Dark Night of the Soul

I have long been a fan of the idea “the dark night of the soul.” I have had enough of them to know their worth, though they’re never pleasant to go through. They always teach me something, and now here’s another one.

The story of Jacob in the Old Testament reveals a dark night of the soul for him. He had stolen his brother’s birthright, and now he was getting word of his brother’s approach. He felt guilty and defensive, and feared an assault on the life he had built with Rachel and Leah and their children. He sent gifts on ahead of himself, to butter up his older brother, in the hopes of avoiding conflict. He fretted and worried. He sent his family ahead of him as well, and he stayed alone at night. Through the night, he struggled with a “man” or angel. When the angel realized he couldn’t overpower Jacob, he touched the socket of his hip, dislocating it. He begged Jacob to let him go, because daylight was coming. “Not unless you bless me,” said Jacob.

I was surprised by how short this passage was in Genesis, when I went back to reread it. This scene has loomed large in my imagination for years, and it was odd that it’s so short. Because in this scene, everything changes for Jacob. The angel/man does bless him. He renames him Israel, the father of nations. Because he has “struggled with God with man and have prevailed.” And of course, Jacob is physically never the same, either. He limps away from that spot, and the Hebrews will never again eat the meat of that joint in an animal, in memory of Israel’s injury at the hands of the angel.

So, this isn’t just a Sunday school lesson, though it may sound like it. I haven’t read much from the Bible in years, though it used to be a nightly practice. But I’m currently sitting in a hotel room in Avon, Colorado, and my uterus is rebelling. Very, very severe cramps, bleeding. My whole body aches. I could barely sleep last night. And I’d had only three hours of sleep the night before. It’s time to see a doctor. This has been going on for nearly three weeks now.

I have a condition called adenomyosis, similar to endometriosis in its symptoms. It’s when the uterine lining starts growing into the muscle of the uterus. Very, very painful. Even very high doses of ibuprofen can’t keep it completely at bay. I do what I have to do when I’m home, because I need to be present and available for Jack. But I’m alone now, and it is really, really hard.

I came up here for a getaway, a retreat. And I felt pretty well yesterday on the drive up here. I’m near Vail, and the mountains are beautiful. The aspens have started turning, so there are splashes of bright gold on the hillsides, along with the green of not-yet-turned trees, and the deeper green of the evergreens. But I feel so horrible this morning that I don’t feel like going out into this crystal blue September day to enjoy it. This is my dark night of the soul.

I have hung on to my uterus because we thought we wanted another child. Jack will be five in the spring, so it took us a while, but we’ve recently decided that more children will be just too much for us. Brian’s exact words were, “I might die.” We love Jack dearly, and he is such a sweet boy. But autism is not an easy thing for any of us to deal with. It’s so hard not to know why he starts crying in the middle of the night, sometimes. He can’t articulate his fears. If he hurts himself, he asks for a napkin. But he can’t say, “I hurt my head.” It’s hard, and it’s all we can do to keep going and make sure he has all he needs.

But here’s the thing. I’m an only child, and I grew up very lonely. I don’t want Jack to have that experience. It was awful. I have wanted a big family since I was old enough to talk about it. In kindergarten, I told my teacher I wanted three sets of twins, six children. I had no idea, of course, how harrowing that would be. I had no idea how hard it was to raise children until I in fact started raising one. It’s fricking hard. My hat goes off to parents of two or three or four or more kids. I don’t know how you do it. I honestly don’t. I fall into bed, exhausted, at Jack’s nap time, and sleep. Just so I’ll have the strength to handle dinner.

But my uterus is crying out for help. And I am for the first time considering the real possibility of a hysterectomy. And this grieves me far more than I can say. To give up even the possibility of more children is heartbreaking to me. Like Jacob, it’s a point of no return. I have tried hormonal therapy and alternative treatments. I will of course look at other options and choose what’s best for me. But even the idea of giving up my creative center has me in tears.

