(no title) draft

She felt she had no plans, no thoughts; yet at some level, her mind and her body had taken action and catapulted her into this pool of stillness . . . She felt as if she were suspended between two worlds, belonging to neither.  —from Astrid & Veronika, by Linda Olsson

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I do love how, in my life, the right book comes around at just the very right time (the one mentioned above was given to me by a dear friend). And the books, they are hardly ever big and important, as some might consider such categories. If I were to list a few . .  .

The Education of Little Tree, Forrest Carter

My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok

Assault on Eden: A Memoir, Virginia Stem Owens

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keefe, Laurie Lisle

Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset (trans. Tiina Nunnally)

I can’t and wouldn’t say that most of these books make my own favorite-of-all-time list (except maybe Little Tree—o wait, and Kristin Lavransdatter), but each has been vital to me as my person was shifting, recognizing, searching. Those times when life felt/feels too big or too hard or too lonely. When it seems as though I’m moving around, doing what needs to be done, but I’m doing it in a world filled with kinetic sand, up to my shoulders. I can still look around, but there’s a drag to every motion. A way of being in which every action is so very intentional.

Bet you can’t guess I’m in the midst of one of those times now.

I typically respond to my entry into this strange land in an intensely physical way. Let’s say I start weeding my flock of gardenias, azaleas, camellias, and roses. In 100 degree Alabama heat. For a week. Which I follow by multiple trips to Lowes for pine straw (let’s say twenty bales worth), which I spend the Labor Day weekend spreading. In short, I exhaust myself to the point of not being able to move, which is to say,

She sat
     still being
and not being afraid
     but afraid            some
of the same
     vast girl talking to
the gardenias.

Thankfully, errands and wilting azaleas and afterschool pick-up (as well as an infected toe) draw me back from the edge. I’ve only fallen in a few times over the course of a life. The important thing is not being so afraid that I deny the darkness is part of who I am.

“Fr. Sophrony, how can I be saved?” Fr. Sophrony offered him a cup of tea and after awhile replied, “Stay on the brink of despair, and when you cannot go on, step back and have a cup of tea.” (Mount Athos, the Sacred Bridge: The Spirituality of the Holy Mountain, Dimitri E. Conomos and Graham Speake)

Or step out into the hot Alabama sun and move the watering hose.

She was thinking about the book, about the continuous process of reshaping and reassembling all her ideas and plans. It was as if the book she had begun in another world, in another life, had been written by someone else. The words no longer had a connection with the person she had become. Here, there were no distractions other than those she carried within, and everything lay exposed. It was time to find new words.  —Linda Olsson, Astrid & Veronika

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Not quite lost in translation

Gabriel has named his snowman “Bun In the Oven”.
This is a product of too much time spent with the movie Ice Age.
G and BIO
It took us awhile to translate. What he really says is “bodily oven”—which in itself is kind of hilarious, considering the meaning of the phrase.

He loves Bun and was disturbed to see his leaning condition (it snowed, then rained); he wanted me to make him straight. I assured him that until it warmed up, Bun would stand. I did my best to pound his smile and eyes back in. As you can see, G is right pleased.

While G and I worked on Bun, J threw himself, quite literally, into the making of a giant snowball, which was to become a snowman, which sort of did, until the crashing game ensued. No matter; he was happy with it. Happy with the game of rolling off and smashing into it. Just plain happy. (Isn’t our neighbor’s house lovely? I love how they decorate for Christmas—classy and understated, completely suited to the design of the house.)

js snowball

In other exciting news, J’s reading is really starting to take off. When he sounds out a word, he is able to more easily pull it together. Something clicks that wasn’t clicking before (which matches up with his newest fascination: cameras). I’m guessing this is due to a developmental leap, coupled with the reading program his wonderful intervention specialist is doing with him.

And while I might bemoan the preponderance of Ice Age references, I never thought I’d be so grateful for a movie-spinoff reader. Knowing the story makes a monumental difference when it comes to deciphering new words. He wants to read.

reading hands

As does G, who has a thing for song lyrics, particularly Gram Parson’s “Return of the Grievous Angel” covered by The Counting Crows. He pulls out the booklet from the library-borrowed case and “reads” the liner notes, which comes across as a garbled rendition of the song lyrics as he understands them (yes, it’s hilariously cute). His words pretty much run together in a long stream of barely distinguishable syllables until the phrase, “out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels / and a good saloon in every town” which he pronounces with a sweet twang all his own.

“M”

M stencilFlannery O’Connor famously wrote nearly three hundred letters to a woman referred to only as “A”, whose identity (per her request) was kept secret and sealed for twenty years. In 2007, her letters were made available to the public through Emory University. “A”s new (real) name? Hazel Elizabeth “Betty” Hester.

While I’m no Flannery O’Connor, it occurs to me that my melancholy is a little bit like Betty Hester: thoughtful, intelligent, reaching, private, even reclusive. A friend, in ways like Betty, that I can exchange thoughts and ideas with. As O’Connor puts it in a letter to “A” (I will always call Betty by her single letter), “I would like to know who this is who understands my stories.”

