Please don’t be scared of her, she is just a little girl.
She needs to touch everything because that is how she roots herself in the world.
When she doesn’t look at you when you are speaking, it isn’t because she can’t hear.
It also isn’t because she doesn’t like you.
Telling her she is pretty is not going to make her less Autistic.
It’s ok, I am not sad about Autism anymore and she never was, so you don’t need to make a sad face.
I want you to know that I am grateful every day to be her mother, but that doesn’t mean I am an unusually good person. She is my child, we are in this together, we are learning and trying, growing and changing. I used to plan that someday I would dance at her wedding, now I recognize that those kinds of plans are a gift that makes you feel sad. Now I plan small. I take life in careful bites. I savor the good moments and try and let the bad ones not break my spirit. Autism has taught me that a life is not a series of accomplishments or degrees from fancy schools. Life is about waking up every day and beginning again.
When my children were learning to ride bikes this is the mantra we would repeat for them. In the videos of their first successful two wheeler rides you can hear them whispering to themselves, “push, balance, steer, push, balance, steer.” It became the magic words that propelled them onto two wheels.
I hear it in my own head when I feel like I am on shaky ground. It has become my own mantra, my own magic formula for reminding myself what I really need.
Push: We need to apply effort in our lives. Some days the effort can be just getting out of bed. It requires effort to sit down and meditate every day, or go to a yoga class or exercise. Even being polite especially to those we love most can be an effort. Sometimes, it is the effort of not listening to our own defeating chatter, or doing something that scares us. If you push too fast or far, you will fall, but if you don’t push at all you won’t ever move forward.
Balance: We all use the word, I am not sure we know what it means. To me balance means mostly follow the rules, but maybe break them a little every day. Balance means sleeping when I am tired, and eating when I am hungry, snuggling when an opportunity presents itself, and taking every chance I get to make sure I am plugging in to my life. Balance means showing up to the people who care about me, including myself. The road underneath me is always changing, balance means not thinking it will all be smooth and flat.
Steer: Being in the moment does not mean that there is no plan for tomorrow. We need to steer ourselves along a path. We don’t meditate to become awesome meditators. We meditate to become better human beings. We shouldn’t do yoga so that we can be at the front of the class in tight pants balancing on our noses. We should do it so that we are connected to our breath and body. We shouldn’t just fill our lives and hearts with people to avoid loneliness. We should fill our lives with relationships that uplift and encourage us. When we are steering ourselves in the right direction anything is possible. When we aren’t we end up on our asses by the side of the road.
Push, balance, steer, push, balance, steer, push, balance, steer….When you feel yourself wobbling, say it a few times, and you will be back on the road in no time…
This morning I lost something. It has been pinned to the wall in my office for at least two years. I have never needed it until this morning, when I actually did. I could picture it, a CD in a pale blue envelope with some writing on it. It is the record of my daughter Mae’s 24 hour EEG, and I needed to Fedex it, to a doctor in New York. I waited until 7 in the morning to look for it, because really the optimum time to look for something important is while you are also trying to get your kids out the door for school.
The corkboard in my office where I swear that thing has been pinned, is also home to the kids’ school calendars, my bib numbers from races, important notes and cards from friends, a giant skeleton poster of the muscles and bones, and one of the central nervous system, 6 bumper stickers, a flyer for the first yoga workshop I ever taught, two pictures of me with my parents when I was little, a man made out of a popsicle stick, a tiger made out of a paper plate, and this very important piece of Mae’s medical history that I absolutely needed this morning.
The entire corkboard situation is actually hard to get to because my office chair is in front of it. You can’t actually see the chair because it is camouflaged by remaining christmas cards, snowsuits that everyone has outgrown, a gallon size ziploc bag of lego directions, a copy of the yoga sutras and two old copies of the New Yorker. When I moved the chair, all of that stuff slid off it and onto the vacuum cleaner which was perched just behind it. This caused the vacuum to tip forward, sealing my body between it and the desk. At this point, my blood pressure was through the roof.
Losing something, especially something which you could swear you see every day is annoying. Being trapped in your own messy, disorganized office, wasting valuable minutes when you need to be getting your family and yourself out the door, is a recipe for disaster. I desperately wanted to yell at someone, or something. Luckily, my family had scattered, either some animal sense for self-preservation had kicked in, or they actually saw me entering the war zone with a take no prisoners look on my face.
There is nothing zen about my office, in fact certain sections of it would land me on the show Hoarders. Most of the time, the mess doesn’t bother me, until I need something and then it makes me crazy.
This is the same relationship many of us have with our own minds. We are fine being busy, and multi tasking. We are fine just stacking thoughts and feelings in random piles to be addressed later. That is, until for some reason it all starts to move so fast that we feel like we can’t slow down, we can’t find anything. The corkboard in my office with it’s layers of unrelated papers and other snippets of my life is probably a fairly accurate representation of my thought process.
Just as cleaning and organizing a wildly messy living space gives us a sense of possibility and maybe even ease, so does taking some time to sit and bring a little space into our minds.