Other options include radical dietary changes and more exercise. I had a dream last night that I was running across a field at night, singing, “I don’t like to exercise. I don’t like to exercise. I don’t like to exercise. That’s why I’m fat!” Truer words were never sung in a dream before. I would be willing to make those changes to keep my body intact, of course, but I fear that I can’t do it, can’t stick with it, and that I’ll fail and end up with a hysterectomy, anyway.

Here’s where Jacob comes back in. The whole reason behind his dark night of the soul was because he feared retribution from his brother, Esau. Who I just now remember was his twin brother. He was so afraid of rejection, that he fought all night with an angel and never walked the same again. But he needn’t have worried at all. When Esau saw him coming, he ran to him and embraced him. They both wept. It was a beautiful reunion.



Last night, Brian got home from an overnight climbing trip. He slept in a cave and had wonderful views of the stars. He climbed an eight-pitch rock face. He hiked down that mountain and then seven miles back to the trailhead and the car. Except for the stars, none of this interests me in the least. But he is happy, and that makes me happy. Especially when he comes home safely afterward.

After we got Jack to bed last night, Brian and I watched the first episode of Season 3 of Once Upon a Time. Possibly my favorite TV show ever. I was so excited to watch it, I was almost trembling. After it was over, I said aloud, “That was the best thing ever. Ever!” Brian said that he liked it, and that he enjoyed watching something with me, but it was obvious that he wasn’t as into it as I was.

I felt a bit deflated when he didn’t share my enthusiasm. It brought back all kinds of memories of my father shutting me down or out when I got really excited about something. I’d come to him, bubbling over with happiness, or boiling over with tears — really, any strong emotion — and he would say or do something so dramatic that I would feel as though someone had literally struck me. My dad never struck me, except for the rare spanking. But he could shut me down, shoot me down, slam a door in my face emotionally. It was always devastating. And it always left me feeling that I was wrong to feel happy or sad or scared.

I realize now that he responded that way because strong emotions terrified him. That’s one reason he drank so much. He himself was such a deeply feeling person, that when I came to him with my joy, my heartbreak, my fear, it resonated with him. He didn’t want to feel it, so he made it a crime for me to feel it, too. It became wrong and dangerous. I became “too much.”

So when Brian reacted to the show with less excitement than I had, I had a moment of transference, as though my father stood before me, shaming me for my enthusiasm. It’s true that sometimes Brian delivers a similar blow. And Jack does it a lot. I come to him to tickle or cuddle or play with him, and he shouts or pushes me away. I realize with Jack, and possibly Brian, too, that their brains are so overloaded with circuits, my coming at them can literally overwhelm those circuits. But that realization doesn’t keep my feelings from being hurt. And it doesn’t keep me from wondering why I fall in love with men who push me away. All of the men in my life, at one point or another, for one reason or another, shut me down or shut me out.

On one hand, I want to rebel. The words to the song “Defying Gravity” from Wicked came into my head last night. No one should tell me I can’t feel what I feel. I don’t want to let someone else’s fear limit what I do and say. Then when I talked to Brian, I saw an important difference between his (and Jack’s) reaction to me and what I experienced with my father. With my dad, he tried to keep *me* from feeling it. With Brian, it’s more clear that *he* doesn’t feel the same way. During our conversation, Brian said, “I like your enthusiasm. And if I ever shut you down, I don’t mean to.”

So on the other hand, I have to ask myself if something deeper in me has a purpose in drawing into my life people who are harder to reach. Maybe with my enthusiasm, I can help draw them out of themselves. And that’s possible. But more than trying to change them, I have to ask what I have to learn, here.

Maybe my lesson is to accept imperfect love from imperfect people. To understand that someone’s reaction to me has more to do with them and less (or nothing) to do with me and my worthiness. To define my worth and happiness from within, instead of constantly watching for outside validation. To honor my enthusiasm as a gift, regardless of how others may respond to it.

Here, I’m remembering a boyfriend in high school, who used to restrain me every time a Sprite commercial came on the television. It was the 80s, the era of “I like the sprite in you.” I loved to get up and twirl around and jump and dance to this jingle. But it was either too much for him, or he got tired of it, and it became a game, his trying to hold me down as I wriggled and jumped.

