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There are few feelings I can call up with as much clarity as I can the feelings I experienced the first time I read Mae’s first report that labels her as Autistic. There was almost a physical sensation of drowning, a kind of overwhelmed I had never experienced before. Sometimes even when we know things, seeing them written down gives them a weight they didn’t have when they were just thoughts. The tangible quality of the report meant that my suspicions were now confirmed and that there were experts who looked at my child and were naming those behaviors I had tried desperately to ignore.
It has been seven years since I first held that report, seven years since I had the feeling that life would never feel normal again, seven years since I joined the club of Autism families, seven years since I learned that the diagnosis is the first and hardest step. Recently, we have started seeing a new neurologist. After several years of taking a break from the constant doctor and therapy appointments, we are back at it. As I sat in her office last week and she outlined for me the referrals and the tests that we would be doing over the next few months. I found myself almost moving back in time. It was as if, it was 2011 or 2012, years consumed entirely by Autism, hand-wringing over medical bills and watching my child for any sign of improvement to justify the fact that Autism had taken every aspect of our life hostage. I worried as I sat in the doctor’s office last week if it is possible to do both: can we manage the numerous appointments and therapies and still have a normal life?
I left the appointment, exhausted and fragile as if all the weight of the original report had rushed back into my life. These last few years I have convinced myself that I am completely at ease with my child’s Autism, I was reminded last week that I will never be. I can easily love her for who she is. I no longer wait to hear her voice, or expect that one day she will wake up and want to live in my world, but I have found this peace because I stopped asking questions or looking for answers. However, as she gets older it is time to focus again on all the ways she isn’t who we imagined she would be. We will do a series of tests, we will go back to the days of fighting with the insurance company, sitting in therapists’ and doctors’ offices who try to provide answers to questions none of us can even name.
There is a part of me that questions why we should even bother, a part that already wishes we had never met this new doctor or initiated this whole chapter. However, there is another part of me that knows that this discomfort I feel is all just a part of what it means to be Mae’s mother. It is my job to look for answers, just as it is my job to teach her brothers to never take anything for granted.
I think people assume that the hardest parts of having an Autistic child are the parts they can see. The tantrums, the lack of communication, the loss of freedoms, but they are wrong. The hardest part is the feeling that there are always more questions, there are always more ways in which you could do better. The hardest part is reminding yourself that your job is just to love your kid and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
The basic goodness of humanity is at the heart of Buddhism. The idea that all people are basically good, regardless of their behavior is important to developing compassion. When people do terrible things they do them out of confusion and ignorance. Ignorance is not defined as stupidity but as ignoring, or not seeing. In the week since the election I have thought a lot about basic goodness. It sounds like a simple concept but when you really start to apply it to people with whom you disagree on what is practically a cellular level it can be challenging.
When I ask myself if I think Donald Trump or Mike Pence is basically good, a riot breaks out in my brain. I find them and virtually everything on which they built their campaign completely repellant. It is a scary thing to doubt the basic goodness of your president; it is a feeling of vulnerability and fragility that I have never experienced before. The sadness is most similar to a broken heart in its betrayal and shock. There has also been a sense that something was taken from me. I wasn’t an overly enthusiastic Clinton supporter but I did think that she would keep our country moving in the general direction of decency that would allow people of all colors, creeds and abilities access to a basic level of education and healthcare befitting a democratic superpower. Now, I am not sure if those things are true anymore.
When my daughter woke up on Wednesday morning I was awfully grateful that she has non-verbal Autism. She came skipping into the kitchen grinning and clapping, totally unconcerned about our now very uncertain future. It was not so easy when her brothers came down, after months of telling them that Trump was unfit to lead, and that he had no idea what he was doing. I found myself singing how a bill becomes a law from Schoolhouse Rock and explaining the checks and balances of government. When the kids left for school I cleaned my house, listened to jazz and classical music, and wept. I thought of how certain everything had seemed just a few days before and even though nothing was different everything was different.
In reality this is always true, in the blink of an eye your life can shift completely. Usually when it happens it is specific to your family or your work. A death, a new job, falling in love or out of love, built in to our lives is a baseline level of uncertainty. This election however, was a shared experience. It was a shared sense of disbelief and sadness, of disconnection from your neighbors, and disbelief that they don’t see or want what I see and want. It was an awakening. Any time we get too comfortable, any time we start to take things for granted, it is inevitable that we will get shaken out of it. We can respond with anger and disbelief that our dream has been interrupted or we can respond with action.
