Family, Parenting, Special Needs, Uncategorized

An Autism Vacation

Sky is the limitI have often wished that Autism took weekends off, and federal holidays.  One of the hardest things about having a special needs child is that it is relentless.  This can feel true with the other ones as well.  Occasionally when the boys are bickering, I think to myself that having a child who doesn’t speak really isn’t all bad.  However, on many Sunday mornings when your body wants a break and you want to chill on the couch with coffee and the newspaper, you can’t.  Sometimes you can, maybe she is feeling mellow and just wants to hang out, or maybe she wakes up at 5 and bangs on her door until you put her in the car which is where she likes to go first thing in the morning.  You just never know, and the not knowing means that even if you can chill on the couch on a Sunday morning you have one ear open the whole time.  In fact you never really relax because at any moment a tantrum can start.  Mae’s tantrums are like summer storms — they can come out of nowhere, rain furiously and stop as quickly as they started.  She bangs her head and bites her hands, she twists her body and kicks her legs, I can barely imagine what the internal storm must feel like for her because the outside is so dramatic.

 

This weekend was different though, this weekend we took an Autism vacation.  We were home, we were with Mae, we were in fact sanding and prepping the walls of the kitchen for paint.  Hardly a trip to the Bahamas, but we even managed to fit in not one but two trips to Home Depot.  It is glamorous around here these days.  Mae was calm, she was joyous, she happily joined us as we cruised the now familiar giant aisles.  When the sander was loud she did not attempt to drown it out with screams but went up to her brothers’ room instead and lay down in Pete’s bed.  There was not a tantrum, or even a complaint lodged.  I feel this strange sensation in my face and realize that it is my lower jaw relaxing for the first time in a while.  Yesterday, when I went running, I realized that I didn’t feel a moment’s guilt because I thought Mae might be home melting down.  I felt free.  It’s been a long time.

 

This change in behavior is due to a new protocol Mae is on.  When we made this move to the West Coast, part of the motivation was that really interesting research is going on in fields related to Autism.  Mae is part of a study on the effects of a new drug on mood regulation.  I had some serious concerns about taking this step.  I love that Mae bounces in and out of rooms like Tigger.  I don’t care if that’s a sensory seeking behavior.  To me it is part of who she is.  The thought of giving her something that would affect her personality made me uncomfortable.  It is hard for me to know what is Mae and what is Autism and can you love one without the other? I have worked so hard to accept and love her for exactly who she is that I was worried that this could change all that.

It is way too early to say whether this is a long term solution or simply a break in the clouds.  Either way I feel like we had a vacation from Autism this weekend.  Like all vacations, I didn’t know how badly I needed it until I felt myself wind down. Mae has taught me to adapt to anything, to enjoy the smallest victories and to love the people in my life for who they are right now.  I know that I am a better mother and a more compassionate person for the experiences she and I have shared, but this weekend reminded me that just because I can endure something doesn’t mean I have to.  It reminded me that we can normalize anything, and that is a survival mechanism that I depend on.

Mostly it made me remember how good a Sunday morning feels.  I am cautiously optimistic that we have more Sundays in our future and maybe we are really onto something.  For anyone who deals with an illness of their own or that of a beloved family member, the hardest part is that it doesn’t take weekends or federal holidays off.  I am reminded that no matter how grim things may be it is important to take a break: a walk around the block or simply a cup of coffee, but to try for some small period of time to find a Sunday morning.  Beach vacations in exotic places are great, but these days nothing feels more luxurious than than the quiet that comes on a Sunday when everyone feels safe and loved and knows where they belong.

 

 

Meditation, Parenting, Special Needs, Uncategorized, Yoga

It doesn’t just happen….

Buddha courtesy of www.lotussculpture.com
Buddha courtesy of http://www.lotussculpture.com

In her book A Heart as Wide as the World Sharon Salzberg describes “effort” as the “unconstrained willingness to persevere through difficulty.” She goes on to say, “Effort is the willingness to open where we have been closed, to come close to what we have avoided, to be patient with ourselves, to let go of preconceptions.”

