Family, Meditation, Parenting

Flowers and Bullet Holes

Genuine Heart of Sadness
Genuine Heart of Sadness

Flowers were wedged into bullet holes in the deli window.  This sentence is from a CNN description of the deli where Elliot Rodger shot Christopher Michael-Martinez because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It was that random.  It was that final.

If you drive along the highway in Wyoming or Montana, every few miles there are makeshift altars.  Places where people were killed and their families have paid tribute at the point of departure.  I have always thought that this custom of wedging flowers into bullet holes or tying them to a tree by the highway was incredibly beautiful.  We turn the actual point of departure into a sacred space. We create a shrine to help us remember and honor the life of someone who disappeared in an instant.

All weekend I have been reading the stories of what unfolded in Isla Vista. The sad lonely life of Elliot Rodger, the signs that in hindsight look like a road map of madness.  I think of the police officers who went to his home at his mother’s request and saw nothing but a strange and disenfranchised young man.  In our society, disconnection is not a crime.  I think of how those officers feel as they watch their children play, as they wonder if they could have prevented his carnage.  I think about the parents of the kids whose lives were ended or are forever changed through physical or emotional trauma.

I think about how after Newtown we all swore never again, and yet here we are.  More flowers wedged into bullet holes, more grieving parents, more makeshift altars, more promises that this is it, we will not stand for it anymore.

We live in a country where it is easier to buy a gun than to access appropriate mental healthcare. Where young people move far away from their families and can spiral out of control well beyond the reach of support. Until they commit a crime, their families are almost powerless to have them hospitalized. Just ask James Holmes’ parents, whose son dressed like the Joker and slaughtered people in a movie theater.

Our lives are as fragile as the window of the deli.  They are held in place by the structures we create, but in the blink of an eye it can all be shattered.  Let your heart hurt over what happened at UCSB.  Don’t second guess the parents or the authorities; we always do this as if to assure ourselves that if we were in the same situation we would have done something differently.  Just spend a few minutes today really sitting with what it means to have to wedge flowers in bullet holes.

I hope that this is the last time. I hope that we are finished with altars outside schools and along our city streets and highways. It is time to be horrified and not become distracted.  It is time to make changes in the way we treat each other, especially our most vulnerable. Rather than arming teachers, let’s train them to properly identify and support kids on the outskirts.  We come together in times of tragedy, every day there are images of students leaning on each other for support.  What if we could be that open and loving towards each other without having to have our hearts broken first.

In Shambhala Buddhism there is a teaching, Genuine Heart of Sadness. It describes the experience of being awake enough to feel deeply and compassionately for all beings.  That is what we need right now.

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.

 

Family, Marriage, Parenting

I was not expecting that…

the beginningWe are moving, so I am packing.  I went upstairs today to start on the attic.  I have been making deals with myself for days to begin the process, so I was feeling resigned with a hint of itchy pre-boredom as I went up the ladder.  I was starting with the things we use least.  It was a horse race between Colin’s college textbooks, my high school camping gear, and some ice skates–until I saw my breast pump peeking out of a bag.  We had a winner…..

In the bag with the breast pump was a towel shaped like a duck, a tiny sock, a tennis ball, and a copy of What to Expect When You Are Expecting.  I held the book in my hand. I turned it over.  Then I ripped off the cover and the title page, which I ripped in half.  Before I was totally aware of what I was doing, I started ripping more pages, like a bite of ice cream that turns into the whole pint. In minutes I had shredded the book.  I was sitting on the attic floor looking at this huge mess and thinking, “maybe I can wrap glasses in it or something”, trying to make this weird random act of violence against this book make sense.

It does make sense though. It is one of the best selling books of all time, but it sends the wrong message.  It sends the message that if you love your kid enough and you rock them in a chair and wear comfy clothes, and you start with peas instead of peaches and you watch and track their milestones, then you are in the clear.  But that is wrong.  You can do everything right and things can still go haywire.  In fact they probably will.

