Yield

After maybe the roughest night we’ve ever had with Gabriel, this morning we somehow drug ourselves out for a surprisingly balmy late morning walk. Surprisingly balmy until we got about a mile from home, at which point I’m pretty sure I felt winter officially descend on our little hill up here in Ohio. It was as if one season palpably pushed the other out. The wind turned cold. The grey sky ominous not like thunderstorm ominous but like hunkering down ominous (winter being the stubborn companion that he is). All of a sudden it hung lower. I snapped a shot, not thinking it would amount to much. I seldom am able to capture in a picture how the weather makes me feel, but this exposed itself (and me) in a most startling way:

Startling how, you may ask. The big red “Yield” sign for one. It occurred to me today that if one wanted to oversimplify the sorts of people that move through the world, one might break it down into two categories: the yielders and the unyielding. The majority of us probably aim to be a little of both, but man, moderation has to be one of the most difficult virtues to maintain. Is it even a virtue? But that’s not where I mean to go with this.

Mr. Yield as I’ll call him (he occupies this image in a more tangible way than most photographs taken of me ever do), fairly shouted, as though every yield sign ever planted was put there for me. He with his classic good looks, his bold trinitarian style—his other dimension-ness. You see, I am not a yielder. I am of the unyielding. This element of me has its advantages—advantage being the key word here, because the unyielding are all about gaining the upper hand. Seeing this in me is a start. Coming to terms with it another thing all together.

Instead of going all confessional here, I’ll cut away to an excerpt I read on thAutcast.com, from Everyday Zen, by Charlotte Joko Beck. This ranks right up there with the still stone in a rushing stream image I conjure up in times of need.

Suppose we are out on a lake and it’s a bit foggy–not too foggy, but a bit foggy–and we’re rowing along in our little boat having a good time. And then, all of a sudden, coming out of the fog, there’s this other rowboat and it’s heading right at us. And…crash! Well, for a second we’re really angry–what is that fool doing? I just painted my boat! And here he comes–crash!–right into it. And then suddenly we notice that the rowboat is empty. What happens to our anger? Well, the anger collapses…I’ll just have to paint my boat again, that’s all. But if that rowboat that hit ours had another person in it, how would we react? You know what would happen! Now our encounters with life, with other people, with events, are like being bumped by an empty rowboat. But we don’t experience it that way. We experience it as though there are people in that other rowboat and we’re really getting clobbered by them…

I read that yesterday, and I don’t know how many times that image of an empty rowboat appeared in my mind today, unbeckoned. And every time, it helped. The chip that gets lodged between my shoulder and collarbone shifted to a much more manageable position. At least I was able to look right and left, to gain a little perspective. And maybe all the yielders out there wish they were more unyielding, like I wish submitting wasn’t so damn hard. But I think the yielders have one up on us. The Beatitudes are pretty uncompromising on that front. Blessed are the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the poor in spirit, the peacemakers. Not so much the stubborn, the advantage takers, the proud, the satiated, the war mongers. Somebody ought to tell Congress, for goodness sakes.

How to be the Sun

Jonah wanted to be the sun today. Okay, Jonah actually wanted to be the sun Sunday, but I’m just getting around to announcing this important fact. Because the world can always use a second sun.

If you’re wondering Why the sun, why Sunday?—well, to borrow Jonah’s parlance:

“And for one,” he had just watched the Charlie and Lola “There is only one sun, and that is me!” episode in which Lola pretty much demands to be the sun in the school play. She makes her own costume to convince her teacher that she “must absolutely be the sun,” but disappointingly is assigned the part of leaf. But that’s another story.

“And for one,” it seems only perfectly logical to be the sun when the day requires rain suits and wellies:

All day grey rain. But also geese. We finally found a window where the sky abated its torrents in favor of a misty fog so that we and the pups could stretch our legs a little.

