At Play

The Scene: The B-nasement—home to crash pit, yoga ball, tumbling mat, mini trampoline, and extra-sturdy bean bag.

Jonah: Daddy, can we play the seed game?

John: No, I can’t play right now.

A game commences (not the seed game, after all) with John at the helm. And he wonders why they don’t respect his boundaries.

Though Jonah asked for the seed game, he made up another game on the spot (as he’s wont to do) involving a mommy-doesn’t-care-if-it-gets-dirty-or-ripped blanket in which John rolls him tight. Chinese finger trap tight. Jonah loves the feeling of heavy covering, and nearly every game he invents (all of which are very physical) requires either small spaces, a heavy weight, or a tight wrap. A few weeks back I buried him in snow, and he stayed there for forty-five minutes while Gabriel and I shoveled the entire driveway. Even at the end, I had to make him come in. Even when he was freezing cold and crying, he didn’t want to be undug.

My joy of late is Jonah and Gabriel together. G is finally old enough to run and chase. What great fun! J coaxes G down the stairs into the basement, treating him like a scared puppy: “C’mon, c’mon. Come down the stairs Gabriel. C’mon.” They play silly wrestling games after snacks after school while I’m fixing supper (until the fun deteriorates when one or the other—usually G—smashes into something hard or has just had Enough).

G thinks J hung the moon. He’ll start laughing his big belly laugh, tickled by some word Jonah says. So of course, J says it again and again and again, the laughter escalating as Jonah gets his full sillies on.

Some days Gabriel finds a treasure (i.e. rock, stick, half-eaten squirrel nut) for Jonah during the day to give him after school. “Jo-Jo! Jo-Jo! Ocket!” We put it in his pocket. J’s usually not all that interested (it is, after all, just a broken stick or dirty grey rock), but he’ll hold it for a moment before dropping it along the way.

A few days ago as we were walking home from school, Jonah exclaimed, “I have a present for Gabriel in my pocket!” He tried to get it out, and tried again, giving up momentarily. A few blocks later he finally pulls out a rock the size of my fist and thrusts it at me—“Here!” We gave it to Gabriel together, who declared, “Gaba! Ock! Ome!”

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Into the woods

The boys and I had a great day in the woods yesterday. Gabriel kept pointing and chanting, “Trees, trees, trees…”—when he wasn’t yelling, “Dowm! “Waw!” [translation: Down! Walk!]  Jonah never tired of informing me, “Mom see? I told you I should have worn my rain boots!” There was mud aplenty, but also icy ponds and plenty of sticks for gigging (digging) and sword fighting. Trying to navigate an especially mucky mud hole, I ran G into some brambly bushes, occasioning an inch-long scratch across his right cheek.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jonah was engaged and fully present as we hiked. We talked. He was settled and content. He balanced on fallen tree trunks, ran ahead, fell behind, and found ways around the muddy marshes. The woods are one of his natural environments. He seems to have no need to repeat phrases from cartoons, and his silly voice (which we’ve named Dr. Goofenshmirtz—a riff on his beloved Dr. Doofenshmirtz of Phineas and Ferb fame) is non-existent. How I wish there was a school of the woods! Of course, there are models that approximate this (if only we could move to Germany), but the Waldorf school we tried in our vicinity didn’t know what to do or make of J’s penchant for not joining in or immediately following the herd, not to mention his rocking/spinning/rolling about. They just weren’t equipped (and there’s the tuition to consider).

This morning as we prodded J through his morning get-ready-for-school routine, the disconnect so absent yesterday was in full, and hilarious, force. Shoes on and dressed, I sent him to fetch his fleece from the rack on the back porch. A few minutes later (after prompting him again when he got sidetracked by the climber in the front room), I heard Jonah say, “I can’t find my school shoes Anywhere!” John’s response: “They’re on your feet.” Jonah: “O, I am So Silly!” In the time it took for him to receive the instruction from me and walk to the back porch, he had forgotten what he was looking for and redirected himself to shoes. When all else fails, shoes!

Usually the breakdown isn’t quite that bad, but I feel for the kid. J struggles with this pretty much all of the time. Usually we’re just giving him verbal prompts (sometimes 3, sometimes 5, sometimes what feels like 20 times) to complete a task. But those times when he simply does it, especially when he’s doing a “job” for me, he’s so proud of himself. “I did it mom!” he’ll shout to all corners of the house.

I came across this quote from Salman Rushdie, and while he’s speaking more in terms of human relationship than task completion, I like the way it applies to J (especially the use of the word “bounce”):

Our lives disconnect and reconnect, we move on, and later we may again touch one another, again bounce away. This is the felt shape of a human life, neither simply linear nor wholly disjunctive nor endlessly bifurcating, but rather this bouncey-castle sequence of bumpings-into and tumblings-apart.