I have decided to respond by appreciating the things I took for granted. I will give to NPR and Planned Parenthood. I will renew my subscriptions to the newspapers and magazines that will provide us with real information about our new leadership. I will educate myself on things like the Voting Rights Act and support places like the Southern Poverty Law Center. If Hillary had won I would have felt validated and safe, not activated and alert. I would keep on tending my own garden, raising my kids, volunteering in my community, being polite, and that would have felt like enough.
But that isn’t what happened, and I don’t feel safe. I feel exposed and uncertain but I also feel energized. I know lots of women in my mother’s generation and older who spent their lives fighting for equality, for basic human rights for all people. I never felt the need to pick up their fight until now. I am hoping to get to a place where I trust the basic goodness of our leadership, but if I don’t, I have been reminded of an important lesson. Nothing is certain. The only thing I can control is my response, which in this case is to fight for the things and people I believe in and to teach my children to do the same.
Recently, we have had a few teachable moments with the boys. We have been faced with situations where they have broken a rule or abused a privilege, but rather than punish them, we have given them the opportunity to repair the damage or remediate other consequences of their behavior. In both instances, once their relief at not being in trouble subsided, they rose to the occasion and demonstrated maturity that impressed us and, more importantly, themselves.
The whole experience got me thinking about teachable moments. The writer Annie Lamott describes how she had to retrain her inner voice from one that would order her to sit down and write, using phrases like “sit your lazy ass in this chair” to one more like a gentle maternal coaxing “just try and write one paragraph you clever girl.” Clearly, one is more pleasant and arguably more effective. When we manage ourselves and our relationships skillfully we are better able to identify teachable moments.
Even our bodies have teachable moments. When someone is training for an Ironman or marathon, that is not the time to start an aggressive new yoga regime. We will not be teaching our body anything; we will just be stressing it even more. When training for an event, most bodies need days of rest and long slow stretches, extended hip openers and chest openers with lots of support. Learning to listen to the cues our body is giving us is one of the most important steps to lasting wellness.
Often teachable moments rise out of unpleasant experiences, but that isn’t always the case. Remembering how much better we feel after enough sleep can mean that when we are tempted to stay up a little too late, we remind ourselves of that good feeling. A friend and I were joking recently after a huge dinner that our diets would start Monday. Later when thinking about our conversation I realized that even that sort of habitual thinking isn’t healthy. Even though we were both kidding around it is that “I will start tomorrow” mentality that prevents us from doing so many things. Maybe the teachable moment there is just noticing the habit. Every day there are opportunities to be accountable for our behavior, to wonder whether we could have handled interactions more skillfully, with more insight or compassion for ourselves or others. I am so completely convinced that we learn more when the methods are loving and patient than swift and punitive. I am going to start paying more attention to the teachable moments in my every day. I know they are there and there is an awful lot to learn.
As anyone who has been in a relationship for any length of time knows, there is a big difference between hearing and listening. In the early days of any relationship, romantic or otherwise, we listen very carefully to the other person when they speak. As we become more familiar with people we may hear them but not with the same attention. I can recall with incredible clarity what Colin and I talked about on our first date, despite the eagle-sized butterflies in my stomach. I was as present and aware of every detail of the day as I have ever been. If you asked me the details of a conversation from this past weekend I would have a harder time. It is not for lack of interest. I still think that at any given moment Colin is the most interesting person in the room, it’s just that familiarity makes it easy to confuse hearing and listening.
Hearing is what happens when I ask my children to empty the dishwasher and they don’t move. They have heard me…but they aren’t listening. Listening is what happens when you calmly tell them several hours later that ignoring my requests makes me feel rotten, and emptying the dishwasher and making beds is just being a part of the team. Listening makes change, but in our family for people to listen to each other, voices can’t be raised and eye contact is necessary. Yelling, snipping, or coming from a place of exasperation pretty much assures that no one in my house will listen to you.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a well known contemporary Buddhist scholar, talks about “listening deeply” or “listening skillfully.” These are practices that one develops through meditation. By learning to listen to the rhythms of our own mind we are better able to listen to other people. We learn how to listen by being quiet and practicing non-judgmental awareness of what comes up in our own minds. It is the same when we are talking to a friend, a stranger, a family member, we have to see that person as they are, not as we wish they were, not rush them through to express our opinion, or in the case of loved ones, without the layers of history between us.