But back to J’s suit. Wishing I had taken a photo here, but it went something like this: neon yellow Spongebob Squarepants pajama bottoms and cherry red zip-up fleece shirt under the brightest, largest orange t-shirt (given to him by his godfather Joshua) advertising some sort of Indian beer, complete with supremely cool logo sporting elephants. O yes, and the white leather and elastic dance shoes we keep around as slippers (they’re all the kid will wear, if that, even in the dead of a northeastern Ohio winter).

And in the spirit of his innate sunniness, when not obscured by meltdown fronts moving through, I shall conclude with a few recent Jonahisms, culled from our gathering stash. (Note: I make a point not to overuse the exclamation point. What follows is a grammatical representation of Jonah, king of the exclamatory.)

My brain is warm, but my body is cold!

————————————————————–

Jennifer:  I think I’m losing it. I’m just losing it.
Jonah:  Sure you’re not losing it mom. What happens if you lose it?

————————————————————–

When I am patient I will be a man.

————————————————————–

Mom, sometimes you’re not even wrong!

————————————————————–

Jonah:  O yeah, baby!
Jennifer:  Who says that?
Jonah:  I say it. And sometimes God says it to me.

 

Three Saturdays

Thanksgiving weekend feels like a string of Saturdays. Say you don’t like the way the first one’s going—hooray! You get a do-over. Better still, you get two do-overs. And you can separate out all of those great plans lurking in the cobwebbed corners of your brain. You know the ones. Like the idea to write a long overdue letter. Or finally clean the dog beds. Or finish working on the rock wall out back. Or get back to knitting that scarf. Or make a big pot of simmering soup. Maybe some homemade bread. Or just sit around drinking coffee all morning, caring not a fig about the hardly-contained kiddo chaos surrounding you because, hey, you have three Saturdays!

Saturdays have a certain holiness about them. Mine get muddled because I wake up wanting to cram so much into the day. Or I don’t want to cram a thing, but the world—and myself in the world—seem to be conspiring against me, shoving me in half a dozen directions at once. Nothing like conspiring against yourself I always say.

So here’s a synopsis of how the three Saturdays progressed at the Jantz-Estes compound. Names have not been changed to protect the innocent.

Saturday #1 (also known as Thanksgiving Day):

Jonah is up Early. Unaccountably excited about Thanksgiving and obsessed with turkey. Jennifer gets up late. Enters chaotic first floor goings on and needs an hour to recuperate. Food helps. And coffee. Pumpkin cupcakes are made. Garlic-lime marinade for turkey, check. Jonah continues to bounce off the walls, literally. John works on rock wall. Cream cheese frosting for cupcakes is whipped, the beater and bowl sufficiently licked. John prepares two different kinds of (delicious) fresh salsas while Jennifer takes all remaining creatures for a walk. Jonah continues in his ramped up ways, stimming as they go. (Slipping out of third person here for a moment.) I call it his goofy dance, and it’s a collection of behaviors—from crazy body contortions to spitting and laughing maniacally, forehead and face slaps, and the repetition of a word he finds hilarious. Today it was fart. Honestly, I’ve been struggling to accept J’s screwball behavior this weekend. It’s got me thinking about the ways I am still learning to accept him. To accept autism. Reading this post and also this one have been helpful. Also John’s suggestion to think about Jonah in terms of exuberance.

But I digress. Back to Saturday #1. After dropping off the boys and dogs, Jennifer goes for a walk alone to collect herself. Returns home to taste aforementioned amazing salsas and starts the back-to-our-roots puree cooking. John gets the turkey tacos going on the grill and family finally sits down for their very first solo Thanksgiving dinner. Mostly a hit. G is offended to be given plain turkey and carrot/parsnip/rutabaga dish and demands his own taco, which he quickly devours. J must be coaxed through the majority of his meal but seems to enjoy the festivities, such as they are. Everyone falls into bed exhausted. Eventually.