Maybe I’ll tattoo that on my wrist so that I can slowly learn to take J’s perpetual bouncing (metaphorically and physically speaking) in stride. Most of it just doesn’t matter. That is to say, getting sidetracked can be a whole lot of fun. I’m just so terribly task-oriented (which has its upside). See a task and do it. It rubs me wrong when people don’t finish what they start. Immediately. My problem, obviously, not his.

The Price

Everything costs something, though I don’t like the idea of “cost” so much. It implies price, which implies putting a higher or lower value on whatever it is you value. I understand there’s a hierarchy of needs, maybe even of desires. Conversely, cost can be a good thing, because cost necessarily involves worth.

I like to think about price in terms of relationship. True relationship involves reciprocity. And what’s got me thinking about this, primarily, is Jonah. He’s always keeping me on my toes, that one. I’m almost constantly in the process of evaluating and reevaluating the way I think about things, about him, in terms of what he needs (or doesn’t).

J’s making great strides in so many ways. They’re working him pretty intensely at school, and there’s been real academic progress—though I find it strange writing about my five-year-old (almost six) using the word “academic.” His writing is becoming, well, almost legible. He can usually recognize every letter of the alphabet and numbers up to 20. And here’s an exciting one: he’s starting to recognize words. He can sound out short words if he takes his time. Hearing your child read for the first time is nothing less than magical.

So on the flip side…

Jonah’s been in high gear since Christmas. Considering he’s on the high gear end of things generally (and not so generally) speaking, this fact must be carefully considered.

Other than the “I hate school” mantra he’s finally working his way out of, he’s been chewing on the knuckle side of his hands, coming home with red scaly patches that we massage every night with hand cream. He bites at his lower lip; sometimes it bleeds, sometimes he develops a chapped, red line beneath it, like an elderly woman’s lip liner gone awry.

We get reports of “crazy in his body” or “Tigger all the time.” He has to leave circle because he’s a danger to others (rocking back and forth, putting his feet—with shoes—in the air while rocking from side to side). Sometimes he dumps work or just won’t do it. It’s hard, staying focused on a task. The effort produces a sensory overload, and J’s brain/body respond in strange and fascinating ways. Sometimes he slips into this falsetto, cartoony voice that either speaks nonsensical phrases or repeats short scripts from one or another of his cartoon fascinations—accompanied by a “loosey goosey” kind of flopping about. Most often he ends up on the ground, only to get up and start again.

Yesterday at the park, this is the way J introduced himself to a father and his two young children. They immediately headed in another direction. It’s kind of heart breaking, because he wanted to interact. He was interacting. They just didn’t know what to make of it. Frankly, neither do I.

I’ve read several posts on autism mama blogs lately that reiterate the belief that “behavior is communication.” Then what’s J trying to say? We’ve been trying to figure this out from the moment he was born (I’m not exaggerating here). How can we help him start to recognize his own needs so that he can get those needs met in a constructive way? And what exactly do we mean by constructive? I’m not trying to make him “normal” (as if that were possible), but honestly, when he acts like this in public, it’s easier to either shut him down by commanding him to stop or point him in another direction (away from the people he’s trying to interact with) than it is to enter into his world and try to help. That’s my struggle, and I’m not always proud of how I respond to it.

J’s IEP is coming up. In the next few weeks, there’ll be a lot of talk about what he can’t do, about the assumed benchmarks for his age and grade level, about his interactions with peers. I will inevitably cry while talking about him with his occupational therapist and his classroom aid and intervention specialist. As hard as it can be, I’m grateful for the reality check it provides. Not just in terms of Jonah, but also—probably more importantly—for me. I don’t know who needs therapy and educating more, J or me.

The two of us are forever inquiring into each other’s worlds. He’s always working to make sense of my sometimes volatile, ever-shifting emotions. I’m trying to figure why his after-school snack choice is sending him to the dark side as he screams at me, “But I DO want cheese! AND pretzels!”

It’s ironic really. John wondered aloud the other day (something I wish he’d do more often) how he ended up with two such intensely emotional folk. He says he’s no good at knowing how to help us. I know we can be confounding, but Jonah and I both name him one of our favorite people on the planet. It goes to show how hard it can be to help, and love, the ones you’re with.

Introducing: Mr. Soapy

Cousin: Mrs. Jims
Sex: Um, half boy, half girl. Split right down the middle.
Jonah said it, so it must be so.