Here is what I think you can expect:

  • Expect that your 10-year-old will be a Minecraft genius but not remember that dirty clothes go in the washer.
  • Expect that your 8-year-old will be charming and kind and wonderful, but may frequently have days when he cries three times before breakfast.
  • Expect that no matter how much you love your 6 year old, she may not be able to say Mom because her brain isn’t wired the way yours is.
  • Expect that you will look at your husband and feel like you haven’t seen him for days, even though you live in the same house.
  • Expect that you will think that we need as many words for tired as the Eskimos have for snow.  Not sleeping through the night for ten years and taking an Ambien on an overnight flight are two different kinds of tired.
  • Expect that you will see your hands on your steering wheel and wonder why your mother is driving.
  • Expect that you will look at your children at least once a day and think, “I really love them.  I hope they turn out ok.”
  • Expect that every day you get to begin again, and that is all that really matters.

I was a little embarrassed that I destroyed the book, I didn’t know I had any feeling about it whatsoever.  I have learned that having children is not about expectation it’s about learning to see ourselves and them for who we really are and to love each other in spite of it.  There will always be a gap between expectation and reality, so learn the basics:  feed them, love them, apologize often and let them do the same, but don’t drift too far from what’s real.  It’s the only thing that matters.

 

Family, Food, Meditation

This time I won’t read, smile, and delete…

raceI have written before about how Colin believes that I am a superhero.  His stubborn  insistence that I am the very best version of myself allows me to do crazy things like raise humans.  For years he has been encouraging me to enter writing contests, emailing me links to submit articles, or forwarding me profiles of writers on a trajectory he thinks I should follow.  I always open the link, email or article, smile to myself about how sweet it is that he thinks I am capable of such things and delete them.

This past week, he sent me a link to submit something and I was just about to read, smile, and delete, when I decided that maybe I would just let it sit in my inbox for a change.  Now it sits in my inbox like the email equivalent of a giant pile of laundry, demanding that I eventually deal with it, but is easily ignored in the short term.

I have been trying to figure out why read, smile and delete has become the fallback position for these emails, and I think it’s because on some level I think that entering these contests is an exercise in futility.  I won’t win.  It dawned on me yesterday as I trudged along for a morning run where my efforts to appreciate the triumph of spring were interrupted by the peanut gallery of aches and pains in my hips.  I realized that I have entered many marathons and half marathons with no intention of winning.  Never once when I have shown up to the starting line of a race has winning crossed my mind.

The Hartford Marathon is a favorite.  It is close to home and is a big enough race to have good snacks and a great shirt, but not so big that you have to walk an extra mile at the end to find your family.  It also has a switchback so that when I am at mile 17 I see the people who will win at mile 23.  Mile 17 is a horrendous part of the race for me.  I have run far enough that I know I will finish but I still have nine miles to go, and everything hurts.  It is the part of the run when I promise myself that I will never, ever, ever be seduced by the notion of a foot race ever again. Meanwhile, coming the other direction are runners who are only a few miles from the finish line; as my feet pound the road, theirs seem to glide, as my hips curse at me with each step, theirs seem to be well oiled joints in a high performance machine.  It’s all in my head of course.   They too are working incredibly hard.  They will finish this race much more quickly than I will, but we both will finish. I would never enter a race to win, I enter it to finish.  I enter them so that I can remind myself that if I can get past the internal voices at mile seventeen I can run another nine, not to win but to finish.

Today, I will re-open that email from Colin, and I will write something to submit to this contest.  I will ignore the voice in my head that tells me it will be received by a room of people who will laugh at it.  They will think it’s so awful that they will quote it to friends as the worst thing they ever read.  Or when I am feeling optimistic about it I think it will end up in the “close but only because she has good hair pile.” Either way, I am going to enter because I am old enough to know that I don’t enter a race to win.  We create our own obstacles, if I decide that success is a condition of embarking on every venture I might as well never leave the house.  Everything has it’s mile seventeen moment where you can look over and see someone who probably is having more fun than you are.  The thing is, that we all end up at the same place. My obstacles, and fears are actually just as loud sitting comfortably in my living room as they are at mile seventeen, so I might as well at least enter the race.

Family, Marriage, Meditation, Yoga

Where you belong…

Ev and Me 1979There is almost nothing more pretentious than quoting the Bhagavad Gita, except for maybe referring to it as “the Gita,” which assumes a level of familiarity I can’t imagine having with an ancient text.  There is however a quote from the Bhagavad Gita that I keep scrawled on a piece of paper in my wallet and pinned by the side of my desk. It serves as a constant reminder not to stray from where you belong.