Take some time today to sit down and look at the space where you spend the most time: your head. Just take 10 minutes, find a quiet place to sit. Organize your body in a comfortable, alert but relaxed position, listen for the sound of your breath. When your attention wanders from your breath, just bring it back. It will wander a lot. That is OK. You don’t want to clear your mind of thought the same way you don’t clean your office by emptying all the shelves. You just want enough space in your mind that you can actually see your thoughts clearly, and weed out the ones not related to where your body is and what it’s doing.
If you go months and months without cleaning your office, things will start to build up. Important papers will get mixed up, and you won’t be able to find things when you need them. The same is true in your mind, it is easier to do a little bit every day than to wait until the day when you really feel yourself stressed and disconnected trying to center yourself on ever shifting ground.
One year after Christmas we went to Michigan with my husband’s family for a few days of rest. Both his brothers were going through painful divorces and I had gone from being the last of the daughters-in-laws to marry into the family, to the only daughter-in-law in a few short years. I wanted very badly to do a good job in this role, on one level because family is important, and the less elegant truth that I love being a hero.
My sons were just over 2 and 3, they were adorable. The younger one in particular looked as if he had fallen off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Blond curls, chubby little legs and sweet smile. One afternoon, during this winter week, we were all bundled inside, a fire blazing and the gentle quiet that descends on winter houses filled with families. One of my brothers-in-law was on his computer, my father-in-law was snoozing, my husband, Colin, was reading, the kids were puttering around, and my mother-in-law and I were playing Scrabble with Colin’s older brother. At that moment, the door to the screen porch blew open. My two-year-old, Peter was just walking by it, and I asked him to close it. He threw himself against it, and it closed momentarily. Seconds later, it blew back open, and Peter valiantly hurled himself against it to close it again. It closed and he said, “Stupid door!” I responded by saying something to the effect of, “Peter, we don’t say stupid,” and looking at my mother-in-law to make sure she understood I was a perfect mother in every way. Peter, was still looking at his foe, the door, and said “If it opens again, I am going to say Fuck You door……”
This is the moment when everyone started to laugh so hard we had to stand up. Ten minutes later we were still giggling and wiping away tears. The whole thing was so ridiculous, the angelic child saying “fuck you” after his well meaning but sanctimonious mother had corrected him for using the word “stupid.”
This story always makes me laugh, because it is funny. It also makes me laugh at myself. I don’t really use the word “stupid” very often, but I apparently was not afraid to drop the F-bomb now and again. My children have never failed to remind me what is true. When I am striving to make the world believe I am perfect, they will unintentionally remind me I am not — either by cursing in front of my mother-in-law, or some other equally embarrassing disclosure.
The person I lie to most often is myself. I think that’s true for almost all of us. No one wants to think to themselves, “I am the kind of person who regularly curses in front of toddlers….Or I am the kind of person who prefers to watch the Real Housewives of something instead of the news….” This was so true in my case we had to cancel the cable, to save me from my from glassy eyed, slack jawed 11 pm self.
The truth is, we are all flawed, we all want to be the hero, curse less, exercise more, improve on what is there. To improve on anything you have to be honest about it. If you are going to be honest with yourself, do it with humor, do it with kindness. Every time I find myself pretending to be something I am not, I picture a defiant toddler saying ”fuck you door” and I am reminded that our true nature will always make itself known. So try and greet yourself with a smile and a wink…..and hope you mother-in-law does the same.
When I wake up in the morning after a healthy dinner and seven hours of sleep, I look the same way I did after a two day bender in my twenties. I know that the lines around my mouth are from smiling and the ones around my eyes are from squinting on many a beach day. The state of my boobs is upsetting, but a result of nursing my kids. The roundness of my stomach, a tribute to many a good dinner. They are all signs of an instrument in use.
The shiny hair and sparkly eyes of youth are like a road with no line down the middle, or potholes. Really great for learning to ride a two wheeler, but hard to maintain. The drugstore is filled with products that are designed to hold off aging. Or, some semblance of it. If you really spend your days in search of youth, and all the beginnings that come with it, would you even recognize your actual youthful self? Would you recognize that real youth is about possibility and not perky boobs? Real youth is about not having met your children yet, or certain kinds of heartbreak. It’s about a future that holds more beginnings than endings.
Youth for me was also about insecurity and the anxiety of whether or not I was fit for adulthood. Each wrinkle and stretch mark has liberated me from that. I never stop trying to be a better version of myself, a better wife, mother, daughter and friend.
“Better” no longer means cute though, it means really listening when people talk. It means letting the enormity of life’s successes and failures sink in. It means celebrating with gusto and enthusiasm when there is cause and rolling up my sleeves and getting to work when I have to. It means not apologizing just so someone will absolve me of responsibility, but always apologizing when I think I am wrong. It means stepping back and looking at how far I have come, and then appreciating my chaotic and beautiful present.
Youth is about possibility, but maturity is about confidence and wisdom. Neither is really marked by age. We all feel youthful after we surprise ourselves; there is no more beautiful expression on the face of a yoga student than when she has come down from her first handstand in twenty years. I hear the wisdom in the voice of my ten year old when he talks about living with a special needs sibling. Neither youth or maturity are available commercially, they are the product of our experiences and our willingness to see them. Or even better, celebrate them.