Doesn’t he/she sound like an interesting chap/young lady? I also learned that he/she spent a good bit of time in the closet at school today before appearing at lunch. I also learned how the infamous Mrs. Jims gets herself clean:

“Mom, did you know? She sneaks into the [washing] machine when you’re doing the laundry! And she’s so small! She sneaks in your basket. And she leaves her clothes on and gets all washed up. She sneaks in your basket! And then she goes in the drier and gets hot and spins and spins! She’s so clever like that!”

In case you’re not up on Jonah’s new companions, you can read about Mrs. Jims HERE. They are invisible, but not pretend. “They are real!” This is a point of much emphasis. I’ve also learned that Mrs. Jims likes to hide in the bushes at school. That Mrs. Jims!

There was some anxiety tonight with both John and I being away at a lecture before bedtime. The boys were waiting for me with their sitter, and Jonah ran up to say, “But mom! You didn’t give me a hug and tell me goodbye!” Then much piling up on mommy with little boy endearments (Gabriel was generous with his rapturous chokehold of love, which involves G squeezing my neck with surprising strength as though he really is trying to make my breathing stop, accompanied by a rather manic expression and the word  “Mommeeeeee!” squealed to the rafters).

It’s good to be missed. That said, we should get out more and get them a little more accustomed to other people putting them to bed. Just every so often. I mean, Mrs. Jims and Mr. Soapy make their own little getaways. Why shouldn’t we?

Fighting Fires, Cleaning Messes

7:53 a.m.

Jonah was insistent. But Jonah’s always insistent.

“He made a big mess Dad. Come and see.”

Much tugging of arms and clothes.

“He made a big mess Mom! Come and see!”

“Jonah, you’re supposed to be brushing your teeth.”

“But Mom, I have to Show you!”

In the interest of getting things back on track, I allowed myself to be led down the stairs, into the dining room.

Now let me be clear. Gabriel’s two. Every meal involves a mess. Almost every diaper involves a mess. Giving G free time alone in the playroom usually involves a mess that also involves messes in the kitchen, front room, entry way and basement. Entire shelves of books get cleared. Drawers of kitchen utensils. Stray nails (once a way can be found to reach them) get pounded into walls (one of G’s new favorite past times is unloading wooden puzzles of their pieces and trying to hang them on the wall—which involves, you guessed it, pounding, and the removal of whatever picture was previously hanging in that spot, often to the disadvantage of said picture). Diapers get dumped from their bins. Blocks from their boxes. Charcoal disks used to light incense are converted to a fine black powder by G-powered steam rollers.

So how bad could it be? Not so bad, really. But we’re down a complete box of Honey-Nut, Gluten Free Chex. And for once, Jonah wasn’t being particularly dramatic. He just ran into that problem of finding and speaking the words he needed when he needed them.

I am certain a good share of those addictively tasty morsels (so much for giving up wheat if all I’m going to do is chow down on sugar laden rice cereal) were “cleaned” up by dear Sophie (note dark dog shadow behind the glass door).

So started the day. Add to that an explosively dirty diaper (I haven’t gotten poop on my jeans in quite some time), and it’s hard to escape the feeling that some days are just assigned the lot of fighting fires.

[Postscript: I just found myself shouting one of those slow motion “NOOOOOOOO!”s as I heard G dumping the puzzles we just finished reassembling and stacking in their rack. Who’s got the drama? Mama’s got the drama.]

Hazel Motes, Asparagus Soup, and the Third Eye

What do Flannery O’Connor, asparagus soup and the triops have in common? All have a certain otherworldliness about them, you could say, bordering on the grotesque. Peculiar might be a kinder word, especially in regard to the asparagus-spinach soup. It’s just not every day that you get to eat something That Green. Taken together, they’ve made for a surprisingly relaxing couple of days over here in the land-o-head-cold.

Okay, first the asparagus soup. As I considered what to make for dinner, I was haunted by a bunch of slightly wilty asparagus I’d bought last week and a bag of spinach not too long after, the loss of its salad-fresh days gnawing at me like an overdue DVD from the public library (we pay $1-a-day fines around here, provided we haven’t lost the movie [Nemo] altogether). Thank God for Google. I cobbled together a couple of recipes for asparagus-spinach soup, accompanied by Feeding the Whole Family’s easy-to-make-from-scratch vegetable broth. With the state of my sinuses, there almost wasn’t any soup; I had to restrain myself from drinking all four cups of the broth straight up. Might just be the cold talking…but no, I really do think it’s that good.