I love the phrase “unconstrained willingness to persevere.”  I think for many of us in our lives we are many things to so many people and we have taken on many different kinds of tasks.  Sometimes a kind of automatic pilot can kick in.   We understand how to make our lives work and so we move forward, effortlessly. There is nothing wrong with being good at what you do, or having an established work or parenting pattern.  But when something is effortless, are you connected to it? In yoga when we teach the very first pose, Tadasana, people will almost always say “you mean I just stand here?”  The answer is “sort of.”  If you are really thinking, however, about your balance and engaging the muscles of your legs and the position of your spine and shoulders you will find that it takes effort.  You will even start to build some heat in your body, it is important to figure out the alignment in that first standing pose because it will be relevant to every other pose you do, including even the fanciest of arm balances.

The same is true in our lives.  If we construct our lives in such a way that they require very little focused effort, we start to feel disconnected from ourselves and the people and things we care about most. One of the reasons I believe that having a special needs child has been an incredible gift is that her unpredictability and the effort it takes to be her parent mean that I can never really slide towards autopilot.  She is the ultimate reminder to wake up and pay attention because life is happening, and of course if you take your eyes off her for a minute she is hanging from the rafters…..So that is motivation to stay present.

The word “unconstrained” is perfect to describe the effort we should put into our lives and relationships.  It implies that unlimited potential is possible if we let ourselves live fully.  We all have lists of things in our heads that we would like to do. They don’t have to be lofty. They can be as mundane as cleaning the kitchen or as vast as enlightenment for all beings.  They both take effort, attention and mindfulness. It is tempting when we meet people we admire, such as great teachers, writers or artists, to imagine that they were born with skills we were not.  It is true that someone who is destined to be seven feet tall because of their genetics is more likely to play professional basketball than someone who never makes it to six feet.  However, there is enormous effort, and concentration that goes into being an athlete even if one is born with some of the cards stacked in your favor.  When I have met great meditation and yoga teachers, I am always amazed and maybe a little envious of what they know and how easily they seem to convey their knowledge.  What it is important to remember is that this wisdom took effort and discipline. It took focus and perseverance. Wishing for knowledge or clarity but not undertaking the learning is like wishing to be in the NBA and never picking up a basketball.

Right Effort is part of the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path.  It is the fundamental belief that it takes effort to wake up to the full awareness available to us all.  In my mind it is the difference between being able to drive a car so spaced out that I don’t even notice that I have been listening to commercials, and driving a car with full attention to what I hear, what I see and what I am doing.  From the outside both experiences are identical, but inside they are completely different  Yoga and meditation are two ways we can practice mindfulness and attention, but any activity can become a mindfulness exercise.  It just takes effort and perseverance and the unconstrained willingness to believe that every moment is an opportunity to practice being awake.  It is this practice, this effort of returning our attention repeatedly to where we are and what we are doing, that will help us realize that we have everything we need for real sustainable, wakeful joy.

Parenting, Uncategorized

What city are we in again?

photo (11)This year, I have traveled a lot. There have been some trips for work, some for play and roughly a zillion associated with our move.  I have spent so much time in airports that I actually have opinions about where you can find the best snack options (SFO) or how the cartoonishly surly barista at the JFK Starbucks actually makes a fabulous cup of coffee. I am not a nervous traveler, I find it enjoyable.  When I was growing up, we used to get dressed up to fly on planes.  Air travel was a different animal then. The staff was attractive and courtly and the food and booze were free.  Now they may be attractive and even courtly, but that doesn’t seem to be a requirement for the job and absolutely nothing is free.

It doesn’t seem like people dress up for travel anymore, particularly the early flights that we have been taking to maximize time at our destinations.  People roll out of bed and head to the airport.  Some even walk around the airport with those funny U-shaped neck pillows draped over their shoulders, like hemorrhoid donuts for their ears. You half expect to see them dragging their comforter behind them.  There is something so unself-conscious about the way people behave in airports. Somehow the experience of travel becomes so personal that a level of decorum that we typically reserve for public situations falls away.  Rarely do we head to our local grocery store with our pillow and pajamas despite the fact we may be sleepy.

Years ago a performance artist put himself in a cage at the zoo and people watched him, sleep, eat, brush his teeth. I can’t remember about the bathroom but maybe they watched that as well.  It was a wildly successful exhibit. I love being in airports because it is a little bit like that.  People’s public faces kind of fall away and they behave as if they were at home.  They lounge, they eat, they play with their children, even when they appear to be trying to get work done they look a little more at ease then they do in an office.