Skillful listening is something we can all develop. At one time or another it has come naturally to us: a friend in crisis, a new love, a child’s first words, but then we relax back into hearing rather than listening. These days I am working on really listening deeply, giving those around me my total attention. When I listen with my whole heart I am a better wife, mother, or friend. Like any practice it starts by noticing when you aren’t doing it, and gently drawing yourself back into the present moment. Eventually it becomes easier, replacing the old habit of hearing, with a new habit of listening.
The conventional wisdom is that it takes 21 days to change or create a habit, although new research suggests that it can take much longer. I have always been really interested in the relationship between routines and habits. Routines are based on habitual behaviors while habits themselves can exist outside of routine. For example, I have a habit of biting my lip. I do this regardless of the time of day or whether or not I am driving or watching tv; it’s just something I do. It is a habit that is not influenced by the rhythm of my day.
One of the things about moving to a new house and a new place is that so many of our routines were changed. I have written extensively over the last few months about how moving or transition can be an opportunity to integrate new habits or cut out things that don’t serve you. Lately, I have been thinking about reward systems for new habits. An example of this would be a meditation practice. Students always want to know how they will be able to tell that this habit of meditation is “working.” In any workshop or class this is always a tricky question. How do we encourage a habit or create a routine when there is no clear timeline or obvious payoff?
I used to tell students that the reward would be that they would be more available to the present moment, more awake to the nuances and habits of their own minds. I still believe that this is true, but it is the kind of answer that implies that without a formal meditation practice you are sleepwalking through life. This is not at all true. Meditation, yoga or a routine quiet activity or period of reflection is an important habit to introduce into every day simply because time moves extremely fast. I find that my days are a blur of activity, much of it shaped by routine. Every morning our house bustles until the last door has slammed and then it is completely quiet. Then every afternoon it again swells with movement and noise until everyone has eaten, fulfilled their last commitments of the day, brushed their teeth and then fallen asleep — only to do it all again the next day.
If we don’t build time into every day to reflect or slow down we are simply riding a wave of routine, which will happily carry us day after day, week after week. By taking time each day to stop moving, or to walk, run, swim, with total attention to the present moment, we are actually stepping outside of the rhythm of routine for just a moment. Taking that time is the closest thing that I have ever found to a reset button, taking a chance to step back and make sure that we are really experiencing things rather than just orchestrating them. A routine is an orchestrated set of habits that keeps your life running smoothly, but if you don’t examine it you can very easily lose touch with the fulfilling and exciting parts of an ordinary day.
I encourage everyone to add in something new for 21 days, some new challenge that shakes things up a little. It can be a meditation practice, or a change to your exercise routine. It can be learning a new skill that requires concentration, just something out of the ordinary. Twenty one days may not be the magic number but it is certainly a start. If our routines are running the show, it’s only because we let them. Introducing new habits, challenging ourselves to shake things up a little bit will bring a freshness and a vitality to everything we do.
Around the new year, there is always the discussion of resolutions and change. People set intentions and try, at least for a brief period of time, to be the best version of themselves possible. I took a class recently with Nina Wise, a local meditation teacher, who said that she doesn’t bother with resolutions anymore because she felt like they had a built-in element of self loathing. The idea that we need to change something doesn’t seem inherently like self loathing to me, but I understand how, for some people, making and breaking the same resolutions year after year might contribute to a lack of trust in themselves.
She suggested choosing a theme for the year, things like health, honesty, work or family. Rather than setting goals that include specific elements, having a theme for the year just makes you more conscious of one aspect of your life. For example, choosing family as a theme may mean that you are more inclined to arrange gatherings, are kinder to your relatives, or more mindful of the small gestures that matter like phone calls and notes to check in. If your theme is health maybe it is more yoga and meditation, but also more time with friends who make you laugh, more massages and sleep. Health doesn’t have to mean that you are in the gym three times a week for the month of January and never again. Health as a theme means taking care of yourself as a whole person, and over a year that could be life changing.
She also spoke about honesty as a theme which I loved. She suggested developing the habit of asking yourself whether or not your actions support your theme. In the case of honesty, the questions look something like this:
Is this not true and not helpful? Don’t say it….
Is this not true but helpful? Don’t say it..
Is this true but not helpful? Don’t say it…
Is this true and helpful? Wait for the right time, and say it
The idea of being this mindful of speech is exciting to me. I know that I often speak out of habit, or boredom, or nervousness. It is a discipline for me to hold a space in loving silence, a discipline that I have worked hard to develop. My nature leans more toward giggly chattiness rather than thoughtful silence. I hope that this year I will learn how to wait for the right time to offer advice, or to collude with a friend. I hope that my words will have more power if they are chosen with greater care. Mostly, I just hope that I am helpful.