“It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another.  Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma.”

One of my favorite things about seeing someone you love and have loved for a long time is that when they stand in front of you there is a split second flip book that happens, where you see them as all the people they have ever been. This week, my very talented brother published a book called Age of Ambition.  It is about China and is being very well received. When I spotted him last night right before he went on stage to give a talk to a packed auditorium, I saw him as every version of himself. On his face, as he spoke and answered questions from the moderator and the audience, I saw his teenage self, and in his body language, shades of both our parents.  The thing that I saw most of all was a person who is on the right path.  My brother is smart, and charming and would have found success in lots of different fields.  But success and being on the right path are different.  You can be successful and unfulfilled; your success won’t last but the emptiness will.  There is no greater joy than knowing that someone you love is on the right path for themselves.  As proud as I am of his enormous intelligence and the discipline that allowed for this book to exist, I am even more proud that he has found his path and in his wife, the right partner to walk it with him.

People come to me all the time for yoga and meditation.  Sometimes they do want simply to inhabit their body better or to learn to be still.  But more often they are feeling unmoored; their life has moved away from its center.  They have had children, or a partner whose own trajectory doesn’t leave room for anything else. They are feeling ill at ease but they aren’t sure how to get back to themselves.  I can see it in their faces and bodies. I don’t really know how to guide someone back to their center.  I only know what works for me.  I can stay rooted in myself if I am honest about who I am and I do it with kindness.  As soon as I start comparing my mothering skills to someone else, or the state of my house and children, I am lost.  The first moment, I envy how a friend is aging, or feel like my classes should be larger, I am lost.

Every day I sit for meditation, for twenty minutes. I do not collude, placate, engage or respond.  For a brief period every day, I am not an active participant in anyone’s life but my own. This keeps me rooted exactly where I belong.  Right in the center of my own messy, imperfect but perfect for me path.

My greatest hope for my nearest and dearest is that they find their path, and that it includes room for those they love most. I have taken the jacket off my brother’s book and pinned it next to the wall beside my desk as well.  Every day I will look at it and be reminded that the joy is not just in living your own truth but also in knowing that those you love are doing the same.

Family, Marriage

Apraxia Awareness Day

 

Mae ChillingYou might not know this, but today is Apraxia Awareness Day.

As I thought about what I’d write for this post, I longed for a time when I was unaware of Apraxia. There was a time in my life when I thought that children were born, they cooed, they gurgled, eventually busted out with some random word, and then, like a train picking up speed, words came spilling out of them.

My older son talks so much that I occasionally pretend to be lost when we are in the car so that I can demand silence to concentrate on finding our way — a trick that I learned from my mother who did this to defend herself against my endless chatter.

When I thought of “speech issues,” like most people, I thought of lisps or stutters. Or, I assumed that if someone couldn’t formulate words, it was due to malfunctioning equipment, maybe a voice box that didn’t work or a misplaced tongue.

In college, the father of one of my closest friends had a massive stroke and was left with Aphasia.  He could no longer speak, except for a few choice curse words.  It was awful. The thought of him imprisoned in his own body made me sad for him, his family and all that he had lost.

It wasn’t until some 15 years later that I would meet Apraxia and truly understand how  devastating it can be for a human being to be robbed of words. My daughter Mae is living with Apraxia of Speech.

When I met my daughter, she was already walking. We adopted her just after her second birthday. I knew the first time I looked at her that this was going to be a bumpy ride.  She made no real sounds for the first six months we had her. She put nothing in her mouth, and rarely, if ever, pointed.  All of these things I eagerly wrote off as a result of her time in the orphanage. Institutional affects. She was in so many other ways normal. She looks normal. She is, in fact, beautiful   She jumps, she skips, she runs, she can do the monkey bars, and she laughs when things are funny. She just doesn’t speak.

Later, when we got through the hours of tears and testing to finally understand that she was Apraxic, that the part of her brain that manufactured words and the part of her brain that processed them for production and moved her mouth did not communicate, that was when we started to become aware.