Saturday #2 (also known as Friday):

Much quieter morning. Expectations are low, and that’s good. John makes homemade biscuits. Jennifer plays with Jonah on the iPad. Gabriel is glued to YouTube videos of large machinery moving dirt. J, G and Jennifer head to the new park behind the new fire station. Jonah plays with a boy named Kian while Jennifer talks to Kian’s grandfather who went to college in Kansas, lived for a time in Colorado, and wishes he had married a farm girl. The troop bounces over to the Malone sand volleyball pit for a good dig in the dirt.

Afternoon is similarly laid back and relaxing. J helps John work in the garage while G and Jennifer spend way too much time at the hardware store buying enamel paint for the wrought iron gates and returning crappy Matchbox digger toys. Quiet supper, back to beans. And the eventual fall into bed.

Saturday #3 (also known as Saturday proper):

Jonah Must play dough. He and John fashion amazing Wolverine figure that survives until late in the evening when G gets ahold of it and all hell breaks loose. Scones are made and consumed. The family attempt to watch an episode of House is not as successful. J and Jennifer take a singing walk. The boys play outside for the rest of the beautiful almost 60 degree day. John finishes building the rock wall and attaches the final Craigslist wrought iron gate, successfully closing up the backyard, much to the delight and gratitude of wife Jennifer. Turkey soup is consumed. Gabriel eats only the soup, minus the turkey; Jonah eats only the turkey, minus the soup. Friends arrive for dessert. Gabriel learns to say “Anna” (one of the daughters of friends Matt and June) and cries real, sad tears when she leaves, saying “Anna! Guck! Me!” John manages to get Wolverine back together. The fall into slumber is swift and sure.

command-z

So it’s come to this.

I have read a good bit about technology’s effect on the brain. How it’s changing us better and changing us worse. Most of what I read focuses on the worse bit, especially in terms of the electronic vs. real book debate (for an interesting pro-books take, read Warren Farha’s “Why Bother with Books?“). I don’t stare at a screen nearly as much as some, but it still feels like an awful lot. Too much some days. I lose my sense of incarnate reality, if you know what I mean. But two young children and two voracious mutts bring plenty of dirty dishes and dirty clothes and dirty boots (not to mention hair balls and paw prints) to my world, so my hands get their share of the corporeal. My eyes, fried as they may be when I’m doing intensive layout and design, get a good dose of sun, rain and wind.

But I digress. Let’s get back to what it’s come to. As I was trying to make room in the dishwasher last night for my before-bed granola bowl, I removed a pot and a ramekin in an attempt to rearrange, only to have several other dishes collapse in on each other, creating less space than I began with. My very instinctual reaction was “command-z”. This magical shortcut immediately undoes the most recent action/mistake I’ve committed. It’s marvelous and freeing, really, when you think about it. And so easy. And so not how things generally work when you step away from your screen.

The impulse to undo, computer-style, simultaneously took me by surprise and seemed a completely natural, sane reaction. I’m still processing what this means, in terms of my brain. Looking back over my day, I would have undone several of my poorer choices…the most recent being my throwing fit when I couldn’t find a lid for the jar I’d put the lentils in so I proceeded to completely empty the drawer of lids altogether, tossing them angrily (and hard) over my shoulder just to make a whole lot of bratty noise—just to make a great big mess (as I had previously been complaining that 75% of my energy seems to go toward cleaning up other people’s messes, and I thought, Hell, Why not make my own?).

Change is hard. And it takes a long time. Not to mention some people don’t even believe it’s truly possible. I’m not one of those people, but some days I wonder why I’m not. Even when you think you’ve “got it,” you are struck bluntly in the head and reminded you don’t. Not unlike Jonah’s difficulty with letter recognition, or handwriting. I recently read a comment posted by a mother of an autistic child that really nails it. It’s from a series of posts by Landon Bryce of thAutcast.com titled What I Cannot Tell You. This particular section is titled, What Our Children and Their Parents Cannot Tell You.

Bari: Actually my son said it best to his developmental doc: “They think because I did it once, I can do it all the time…some days everything is bothering me and I just can’t, I want to, but I can’t.” He was talking about writing, but it really applies to everything I see him struggle with.

