Family Tree

These photographs were taken with my iPhone at Emmanuel Cemetery, about halfway between Galva and Moundridge, Kansas. Several were run through some kind of filter (to improve lighting and detail, or just because I like the effect). The others stand alone.

I spent an hour or so walking among the graves and looking out across the fields that surround the plots. My grandfather Leon, grandmother Ruth, baby uncle Merlyn, and most of my grandfather’s extended family (including four infant brothers and sisters) are buried here. He had 9 brothers and sisters besides those babies. His father Henry and mother Eva are there. One might say there’s not much else—save earth and sky, a lightning-struck tree or two and several morphing cacti patch.

I continue to wonder at the peace I sense in graveyards. And the connection to these people, most of whom I’ve never met. I spoke an Orthodox prayer for the departed— “Remember, O Lord, the souls of Thy departed servants…and all my kindred according to the flesh; and forgive them all transgressions, voluntary and involuntary, granting them the kingdom and a portion of Thine eternal good things, and the delight of Thine endless and blessed life.” I hope someone prays these prayers for me one day, not that I deserve them. Not that deserts has anything to do with it.

I suppose it has something to do with the body, those bones in the ground. I recently finished re-reading Graham Greene’s End of the AffairThe mind and the body’s reaction to love—and in turn, faith—is a central theme, for the character Sarah in particular. She abandons herself to love wherever she can find it until she’s spent. In a moment of desperation and poverty she bargains with God for the life of her lover: “When you are hopeless enough…you can pray for miracles. They happen, don’t they, to the poor, and I was poor.”

She wrestles her way to faith from there. In an attempt to escape the rain, one day she ducks into a dark church and sees “the bodies standing around me on all the altars—the hideous plaster statues with their complacent faces, and I remembered that they believed in the resurrection of the body, the body I wanted destroyed for ever. I had done so much injury with this body. How could I want to preserve any of it for eternity?…If I were to invent a doctrine it would be that the body was never born again, that it rotted with last year’s vermin.”

But then she thinks about her lover’s body instead of her own.

I thought of certain lines life had put on his face as personal as a line of his writing: I thought of a new scar on his shoulder that wouldn’t have been there if once he hadn’t tried to protect another man’s body from a falling wall…That scar was part of his character as much as his jealousy. And so I thought, do I want that body to be vapor (mine yes, but his?), and I knew I wanted that scar to exist through all eternity. But could my vapour love that scar? Then I began to want my body that I hated, but only because it could love that scar. We can love with our minds, but can we love only with our minds? Love extends itself all the time, so that we can even love with our senseless nails: we love even with our clothes, so that a sleeve can feel a sleeve.

I suppose that’s why, somehow, I love these bones.

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My little universe

I find my children to be the most interesting of creatures. Does every parent feel this way? Have I succumbed to the temptation of making my kids the universe? They’re wild and sweet. Infuriating (see my last post) and demanding. Chaotic, but somehow stabilizing.

This morning John offhandedly said in his offhanded manner—you must listen sharp to discern between the dryness and wisdom in his wit—“Kids are the most important people.” He and J were having a conversation about important people, the gist of which I’m entirely ignorant (I was in the midst of oven chemicals and scrubbing). But I’m pretty sure he meant it, and I’m pretty sure he’s right.

Take for instance: just now, as Jonah is preparing an episode of “Mrs. Bean” to watch for lunch (actually Mr. Bean, but when I corrected G, J piped up, “He can call it whatever he wants!”), he was humming a church-like tune in his sweet monotonish voice. Surely not, I thought. But yep, he knows the churchy opening sequence of Mr. Bean so well that he can hum it. Who knows what the lyrics are. I can’t make them out and neither can he, but he makes them up as he goes, and it’s darn impressive.

And he’s very serious about eyeglasses at the moment. Yesterday we found a pair of (cheap) reading glasses at the drugstore and traipsed on over to Pearle Vision (I love those guys) to have them torque the lenses out and adjust the eyepads (for free—and they never seem put upon, even for the smallest or silliest of adjustments). He hasn’t taken the things off. Even wanted to wear them to OT today, but I talked him into letting me take care of them for the hour duration. His favorite activity there is called The Washing Machine and consists of getting inside a big bag full of plastic balls while the therapist wildly rocks him from side to side. He says the glasses help him read better, even though it troubles him some that he can touch his eyeballs through the frames.