Very clearly yesterday morning, as I walked downtown in the semi-bustle that is Canton, OH, the week of the Football Hall of Fame Induction/Parade/Game, I met up with “M” again. That is, I recognized that she’d been hanging around, waiting for me to notice her.

Because gosh, I’ve been sad. An ache in my soul for weeks. At first I called it exhaustion. Then I said it was the drugs (either too much or too little). O, must be those crazy hormones.

But no, it is just my melancholy, whose hardly even had wallflower status in the party that is our life—I think, in part, because our life has been about familial survival for almost three years now. The boys are all okay, in mostly good grooves, so maybe my whole self has room to surface. A girl can only repress for so long. The definition of a crisis is that it will eventually end.

I am thus grateful and disconcerted. Having not had the luxury of “M”s presence for awhile now, I need a feel for her substance.

M gold red antiqueShe is heavy and full. A kind of ripeness that smells of sour milk (which my grandfather would simply call buttermilk and pour over his stale chocolate cake).  She urges slowness but can drag me into a sticky molasses sleep. In the morning she almost blesses me, like the sky, but by noon she’s gone parking lot grey, filling me with oppressive heat. She can beget creation; she can beget despair.

In honor of her reemergence, I physically wore myself out yesterday and stayed outside as long as possible (my best way to bear her particular kind of friendship). I walked downtown to work and then walked back. The boys and I cleaned up the yard, swept the driveway, and toted rocks to mallet in the mulch that’s been escaping the bricked wall near our front sidewalk. I weed-whacked. I mowed. This morning it felt like yesterday was the first day of basketball practice; I liked the way the aches lined up.

And today I was sufficiently worn out to take it slow and handle the slowness without being drug under.  Which was exactly the point: my being in relationship with “M”, which is a way of saying how I manage a relationship with myself.

m lower shaggyI read a very true thing about writers and their work last week, the gist being that the writer writes to be, for a moment, more than she truly is. Melancholy reminds me of a reality not driven by circumstance. It’s about reach.

Writers and their books will always be inextricably connected, but the relationship between them isn’t simple. As [George] Saunders told me, “A work of art is something produced by a person, but is not that person — it is of her, but is not her. It’s a reach, really — the artist is trying to inhabit, temporarily, a more compact, distilled, efficient, wittier, more true-seeing, precise version of herself — one that she can’t replicate in so-called ‘real’ life, no matter how hard she tries. That’s why she writes: to try and briefly be more than she truly is.”

Maybe, as a reader, that is what I keep falling in love with — not the author, but the art of reaching.

Margo Rabb, from “Fallen Idols” in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books 

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.

Sad, at School

More often than not, Jonah doesn’t want to go to school these days. It seems that Christmas break threw him for a loop from which he can’t quite break free. Unfortunately, his wonderful, warm teacher—Ms. Jennifer—has been absent more than usual. She is so good at taking him by the hand and helping him engage first thing. Once Jonah’s into his work, I don’t know that he gives home much thought, but it’s the transition that’s the hurdle (I’m with you on that one J).

By the time his intervention specialist arrives, he’s usually good to go. She sends home glowing reports on a regular basis (yesterday: “I have to tell you I am seeing him reading! It is sooooo exciting. I am taking letters and making 3 letter words. He is able to sound them out and put it all together to get the word. He even sometimes will use the word in a sentence.”). Of course, what’s not to love about a young beautiful woman giving you her undivided attention? J’s always had a special place in his heart for the ladies.

One morning this week was particularly heart-wrenching, and John spent a good twenty minutes easing him into the classroom. He then hid from J’s view to watch for awhile. Jonah plopped himself down at a table with his head in his hands. He made crying noises (he’s perfecting the cry-at-will skill). Finally, some work across the room piqued his interest enough to unstick him from his glum.

But the sadness is still apparent. That same day he brought home a rather pitiful looking snowman worksheet. Dear me. The poor chap looks like he’s been nailed in the eye with a snowball. Even his stick arms suggest a certain woe-is-me.

I don’t know how weather affects J, but it’s doing a number on me this winter. Last winter was cold and snowy, but bright, for all that snow. This winter is shaping up to be all grey and slush. Dreariness dreariness.

We had a rough sleep of it last night, and plans had to be cancelled today for lack of energy and stamina. I was okay in the morning (with a cup of coffee in my veins) but felt overwhelmed and sad on our morning walk. Sweet Jo was at his silliness, trying to cheer me up. Unfortunately, silliness often translates to a degree of oblivion. I had to get after him several times for running into light poles and crossing the street without even pretending to look for cars. He remained sweet and contentedly held my hand for the rest of our trek.

Later, while we were hanging our coats to dry, he said, “You know something mom? You were fine this morning, and then you were not.” That’s the way it goes my love. That’s the way it goes.