Which segues into Jonah’s most recent progression: writing! He likes it! He has started writing his name in a moderately straight line. He can spell out other words if someone air traces them for him first. He is bringing home journal pages with persons and robots and Mr. Bones’ and turkeys all over them. His last one reminded me of a poem. So I’ll end with it here as a way to say that the magical undo shortcut isn’t often the way real progress gets made. (Note: this was dictated to J’s teacher. He’s not into writing complete sentences yet. The line breaks are mine.)

Scribble Circle
by Jonah

The children scribble
at school. Then they cut
it out. Then
they bounce it
carefully outside.

The End

Everywhere Church

We made it. Out the door close to 9:30 a.m. On schedule for a 10 a.m. arrival. But then we got talking about turkey tacos with tomatillo-cranberry salsa and missed our exit. Finding our way back proved trickier than we thought (how is it that one road can have three names?) so by the time we walked into the church, we were 15 minutes late. Again.

I tried not to get anxious while we were tracking and backtracking our way back to the missed highway, but my guts tightened up all the same. I’ve written before about how difficult it is just to get to church, let alone anywhere near on time. So when I get anxious, I tend to take it out on other people. I get irritable. I snap and say mean, rather belittling things. Living with John has shown me the effect of this on a person, how it’s something that needs changing. But first accept, which means recognize.

John took it in stride. Said I needed to get into the “cosmic flow” of things—or something like that. Said he had always wanted to explore this part of Ohio anyway. Even though the sad, falling apart houses and lots full of rusting machinery and trailers (minus any tractor to move them places) was depressing. Especially with winter edging in on us between the barren trees and overcast sky.

He said, “Church is everywhere Jenny. It’s going on right now, even without us there. Don’t you see the angels singing in the clouds?” I must mention two things here: 1) Only John and my Grandpa get to call me Jenny, and 2) John was serious but also tongue-in-cheek, as he is with almost everything he says. Jonah piped up, saying, “Where? Where are the angels in the clouds?”

We arrived, not having missed much after all (though I’d like to make it in time once to hear, so that I can learn, the troparion for St. Nicholas). Gabriel ran into the sanctuary shouting “Ammer! Nails!”—as we passed the sepulcher on our way to light a candle. Short explanation here: there’s a tomb-like box that looks like a big rock with a representation of the hammer and nails used to crucify Jesus as well as a skull and cross bones (representing death) that J and G are fascinated by. Big tourist attraction for them at the moment.

Having seated ourselves for the briefest of moments, Gabriel was off like a shot to the nursery. Jonah wanted to follow, but we’re working on staying in church a little longer. Some days I don’t know why, and it seems silly that I’m pushing this on J, but I think he’s capable. At some point he used the ‘ol I have to go to the bathroom excuse to get himself in closer proximity to the nursery, the better to wear us down with his insistent, “But I want to stay in the nursery. But I want to stay in the nursery. But I want to stay in the nursery. But I want to stay in the nursery…” You get the point.

All that to say, J’s the one who seems to get the point today, the point John’s been trying to make anyway. Because upon entering the nursery to say “hi” to John and Gabriel—upon being told that he needed to go back into church—he issued his own polemic: “But the nursery IS the church! It’s inside the church! The nursery IS the church! The church is everywhere! I am in the church!”

Sure, this may (mostly) be his literalism coming through, but he certainly picked up on John’s previous comments in the car. Quite cleverly, I might add, and working to personal advantage. Who’s to say he doesn’t get it? Certainly better than I.

Slow Moving

I don’t want to move.

G’s just stop tossing. I think he’s finally in nap-land. The small hallway where I sit outside his door is at the corner of his north facing room and my south facing room. It’s cold today, relatively speaking. There are blinds at my window, casting their shadows across the wood floor, the light of day not so much spilling between them as hanging in the air. Light like fog, taking on the washed-out look of winter. The trees are bare, the sky behind them faded. Autumn is tired of being bright and blue. Does the sky hibernate too?