And how is it that my baby’s forehead fits perfectly into the hollow my eye socket makes? And that cuddling with him in this way is surprisingly comforting, bone on bone? Or that when my back is turned to him, he will snuggle up into the space between my shoulder blades and that his big baby skull fits perfectly there too?

And what happens to Jonah, particularly, when he’s in front of a mirror?

I read a post today on Autism and Empathy titled Social Skills. In it, the author (who blogs at Abnormaldiversity) differentiates between two sets of social skills. The first she distinguishes as “the ability to ‘put yourself in another person’s shoes’ and imagine how you’d feel in their situation, and use that to decide how to treat them.” She comments that “this works well if the person you’re interacting with is similar to you, not so well if they’re quite different from you.” Neurotypical individuals rely heavily on this set, because, well, most people are similar enough to them that it works. Not so for most autistics. She continues:

The second set of skills is the ability to set aside your own perspective and pay attention to the other person, to figure out what they’re thinking and feeling by observation. This is more laborious and inconvenient, but it works with anyone, no matter how much they differ from you. Most NTs [neurotypicals] seldom get a chance to learn these skills, unless they travel to another culture, form a close bond with an animal (merely having a pet doesn’t necessarily count), or befriend someone with a developmental disability.

It occurred to me, watching Jonah watch himself be sad in front of the mirror on his bedroom closet door, that he was observing himself in the same way that he so attentively observes others (especially when it comes to emotions). This is how he figures things out. This may be why he doesn’t respond immediately when he sees his brother tumble painfully down the stairs (or off a rock, or from his trike, or down the driveway running full speed). It’s not that he doesn’t care. I think caring is exactly what he’s doing. He’s watching (he’s usually the one who informs us of accidents if we’re out of the room, out of the yard, etc.). He’s caring; it just takes longer to manifest itself in a way we recognize.

The other day he saw his sad face in the mirror and tried different ways to make himself sadder. His frown deepened. His eyes even leaked a few salty tears. “Look mom,” he said with a kind of wonder, “I’m crying real tears!” When he knows what a feeling looks like, he is quick to point it out, but some assessments just take more time to calibrate.

As Ettina, the blogger quoted above, puts it, this kind of intense observation “is important in understanding diversity, in seeing the rich variety of experience for what it is.” And if that’s just a part of why I find my children so terribly interesting (I won’t deny that the fact they come, in part, from me, has something to do with my fascination), then maybe I’m going a way toward inhabiting the particular universe I’ve been given.

 

Untapped Source

With all this talk of alternative energy, why hasn’t anyone found a way to harness the moxie of a two-year-old? Just think, we could power our computers and our cars, not to mention our air conditioners, mowers and anything else that burns, turns, lights and rolls. Really, they have it all: vigor, zest, strength, speed, stamina, drive, passion, and zeal.

Because here’s the thing: if you don’t harness them—maybe yoke is a better word (I was going to say “direct” but thought better of it)—you’ve got widespread chaos. Destruction. Mayhem bordering on anarchy. If you need an illustration or two (other than the six or so below), check out Sh*t My Kids Ruined. Even now, I risk wreckage and ruin as I ignore Gabriel’s upstairs chant of “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” I know I’m in trouble when he goes quiet.

Shall we begin?

We’ll start with a guessing game. Name the unidentified substance below:

Nope, not cherries jubilee. That’d be an entire bottle of ketchup (floating in a pool of melted ice cream) emptied in the course of a few minutes. Not sure why it took me so long to recognize that gasping plastic bottle sound or the resonant juicy fart that follows (the boys crack up at it all the time), but we’ll just say it was the end of a long day and maybe I’d had a beer and was intentionally pretending that the boys weren’t in the adjacent room. Just suppose.

Moving on.