Even though I think it is a little strange to wear your pajamas on an airplane, or walk around with your pillow as if at any moment you may be overwhelmed with the need for a nap, I love watching people just do their thing in an airport. There is something comforting about how similar we all are.  I may not want to start my day with a large curry filled burrito, as my seatmate did earlier in the week, but I admire his lack of concern for potential gastric distress.  I love the “wasn’t me” expression on the face of a passenger when the stranger next to them is snoring with gusto. Or the two women behind us who shared intimate details of their lives with each other over the course of a 4 hour flight.  They covered topics from back injuries, dating, Costa Rican sailors, shuttered New York clubs and sushi, a friendship started because they had randomly been assigned 32E and 32F.

I think there is a sweetness about the fact that on airplanes people sleep next to strangers comfortably.  There is something trusting and very human about looking over at someone you have never seen before with their eyes closed and their mouth open.  I know lots of people think that air travel is nerve racking or expensive and incredibly un-glamorous. I understand their point, but I love what an equalizer it is. I love how people get in airports and just become travelers.  One may be a wealthy businessman and the other a struggling student, but they are both just trying to get to Nashville, Chicago, Tampa, or wherever.  To do that though, some of them just need a portable pillow and a spicy burrito for their journey…

Family, Parenting, Uncategorized

It’s not about the gold star…

MomMy mother doesn’t like gold stars, in fact she doesn’t like attention of any kind and feels about applause the way a cat feels about the bath.  In her own quiet steady way my mother has made her life about finding the beauty and the magic in places where other people can’t see it or don’t think it exists.  She does this in small ways, like choosing the Charlie Brown christmas tree every year despite the fact that there are many gorgeous, full ones available.  And in large ways by spending her career as an advocate for the rights of women and children all around the world.

My parents have sold their house.  It has a plaque on it that says “John Knapp House 1760” in case you thought your eyes were deceiving you about whether or not it was old.  The people who have bought it will perhaps tear it down. We knew that and recently signed the demolition papers that accompany the sale.  The land is worth more than the house to anyone but us, and for the most part we have made peace with that strange reality.  So, recently when I walked by my mother’s house and saw that she was planting pansies I couldn’t help myself.  I laughed and said, “Are you gardening for the bulldozers?”  In my family we have a long history of taking uncomfortable truths and whacking each other with them until they stop feeling weird.  She looked at me, smiled and said “No, it’s still my house and I would like to look outside and see pansies.”

She is right of course. She won’t move until August, which is several months of looking outside your window at no pansies.  Do I think it is a little bit like the band playing as the Titanic sank? Absolutely.  If she didn’t plant them no one would notice except her.   We are all too busy going a million different directions. She didn’t plant them for us, or for the bulldozers, she planted them because she loves them. My mother has built her life around the belief that no matter how grim a situation there is always the opportunity for the human spirit to triumph.  Whether it was giving voice to those most downtrodden on the other side of the world, or believing in the power of spring flowers to uplift us all.

She has quietly taught me and everyone who knows her that there is the possibility for magic in all things. That life’s most beautiful and poignant moments come in the places where we least expect them.  We can choose to see the joy and possibility in our everyday, not because we want gold stars, but because it makes for a better view.

 

Food, Uncategorized

Kale and the Emperor With No Clothes

ImageDo you remember the story of the Emperor with No Clothes?

The Emperor walked around naked and everyone admired his clothing because no one was courageous enough to point out that he was in fact naked… Finally, a child speaks up during a parade and the truth sets everyone free.  I used to feel like Kale was the vegetable equivalent of the naked emperor.  Everyone loved it, articles appeared every day extolling its benefits. A friend returned from vacation in Turks and Caicos and the headline about her trip was the incredible kale salad at the hotel. Clearly, I was missing something. I tried repeatedly to develop a love for this much discussed wonder green, but I hated it. I was just about to decide that everyone I knew was powerless in the face of kale propaganda, when something amazing happened.