I am spent like the sky. I won’t list the reasons. Everyone gets tired. Yesterday I ran into an acquaintance at the health food store—someone I find interesting and would like to know better. I asked how she was. Tired, she said, with some hesitation. But then everyone’s tired, right? she asked. I replied that I also hesitate when people ask how I am, because so often what comes first to mind is tired. I usually say it anyway, but I get tired of hearing the word spoken.

I won’t list the reasons because I’m mostly glad for this state, right now, when little is required of me. The house is quiet. I need to be getting to The three stages of the spiritual life in the theology of Elder Sophrony, and I will, in time. I’ll need a cup of coffee first.

Earlier this morning Gabriel took apart the sea blue bookshelf that houses his board books. Took it apart to try and put it back together I say, but the task was a little beyond his reach. Heck, it was beyond mine. I spent a good 45 minutes pounding at the quirky thing, finally giving in to (what I thought was) the fact of humidity, heat and cold warping it so that it would never fit properly together again. After a particularly stinky diaper change and another swig of coffee I set to returning the books to their unstable shelves. Of course I had put (at least part of) it together backwards. I whacked it apart again, much to G’s delight, and the thing slid together easily. By this point, any forward momentum I’d previously mustered had diminished to hardly a crawl (Gabriel was lying with his face to the floor, pushing himself in slow circles with his feet), so I opened a book or two as I attentively shelved. Two of them stuck out: Eric Carle’s Animals Animals and good ‘ol Toot & Puddle. I leave you with a few excerpts.

Here’s to slow days, however they may come.

from Animals Animals (a collection of poetry and accompanying illustrations in Carle’s unique collage style):

The Octopus
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs,
Is those things arms or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I’d call me Us.
—Ogden Nash

The tail of a fox will show no matter how hard he tries to hide it.
—Hungarian proverb

Bat
Dark air-life looping
Yet missing the pure loop…
A twitch, a twitter, an elastic shudder in flight
And serrated wings against the sky,
like a glove, a black glove thrown up at the light,
And falling back.
—D.H. Lawrence

I will not change my horse with any that treads…
When I bestride him I soar, I am a hawk.
he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it.
—William Shakepeare

And from Toot & Puddle, a great children’s book about two pigs who are completely different and best friends. Toot adventures across the world, sending postcards home to Puddle, who is perfectly content to stay at home.

Dear Puddle,
EGYPT is Awesome.
The pyramids are
the greatest. Wish
you could MEET me
at the Oasis.

Your Friend,
TOOT

March meant maple syrup. Puddle wished Toot were there to taste the pancakes…

Unschooled

Over the weekend I read two articles—scratch that, make it three—about a family who “unschooled” in the 70s. One written in 1975 by the mother actively in the midst of keeping her children at home to learn as they would, when they would, on the loosest of schedules. One by the youngest child in that family, describing what it was actually like being unschooled at home and abroad. And a final response by the mother, who was surprised by some of what her daughter revealed. And of course, all of this got me thinking…

John started a Sudbury school in Kansas. In short, the Sudbury model de-emphasizes formal “classes”, advocates age mixing and is run as an autonomous democracy in which every participant (whether child or adult) has a single, equal vote in the running of the school and hiring of staff. Sudbury schools do not evaluate, assess or recommend. As long as the children do not harm one another, they are free to do as they please.

As an ideal, I love this model. Am I “free” enough to let go of my conceptions of achievement and progress to support my children in this model? Uh, no. In many ways, I think unschooling (which is basically what the Sudbury model is, with the addition of a broader, democratically run community of children) is very compatible with attachment parenting (another relational model I find outstanding in principle, but difficult for me to uniformly adhere to–though I admit to being undersupported, and I constanstly struggle to strike a balance between personal and family life). Maybe this is a personal failing; maybe I am just somewhere inbetween. But watching Gabriel play/work today as I raked our substantial side yard, I started considering things a little differently.