The only real changes I made to the recipe (besides making my own broth) were sauteing the onions/asparagus/garlic in butter instead of olive oil and adding another tablespoon at the end to richen things up. O yes, and a garnish of shredded asiago cheese (parmesan or romano would work equally well). Remove those tasty, though unnecessary, additions and this recipe is absolutely vegan. You can practically feel the green goodness flowing through your veins. But that would only be John and my veins, because the boys wouldn’t touch the stuff.

Moving on to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Lead character: Hazel Motes. Ms. O’Connor can seem a little heavy-headed with the naming of her people. There’s Asa Hawks (the blind preacher) and his daughter Sabbath. We’ve got Mrs. Flood, the landlady. Enoch Emory, the 18-year-old park guard with terrible social skills, strange sensory issues (at one point, he rubs his body all along the front of a drugstore—something I’ve seen the J man do more times than I can count), not a friend in the world, and a strange obsession with blood and death.

I spent a good part of the weekend, on and off, reading Wise Blood for a book group I actually made it to Sunday night. Being sick gives me a kind of internal permission to put off laundry and cooking and crawl into the guest room bed. Never mind the general chaos of boys jumping, crashing, bouncing, hooting, rocking, and hammering (guest room doubles as their playroom/bounce house). I read through it all. I finished the book.

A short recap: Hazel Motes is riddled with guilt. Never mind that he’s founded the Church Without Christ and preaches to that affect from the roof of his “rat colored car” outside movie theaters on a nightly basis. In that funny/grotesque and just plain weird way of O’Connor’s, the violence he inflicts upon himself as a result of the violence he inflicts upon others is a study of a soul preoccupied with the truth. By all appearances, he’s a lost soul. But ultimately, he’s the only one not lost. For all his denial of redemption, I do believe he encounters redemption. More than that, he undergoes it.

Shall we conclude with the third eye?

J and G’s current music/cartoon of choice is They Might Be Giants 123s. Fun, and only slightly maddening (in the way that children’s music can get stuck on an endless loop in one’s head), it’s accompanied by unique collage-type cartoon shorts (one of my favorites: “Never Go to Work”). You guessed it. All the songs are about numbers. J has been fascinated by the number three song: “Triops Have Three Eyes.” Looked it up, and sure enough there’s a creature called a triops with three eyes. So John accordingly bestowed upon each of the boys their own third eye. This led to all manner of goofiness and some serious play.

Jonah was balance walking around the top of the climber. Unprovoked, he announced: “I’m not playing! I’m serious!” Just as serious was G trying to mimic his brother, only to be perpetually stymied by either John or I. He pretty much took it in stride, which means he continued to mimic his brother. He is the most stubborn individual I know. Next to my father.
And me.

Sometime later, Jonah nostalgically recalled how he loved to wear his overalls without a shirt when he was a toddler. Out came the overall, sans shirt, and he stayed that way all day, despite me asking “Aren’t you cold? Wouldn’t you like to put on a shirt?” Nope, and No. We’ve discovered the depth of J’s imperviousness to cold this winter. G’s a sturdy two-year-old, but he can’t take more than thirty minutes out in the real cold. J just keeps on plowing through—a trait that holds its own hazards but comes in handy when the drive to play supersedes all.

Comfort

Jane Austen wrote, “There is nothing like staying home for real comfort.” I’ve maybe had a touch too much of that lately, but I generally agree.

Along these lines, I’ve been collecting images. Sometimes I walk into a room and an object startles me, its placement in my world an offering. I want to somehow incorporate it. Sometimes the picture matches my sense of the thing (or person); sometimes too much gets lost in translation, and I abandon the effort. There’s only so much you can do with a phone (even if it is an iPhone—sorry Steve).

But comfort is a funny thing. When I seek it out, it’s terribly illusive. Like scanning a night sky for satellites. You can really only make them out if you don’t focus your gaze too particularly, their movement best caught out of the corner of an eye (not unlike the way my husband describes catching a glimpse of a ghost).

When it comes to relationships, comfort is like ways sly, coming in “on little cat feet” (okay, that’s Carl Sandburg, but the analogy holds). My attempts to grab at it or hold it too tight, too long are frustrating and defeating. Another example of the given as the best good. It’s a strange human conundrum, the way we need to stand apart and on our own but also lean into one another for presence and help. Folk rocker Ani Difranco puts it this way: “I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort where we overlap.”

Things which have already taken place are remembered by means of images, whether for the purpose of inspiring wonder, or honor, or shame, or to encourage those who look upon them to practice good and avoid evil. These images are of two kinds: either they are words written in books…or else they are material images, such as the jar of manna, or Aaron’s staff, which were to be kept in the ark as a memorial…   –St. John of Damascus