If most speech disorders are lisps and stutters than most of the therapists we encountered in the early days were equipped for that.  They had no idea how to handle my daughter, it was like pulling a line cook out of McDonald’s and asking them to be lead chef at The French Laundry. They would hold up pictures of pigs in front of her and simply repeat the word “pig” over and over and over again until she or I would start to cry tears of boredom and exhaustion.  It was only several years in that we were introduced to the therapies and very talented people who could help.  They would touch her face, coaxing sound out of her mouth in small chunks and reward her efforts with incredible enthusiasm.

The thing that you can’t appreciate unless you have a special needs child with a condition like Apraxia of Speech is how much we can adapt and normalize things.  Today, when I see a six year old girl speaking I am in awe. I forget that they do that, because mine does not.

Mine points, she gestures, she solves problems herself, she gets frustrated, she loses interest. If she has thoughts about the weather I have never heard them. She’s never told me how her day was or asked how mine went. I do know that she loves peanut butter and hates jeans. She is not without thoughts or opinions. She has tons of both. She just can’t communicate them the way most people expect her to.

She has made progress, but it’s slow.  It breaks my heart when someone says “hi” to her, and ten minutes later I hear her force out her own version of a greeting.  It takes so much effort and the world has moved on.

I am never unaware of Apraxia. It sleeps in my bed at night and joins us for all our meals.  It is the boogeyman in the closet and a common scapegoat for all our other fears. It is also something that so few people understand. The more aware our friends and neighbors become the more they understand what she needs, what we need.

No individual child is Autistic or Apraxic.  Their whole family is Autistic or Apraxic, as is their community. For as long as one child doesn’t have access to the right tools and therapies, we are all losing.  A person without a voice lives on a planet alone. We owe it to our kids and each other to do everything we can to connect these kids to their voices and meet them where they are.

My daughter is incredible and I love her beyond imagining, and we will continue to wrestle with Apraxia. Someday, I plan to have a conversation with my daughter.  In my wildest dreams I imagine telling her we are lost and she has to be quiet so I can concentrate… maybe, someday.

Family, Marriage, Meditation, Yoga

Fragile and solid at the same time…

Mae and ColinThis morning I sat down to work my way through a giant pile of mail.  Tucked in with all the other mail was a giant medical bill I wasn’t expecting.  It has been many years of giant medical bills and they should no longer take my breath away, but for some reason this one made me feel like the wind had been knocked out of me.  It was Mother’s Day and Colin knows me well enough to know that thing that I would want most is time to myself.  He and the kids were out hunting and gathering a picnic for later in the day, and as I first sat and then stood in the office, then the kitchen, then outside, then inside all desperately trying to calm myself down, I just wanted him to appear.

In my head I was ticking off everything I have learned in my meditation and yoga studies.  I was going back over all the other massive medical bills we have paid, and reminding myself that it would be fine.  Still my head was spinning, I tried to sit for meditation, to lean into the feeling, to see if I could get at what was really at the bottom of it.  Fear? Why the intense reaction to a problem I don’t want to solve but know I will.

When Colin walked in I was so relieved, I showed him the bill and described my complete and total meltdown at its arrival.  He was calm, he agreed it sucked, he said we will deal with it tomorrow when it’s not Sunday.  He didn’t tell me to calm down, or ask my why I wasn’t expecting it.  I was able to exhale, we will deal with it tomorrow.

Being married is hard. Being married with young children is harder. Being married with a special needs child and all the stress that comes with it is harder still.  Sometimes, I can’t believe how hard it is, but when Colin walked in the door and just his presence made me feel better, I was also overwhelmed by how lucky I am. Sometimes it takes these crises that come up — in this case an unpleasant problem with a solution — to remind me to be appreciative of all that I have.

It can be easy to overlook each other in the same house, or respond to the difficulties of a grown-up life by being nasty to each other.  It is much harder to be honest, and sad, to be overwhelmed, and need help.  I hear all the time from people about how their marriage or partner is different than they had imagined.  When you are dating you never play the “How will you respond to medical bills?”  game.  Or, how about “What will we do if our child has a life long cognitive condition?” I didn’t seek out a partner thinking about the dark moments.  But I am grateful every day that I found someone who sees the darkness and even if there is no quick fix will always keep reminding me that there is light up ahead as well, and just to keep moving forward together.