieved.   Perhaps over the course of my life, I will hone my skill and attain proficiency.  In the meantime, I will remain restlessly content to aspire to those who have inspired.