Because you see, Gabriel was not my first child. That would be Jonah. And Jonah has always been especially adept at getting what he needs, even if it (almost) kills me (and his father). He cried unlike any baby I have ever known. It was a shriek. A pterodactyl-like howling squawk. And honestly, John and I just did whatever it took to make it stop. We danced. We bounced insanely hard and high on an overinflated yoga ball. We played Loud music with a fantastic, almost primal drum beat. We wore him in baby packs for naps. We drove for hours in the car for naps (praying not to hit a red light). We slept with him as he rubbed our arms up and down until he fell asleep. I would nurse him for hours and experienced all manner of painful troubles doing so. If you look at the attachment parenting checklist, we fall pretty much in line, even if we started the practice under a certain degree of duress. That duress awakened in me a latent penchant for bitterness that I fight to this day. The feeling that someone is taking my life away from me, without my permission.

Things are immensely better with Jonah in all regards. And I can’t help but think that has something to do with the attachment parenting he forced us into. Thanks J. But back to Gabriel for a moment. You should have seen him at work today outside. Completely following his own initiative (anything I suggest these days is met with a standard “NO!”), he carried pieces of wood to and fro, he dug in the dirt, he discovered more wood in the garage and proceeded to transport, he did some “building” (which amounted to piling scraps of wood), he ran in circles around the yard vocalizing his war whoop, he got into our real toolbox and procured a screwdriver which he used on every screw he could find. In the midst of this, he brought me my water bottle while I raked. Handed it to me and said, “Wawer,” as he took a drink of his own. Then he took it back from me and put it back where he found it. I was stunned. Stunned and pleased as punch.

All of this got me thinking that Gabriel would be a fine unschooler. And that I might even be a decent unschooler mom. I still fear what I perceive to be a personal lack of freedom. And I’m not sure what to make of Jonah in this environment. He craves structure. Trying to get him to conform to said structure isn’t always easy, especially if it involves something he’s not interested in. He needs an incentive. But there again, we fall into one of the tenets of unschooling—follow the child. Connected with my particular concerns for Jonah is my growing acceptance of his autism. I’m still feeling my way through things, especially when it comes to the ways I can help him live independently in the world. I don’t want that to mean I’m teaching him to act a certain way, to always be pretending to be someone he’s not. I have to watch carefully my own reactions to certain of his behaviors. I do not want to squelch what is simply a difference, even (especially) if I find that difference to be odd or socially unacceptable.

Autism advocate Ari Ne’eman recently said in an essay published for Autistics Speaking Day:

Not too long ago, a colleague commented that I should be proud for being so nearly “indistinguishable from my peers.” Only in the autism community would anyone consider that a compliment. Despite the good intentions behind the remark, I felt a profound sense of hate and disgust motivating it — not of me as an individual, but of the person I was growing up, and of the person I still am, hidden underneath layers of mannerisms and coping strategies and other social sleights of hand. Those kinds of statements define our worth as human beings by how well we do looking like people whom we’re not. No one should have to spend their life hiding who they are.

Along those same lines, The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism published a post by Kyra Anderson titled Bring Everyone Out that speaks directly to the stigma of autism in society, and how parents as well as their autistic children struggle to come to terms with it.

I’ll close this down with a short list of simple guidelines from Barbara Doyle that seem to me to fit under all three umbrellas I’ve been considering: unschooling, attachment parenting, and autism.

  • Put the relationship ahead of compliance. Do we really want our kids completely compliant? Consider someone saying this: Get in the car. Drink that up. Take off your clothes.
  • See all behavior as communication. Don’t seek to extinguish behavior until at least you understand what is trying to be communicated.
  • Respond to all communicative signals as quickly as you can.
  • When you feel stuck, choose a respectful response that minimizes the tension.
  • Help eliminate the Us versus Them mentality that is reinforced every time someone says something like, you are so patient to deal with that every day! You are such a special person! God chose you because such and such and la la la! Phooey. We are not divided that way, or we ought not be. We are we. I do what I do with my son because I love him, I rejoice in my time with him, I learn from him and I am compelled to be the best mom I can because it’s important to me.