G’s adept at getting what he wants, no matter how well hidden (up high) it may be. His pacifiers and the iPad top the list. We keep moving the boo bowl (he calls his pacifier a boo), but he tracks it down—damn bloodhound. He will pull a three feet high stool to our four foot counter top in order to climb on top of the kitchen sink to open the cabinet above the window (above the sink) to secure a boo. He will use that same stool to climb the bar opposite the sink to reach the iPad atop a 6′ shelf that holds my kitchen pans. He will unplug the iPad from its charging spot on the bar, though it be hidden behind my computer. He will knock over a full glass of water on my computer, which will seep into its important electronic mechanisms and temporarily (thank you God—no really, thank you God) disable the airport and internet capabilities. This trespass provoked unbridled cursing on my part. I’m pretty sure the windows were open, and I’m pretty sure our neighbors could hear me yelling, “You little fucker!”

I wasn’t here for this one, and yeah, everyone’s got a Sharpie story/photo, but let me say that when you’re thankful your kid caught Hand, Foot and Mouth if only to slow him down for a day or two, well, that’s gotta mean something (besides his parents being mental, which no one is denying).

I’m sorry. Did I mention he threw two eggs down the stairs in the thirty seconds that John was trying to have a conversation with me on the phone?

You’d think we’d learn. But the kid is Fast. How else could he be emptying the entire contents of his toy shelf into a “rubble” pile on the floor one minute and climbing the stairs on the outside of the iron railing the next? The reason we knew? 1) It went quiet for thirty seconds—which either means he’s pooping or we’re in trouble; and 2) He started yelling “Help Gaba help!”

There’s more, but I’m forgetting and it’s late and if I say anything else his grandparents are going to worry excessively, so we’ll call it a night.

O wait. Here’s my recompense for those ten minutes I chose to ignore what was going on upstairs so that I could start writing this post:

Kansas

“Hey J, want to go for a walk around the big circle in grandma and grandpa’s neighborhood after supper?”

“Well, I suppose, after I eat my cookie. Because right now I’m thinking of a shape of a circle that has M&M’s and chocolate chips on it and is a cookie called a Monster Cookie!”

This, after earlier proclaiming: “I’m thinking of a shape that is a triangle that is a piece of pizza!” But alas, it is (chicken) nugget and (fish) finger night. He is currently eating in my parent’s laundry closet. No, not a punishment, just great fun. First we did an experiment with some strawberries to see if eating in there would be a good idea. It was! Party time!

These exchanges are a welcome shift from our semi-meltdown encounter this afternoon. It was time to leave Cousin Charlotte’s house, for the last time this time around. “But this is the Last time I will see Cousin Charlotte’s house! I don’t like leaving houses! And tomorrow we’re leave grandma and grandpa’s house and then in a few days we’re leaving Kansas! I don’t want to leave Kansas! I want to stay a hundred days!”

On our drive home he continued in distress: “Why did you ever leave Kansas in the first place?” he demanded.

Because I decided I wanted to be with your daddy.

“But do you ever cry and cry when you leave Kansas?”

Yes. Sometimes (though not like I used to). To which I added, “We live in Ohio because your daddy got a job there. And getting a job is an important thing.”

“What about he could drive a train instead of being an office worker?!” Jonah countered (we had just crossed the railroad tracks).

I had no response to that.

We had a fine day though. He met my friends Ned and Sara, and their kids Eliot and Claire, at the park. We climbed trees. We ate lunch and ordered chocolate cream pie. We found a rocket pen and scored a KungFu Panda Crane and Toy Store Bo Peep (each with cleverly moving parts—2 for 25 cents) at the Save and Share. That’s a lot of great, but it’s also a lot of new. He was ripe for being overwhelmed. Heck, I was ripe for being overwhelmed.

But on we go. All recovered, all fed, all monster cookies consumed. Grandma and Grandpa installed a swing in their backyard just for our visit, and it continues to work its wonders. Now we walk (the Americans having just won their beach volleyball match—so Papa can join us).

(Jonah and Charlotte at the movies)

(with Claire)

(with Eliot)

On the Road (Righting Myself)

I’ve been experiencing a strange sensation. The only thing I can find to compare it to is an Etch-A-Sketch. As in, I am the Etch-A-Sketch.

Driving across five substantial states in two days can be terrifically disorienting. I alternately feel: free, lonely, lost, settled, nostalgic, grateful, anxious, tired, invigorated, slow, and much too fast. Wait–are those hawks reeling high above? Gone are the crows. Come is a stretch of interstate highway on which the only car I encounter (in both directions) is a red semi diminishing to a blip in my rearview.