That boyfriend is still in my life. He and his wife are both dear friends of ours. Both of them participated in our wedding. I know now, long after the fact, that he delighted in my exuberance. And Brian does, too. Maybe because it’s so different from how they would each react. I’m not sure.

Just as I have no intention of climbing an eight-pitch rock face but love being married to a man who totally digs it. Maybe we draw to ourselves what we don’t already have. Maybe we love the sprite in each other, even if it can challenge us sometimes. Maybe that’s how we grow.

This Is a Test

Wow, I think the universe was listening to me on Tuesday, when I wrote about how I don’t want Jack to change. I think Someone wanted to make sure I meant what I said. By presenting me with what will go down in Guppy family history as The Science Camp Fan Incident.

On Wednesday morning, Jack and I attended an open house for a private math and science preschool here in town. Jack had gone to one of their science camps in June, and he loved it. The married couple who ran the school were affectionate and effective with him, very sweet and encouraging: “Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful son with us. He was the bright spot of our week.” It didn’t hurt, in Jack’s book, that the school has a large ceiling fan in the lobby that Mary, the wife and lead teacher, allowed him to turn on. My boy loves fans.

Science camp had gone so well that at the end of the week, I asked Mary if she had any openings for the regular preschool in the fall. “Oh, I was hoping you’d ask me that!” she said. Jack already attends public preschool, where he has an IEP and a full complement of OT and speech therapy. Plus a great, intuitive classroom teacher with a background in generalized Special Ed. So we were considering the math and science preschool as a supplement to his other schooling. It turned out that the schedules conflicted, and we couldn’t enroll him. Bummer, was the general consensus.

Then two weeks ago, we got an e-mail from Mary. They had an opening in their morning class, which wouldn’t conflict with Jack’s other school. We pretty much jumped on it. I signed him up within a few days and paid the first month’s tuition for September (which I’ll say is a bit steep for six hours a week, but it seemed worth it). It seemed perfect. Mary and her husband Ernie were sweet with Jack. They both have Masters degrees in eduction, his in Special Ed and hers in Literacy. The school focuses on math and science, which Jack seems already naturally drawn to. And they have an inclusive policy about kids with special needs learning beside their peers.

Wednesday morning, at ten o’clock, Jack and I arrived for the open house. It was a chilly, rainy day, especially for August, and the beloved lobby fan was off. Jack became instantly agitated and asked Ernie, who had greeted us, if he could turn it on. Ernie agreed to turn it on for ten seconds and then turned it off, and Jack began to cry and shake. This is not a new story, that a kid with autism freaks out over what seems to the rest of us like no big deal. But fans are his *thing.* And he was already nervous: unfamiliar place, new people, etc. As his face drew down into the real porch-lip heartbreaking look of despair, Mary intervened and turned the fan on for Jack. She even teasingly scolded her husband: “Don’t be upsetting my people,” she said.

The fan was on, so all was well with the world. I will say here that Jack did brilliantly. He sat in a chair at a table and played with green-tinted homemade play dough. Aside from spinning the little plastic rotary cutters and calling them “fans,” he was perfectly calm and looked like any other kid sitting there. There was another mom and boy there, and we introduced everyone. Mary told us about her garden, her jewelry kiln, etc. Jack said something about Helen Oxenbury, a children’s illustrator, and when I started to explain, Mary said, “Oh, I know who she is. My degree’s in children’s literature.” Of course.

After about an hour, I figured it was time for us to go. Jack had met a few other kids and parents. Everyone seemed very nice. After a turn with the Legos, I figured we’d head out. That’s when Mary came to get Jack. She wanted to turn off the fan for a few minutes. “He needs to get used to it,” she said. I couldn’t really disagree. I didn’t think it was reasonable for me to demand that an entire school full of people had to keep a fan running all year long for the sake of my son’s fixation. It is true that he will need to deal with non-ideal situations. But he’s four. And it was the open house. I felt agitated, myself. Jack wanted me to pick him up, and I told him I would hold his hand and walk with him.