For Christmas this year I gave my husband tickets to see Neil Young at Carnegie Hall.  To make it feel like a real date, we went to dinner at Candle Cafe, an amazing Vegan restaurant in Manhattan.  We ordered the kale salad, this was my Hail Mary. If Candle Cafe could not make kale taste good, then as far as I was concerned, I would be happy with spinach.  The salad was amazing as was everything else we had that evening.  I may have even begun the story about that night to a friend with news of the incredible kale salad…(sorry Neil)

A few nights later I decided to try and make it myself.  I ordered the Candle Cafe cookbook and used their recipe as a guide but I modified it a bit.  I have included my version below, but highly recommend purchasing their cook book.

Kale Salad (inspired by Candle Cafe)

1 cup Buckwheat (we like the Kasha brand)

4 tsp olive oil

2 large japanese yams (these look like purple sweet potatoes)

½ lb sugar snap peas

1 lb kale

2 avocados peeled, pitted, sliced

salt and pepper to taste

Chive Vinaigrette (this is the Candle Cafe recipe almost exactly, and I would drink it if I could)

½ cup plus 1 Tbsp Grapeseed oil

½ cup chopped shallots

2 cloves garlic

¼ white wine vinegar (or rice vinegar)

½ cup warm water

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp pepper

 Garnish:
1 cup pomegranate seeds
1 cup sunflower seeds

The key with kale is to remove the stems, and spines so it is just the leaf.  Then massage olive oil into the leaves.  They don’t need to swim in it, but the olive oil will soften the leaves and remove the bitterness.  Bake the yams at 350 for about 75 minutes, this can be done ahead of time. Buckwheat takes about 15 minutes to cook, but again this can be prepared the day before.  Steam the snap peas, and place them aside.  After you have massaged the olive oil into the kale, very briefly throw the kale into a large pan until the leaves wilt slightly and turn a very dark green. Put the kale, the sliced avocado, yams, snap peas and buckwheat into a large bowl.

For the dressing saute the shallots in one Tbsp of grapeseed oil, add the garlic until they are both soft. I use the hand mixer to make this, but you could use a blender.  Transfer the sauteed ingredients to either the blender or bowl for hand mixing and add the other ingredients.  Pour the dressing on the salad, add sunflower and pomegranate seeds for garnish.

Family, Meditation, Uncategorized, Yoga

Practice what you preach

As a yoga teacher I reference the mind/body connection a lot. Encouraging people to notice their breath and to make the connection between what’s happening in their mind and how their body may be responding is central to my teaching. It is impossible for us to be in a state of stress and anxiety and not manifest that in our bodies. The same is true with happiness, when we are at ease, our breath is deeper, our jaws relaxed, and our general overall posture improved. I talk about it all the time, but I didn’t really understand it until this fall.

In September, I went on a week long meditation retreat to Karme Choling in Barnet Vt. My in laws came in to replace me and help Colin with the driving. I left notes all over the house with instructions. The kitchen actually looked like a scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind.  I set up outgoing messages on my email alerting people that I was removing myself from my life for a week.

The retreat itself was wonderful —  not just the meditation sessions and the teachings —  but Vermont in September is beautiful. For six whole days I did not cook, clean, put on anyone else’s shoes or wipe their buns. There were breaks in the middle of each day and I would go for long runs.  In the morning I had at least an hour before breakfast to do yoga in my room with no dog to come in and lick my face or child to ask me to stop because one of their siblings was somehow ruining their life.

The last day I missed my family, and was ready to come home and see them. What amazed me was how easily I had spent the rest of the retreat as a solo act. How quickly I shed my skin of mother, wife, daughter teacher and friend.  All of my  responsibilities fell away and for almost a week I was really connected to the rhythm of myself. I felt great.

For the first few days at home, I continued to feel unusually present and aware. I smiled at strangers and they smiled back, I was not agitated at all and felt very much in sync with my life, not just inside my body and house but out in the world as well.