There isn’t much green anywhere and less the farther west I travel. I am startled to realize I miss Ohio. Not just my people, but O-H-I-O. I refuse to change the clock in my dash, so I play the recalculating game.

Back to that Etch-A-Sketch. A few times I’ve literally shook my head as if to right myself. It kind of worked, though that general sense of unmooring persists.

As opposed to my mostly solitary pursuit, Jonah has been surrounded by humanity and activity. Yesterday (as reported by my mother) upon entering the plane that would take them to Atlanta, J loudly proclaimed, “It smells like people in here!” After waiting over an hour on the tarmac in Atlanta, he asked the flight attendant, “When is this plane going to start moving?” and my mom said they almost started applauding.

Well, all I can smell is a dry Kansas wind blowing across hundreds of acres of grassland. I wish I weren’t so sleepy, because this is my favorite part of the trip. The last leg home–and all I want is a helping of buffalo salami and a walk and a nice long sleep. Better get moving, even if it’s more dream state than exhilaration.

I wonder if this is a little bit like what Jonah feels like when he can’t settle himself, when he practically hums with energy as he swings or spins runs a circuit through the house. I won’t presume. The Flint Hills await.

On the Road (or, B is for Home)

Today I kicked off my first solo road trip (sans kids) since, well, since before Jonah was born. Yeah, that’s nearly six and half years. And yeah, that’s too long, especially for someone who physically needs a little seclusion from time to time. Make that regularly.

Enviably, G and his dad are on their own little adventure. Today they visited Amherst and Emily Dickinson. Okay, ED’s house, but still. She’s there–you know? G has been promised a city and a waterfall, which he will promptly tell you: “Gaba trip! See watafall! See see-tee!” Only after a few hours strapped in did it begin to dawn on G that getting to see a waterfall and a city meant spending a lot of time in the car far away from home.

“Gaba home!”

“I am home,” John told him, which seemed to satisfy him. Somewhat.

J and my mom flew off into the blue around sunrise. They’ve made it to the Land of Ahhh’s (sorry, I couldn’t resist referencing an old Kansas tourism motto) after a two-hour delay in Atlanta (damn computer system). J was reportedly a trooper. It surely didn’t hurt that he got a new toy (space shuttle) and a panda pillow. But it also had something to do with him being a good traveller and the connection he has with Grandma Debbe. I think he’s actually a little disappointed I’ll be joining him late tomorrow.

This morning he was all excited nerves and anticipation. I didn’t have to tell him more than once to get dressed (unheard of), and he was waiting for us both in the kitchen, dutifully downing a banana. When we stepped outside he became hilariously effusive about how “gorgeous” the stars were “at the top of the sky.”

But wait, this trip is supposed to be about me. Right. Well, I didn’t want to leave my house this morning. The quiet was pleasantly unsettling. I waded around it’s edges as long as I could. But people were expecting me, so reluctantly I set off. For the first hour in the car I was just flat out happy. Unadulterated. The road has that effect on me. I hit it early. By sixteen I was heading out solo to Western Kansas for my summer farming job. Only in the last few years have I become almost entirely homebound.

But it’s different of course. Because like John, I’m a piece of Gabriel’s home, and Jonah’s too. I’d like to add John, but we’re kind of a funny match, us two. Keenly independent and needful in our particular ways. That said, when any of them are away, part of me goes with them.

But did I say I’m really enjoying being alone, that I’m starting to plot ways to get more of this not only during my trip, but in the weeks and months to come? That I’m stretching every moment as far as it will hold, sinking into that remembrance of myself as a person first and a mother and wife as a natural extension of that person?

Which is why I’m still sitting in a Starbucks outside of Indianapolis, which of course is freezing, so I had to dig through my suitcase and pull out the hoodie I packed to survive the frigid air conditioning I will surely encounter in 105+ degree Kansas in August. I looked up for a moment at the Starbucks logo beckoning me back to see that a bird had built her home in the bottom half of the green plastic B. Another testament to home is where you are, and with whom.

Right now, that’s just me (and my splurge-copy of British Vogue). We’re getting reacquainted.

[An important detail I (almost intentionally) left out. The organization of this trip–who goes to Kansas in August?!–hinges on the fact of my 20th high school reunion this weekend. A subject for another post, no doubt.]