It is almost always the simple things that matter most. Recently, we took our children on a trip where they were able to see and experience some of the greatest art and architecture in the world. We had a wonderful time, but everyone agreed that one of our most fun afternoons was spent in a park while we lay in the sun and the boys shot cans with a small homemade bow and arrow. We could have been anywhere, we happened to be in France. Sometimes, I think we lose sight of the fact that our situation is as much shaped by our attitude as by circumstance.
Obviously, it is easier to have a good attitude lying in the grass, under a warm sun with a full belly than it is doing deep knee bends on an airplane trying to calm a tantrumming child and ignore the stares of other passengers. Neither experience lasts forever, even when you wish it would or it feels like it might. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from having a special needs child is to let things go, both good and bad. When our children were babies and sleep was an enormous issue, I remember thinking there was a perfect sleep recipe. The pajamas they had worn for their first long good sleep, became the “magic pajamas” or the sheets on the bed, or the meal I had, had before nursing. Certainly, you can do things that support good sleep for your baby, routine being one of them. But, every parent soon figures out that some nights they will sleep even with a marching band going through their bedrooms and other nights they won’t no matter what.
It is the same with everything in life, you can plan elaborate and exciting adventures for your family, and they can be great. Or you can all snuggle up onto the same couch and watch Fetch and sometimes that is better and was a happy accident. Being able to maintain equanimity in the face of anything, is what allows us to truly be at ease. We cannot control the outcome of any situation especially when children are involved. What we can control is our response. Some days will be awful, you will receive bad news, your bank account will be empty, loved ones will be in pain, other days you will find yourself lying in the sun in Paris. Life is like that. I am trying to greet both the good and bad with the same joyful attitude, the way one would meet an old friend. Inconvenience, sadness, joy, and ease, all familiar, all fleeting, all guests at the same table.
Every day I wake up and make a promise to a woman who I have never met who lives on the other side of the world. She is my daughter’s birth mother. When my daughter was six weeks old she wrapped her up carefully, put her in a basket with a note and a pendant and brought her to the pediatric ward of a hospital outside Beijing. I think about how she must have felt that day as she rode up to the 6th floor of the hospital, knowing that on the way down she would be alone. I wonder if when she found a safe spot and put the basket down if Mae was asleep or awake. I wonder if as she rode down in the elevator if she ever thought about changing her mind and taking her baby/my baby back home with her.
The only thing I do know is that she wanted a better life for her daughter than she could provide. So, every day I wake up and promise to do my best. I promise her that I will never take her decision for granted. I promise her that because she did her part, I will do mine. I promise her to love my daughter for both of us. When I kiss Mae goodnight, I kiss her twice, once from me and once from the woman on the other side of the world. When she belly laughs as she jumps on the trampoline with her brothers I hope that her other mother hears it in her dreams. When she cries, I comfort her knowing that there is a woman on the other side of the world who is depending on me.
Mae is Apraxic, a disorder that puts her on the Autism spectrum and greatly limits her speech, for now. She has been my child for almost 5 years and we have not yet had a conversation, let alone touched on the issues of her adoption. This makes it even more important for me to hold her other mother in my heart. There are days when having a special needs child is unbelievably hard, there are days when I want to lie in bed and pull the covers over my head. But I can’t because I think about that elevator trip, and what that other mother gave up.
My dreams of my daughter started long before I met her. Just like with my other children as she grows they have changed. I once dreamt that I would drive her to dance lessons, and host giggly sleepovers. Now, I dream of hearing her say Mom. It makes me happy to know that somewhere on the other side of the world is a woman whose dreams for her haven’t changed. In her mind, Mae’s life knows no limits. Every day, I promise her to do my part, every day I promise her that I will love that little girl for both of us, that I will never forget that she went down in that elevator alone.
Do 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.
I am my goal weight and still get parking tickets *Being your goal anything does not prevent you from getting parking tickets or anything else
You will never have more time after you “just get through this week” *I have gone months when I say this every week
You aren’t going to yoga class because you don’t have time *You have time, you are using it for other things
Those expensive pants you bought on sale, will still be too small next year *No matter how discounted something is, if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit. If you don’t wear them they cost too much no matter what
Gluten-free, organic, soy-free or dairy-free are not synonyms for good for you *A bag of potato chips can be all these things, but if you eat the whole bag, you will probably regret it
There is no reason you cannot meditate *It is OK not to want to, but don’t pretend you can’t
That person’s life is easier than mine because. *This is never true, every single one of us experiences challenges, you just don’t know about theirs
Every day, I hear myself and the people around me hinging happiness on the future or creating a reason to not engage the present. If you want to develop a meditation practice, then sit down. If you want to have yoga in your life, then go to class. If you want to be happy, you have to understand what that means when you say it.
Fundamentally happiness is being loving and realistic about what you need and how you spend your time. You have to look at your habits and patterns with generosity, kindness and most importantly honesty.
There is no future happiness, it is a choice for right now, and you are the only one who can make that choice.
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.