Then on Sunday afternoon, having been home for three days, I headed with Mae to the grocery store. We were doing a week’s worth of hunting and gathering but for some reason were not at our regular grocery store. I can’t remember why, but we went to one I rarely go to, and don’t have as clear a map of in my head. Either way, she was very well behaved the entire time, despite the fact it was taking longer than usual, as I wandered us up and down aisles in search of our weekly staples. By the time we got to the check out line she had had it. She started fussing a little, and a nice woman whose youngest had just left for college tried to distract her. I am not sure how her empty nest qualified her to engage my special needs six-year-old but she meant well. Mae was done however, and proceeded to launch into a tantrum that wasn’t epic by any means but was dramatic for sure. It is the banging on the side of her head that is horrifying and the inconsolable quality of her screams. I held her in one arm as she kicked and screamed, a perfect illustration of what we imagine an angry kid looks like. I used the other arm to unload the cart.  I know people offered to help, but that isn’t so helpful. The checkout girl for my lane and the the one for the lane behind me both ceased to work. Their jaws actually hung open. Finally, I said to the checker in my aisle, “you know what would be very helpful, if you could continue to check out my groceries so I could get out of here, she will be fine in the car.” I remember thinking that my voice was very calm and in fact feeling very calm. Making a scene is not my favorite thing in the world but we have made way worse…on airplanes..

When we got back in the car I was relieved, and so was she.  Immediately she was quiet and we headed home.  I was about a mile from home, which meant we had been in the car for about ten minutes when I realized my jaw was clenched, my hands were gripping the wheel and my shoulders ached.  Anger was bubbling at the base of my throat and behind my eyes.  I was replaying the incident at the grocery store in technicolor in my head.  Each time I re-lived it my body responded.  I had left the store calm, and by the time I got home I was a mess.  If I had not just come home from a retreat the effects would not have been so noticeable.  Even now, months later I can connect with that extreme shift in my own state of mind.  This drove the point home for me in a very tangible way. My body is very much at the mercy of my mind.  When I revisit unpleasant experiences repeatedly my body responds each time with physical and emotional sensation.

My meditation practice had allowed me to see this connection really clearly.  I have learned to watch my thoughts, to pay attention to the feelings that arise with them.  I am working every day to let go of the ones that do not serve me.  I cannot control how the world responds to me, or my children.  What I can control is how many times I replay the hurts and slights, how many times I let them restrict my breath and sting my eyes.  So for now, I will unclench my jaw and my knuckles, I will relax my shoulders, and take deep breaths, and maybe I will learn something.

 

 

Uncategorized

What does it feel like to be at ease?

When I first started practicing yoga, I was drawn to classes with a fast pace and a good soundtrack.  Classes with names like Yin and Restorative were dead zones on a schedule as far as I was concerned.  It wasn’t until my first teacher training, when Restorative was a requirement that I allowed myself some rest.  I have come to believe that a Restorative practice is necessary for any balanced program.  The less you are drawn to stillness, the more you probably need it.

 

I am challenging myself to add a restorative pose into my day for all of April.  Sometimes it will be in the morning and sometimes in the evening, but as Spring heats up outside, I am going to commit to slowing down.  Give it a try and let me know, how it goes for you, below are some poses that will calm both body and mind if you let them.

 

Legs up the wall: Lie down on the floor with your hip next to the wall. Pivot your legs so they go up the wall and your spine is perpendicular to the wall on the floor.  It does not matter how close your seat is to the wall.  Take your hands out by your sides and let your palms face the ceiling.

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Supda Bodhakonasana: Place a bolster or large couch cushion on the floor, fold a towel and place it at the end of the cushion on the floor (you will sit on the towel) have two more pillows nearby.  Sit on the towel, bring the bottoms of your feet together and let your knees fall wide apart, place the additional pillows under your knees for support, lie back onto your large cushion or bolster.  Inhale, and exhale for longer than you think you need too.  Relax your jaw, and the sides of your neck, let your body ease into relaxation…..for many of us it is unchartered territory.

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River Pose: Take three towels, fold one neatly, it will act as a pillow.  Take the second one and roll it up about halfway, this will leave half of it flat and half rolled.  Roll the third one entirely, so it resembles the inside of a ho-ho… Place the pillow towel underneath your head.  The half rolled towel should be placed along the mid back, right at the bra-line if you are familiar with that location.  The final fully rolled towel should get placed underneath the knees, and legs extended.

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We are lucky enough to live in a time when Restorative yoga is being innovated and taught by great teachers.  The two websites below are incredible resources for developing and understanding of the benefits of this incredibly healing practice.

 

http://www.judithlasater.com/

 

http://jillianpransky.com/