His agitation grew with each step. By the time Mary turned the switch off on the fan, Jack was in tears. She walked him back to the classroom and set a timer. “When this goes off, we can turn it back on,” she said. Then she tried to get him to sit down with the Legos and play like everything was fine. For him, it was not fine. His world had just ended. He climbed into my lap, and I could feel him shaking. He turned to me, his eyes wide and full of tears. “We’ll turn it back on in a minute,” he said, nodding, begging me to reassure him. “Yes,” I said. “We’ll turn it back on in a minute.” I rubbed his back and soothed him the best I could until the bell rang.

We walked back out to the lobby, and Mary asked Jack if he wanted to turn the switch back on. He said, “Want me to do it?” Which means that he wanted her to do it. So she did. He wanted to linger and watch the fan, the glorious, resurrected fan. But Mary marched us back to the classroom. I said to her, “He was shaking.” She said something like, “Yes, it was hard for both of you.” The other parents laughed politely. Jack was still very agitated, and he began flapping his arms. I knew that it was his way of regulating himself, of helping himself recover from that trauma. Mary pulled him to her and squeezed his shoulders, legs, and hips. I knew she was trying to help him calm down with deep pressure, one technique to help a kid like Jack restore his proprioceptive sense. But she did it quickly and then stopped.

Mary steered him to a seat at the table, gave him some play dough. He wasn’t interested. He stared at his left hand, which he waved in front of his face so fast, it was a blur. At one point, Mary said, “Quiet hands.” That’s when I stiffened. Still, I didn’t say anything. But I knew that we would either have to talk with her or take Jack out of the school. “Quiet hands” does not fly with my family. Only once did I ever ask Jack to stop flapping his arms. We were on a walk, not long after his diagnosis, and I asked him to turn his arms “off” and just walk. He did stop flapping his arms, but he talked about it the whole time, ashamed and troubled by my request, repeating, “Turn the arms off, Jack. Turn the arms off.” I felt like an asshole. I never did that again.

By the time we left the open house, I was near tears myself. I texted Brian. He texted back my exact sentiments: “Quiet hands – that’s not going to fly.” We first decided to sit down with Mary and Ernie and present them with our philosophy for working with Jack. But the more we talked about it, the more I remembered Mary’s general demeanor. The garden, the jewelry kiln, the degree in children’s literature. She at no point showed ill will toward Jack or to me, but I sensed deeply that we were at an impasse. We had different ideas about how to react when Jack was scared. And she was the boss at her school.

At one point, I said to Brian, “Well, he does need to be pushed sometimes.” Brian’s response: “Yeah, but how far? This was too far.” He pointed to Jack, who was still flapping his arms and humming to himself, an hour or more after we’d left the school.

The truth is, aside from the “quiet hands” thing, I don’t really fault Mary or Ernie and their methods. But it was too soon, too early in the game, to be challenging Jack, before he was comfortable with them and with that environment. It wasn’t even the first day of school. Maybe he does need to adjust to the fan being off, but right now? And when he gets so upset, doesn’t he deserve more time and space to calm himself down?

I finally sent an e-mail to Mary, telling her we were pulling Jack out of the school. She responded calmly but sadly: “I’m so sorry to hear this. I was looking forward to my time with him.” I was relieved that she was a grown-up about it, but I was also sad. I have no question that removing Jack from her school was the right thing for him. And I am thankful that I made that move before a month or more had gone by. I think I’m just sad because we had all been so hopeful that this would be a great thing for all of us. And it wasn’t.

Oddly, Jack has been very cheerful today. Brian even took him for a haircut, which used to be a huge ordeal. But today, Jack sat by himself on the little booster seat (not in his dad’s lap). He squirmed once or twice, Brian told me, but no screaming or real resistance. When he got home with his new grown-up boy haircut, I gasped. He looked so big! He ran up and down the hall, launched himself onto the couch, and let me tickle him until he ran out of breath.


Four Years

I was thinking about how to honor my dad’s memory today, four years after his death. And it finally occurred to me that the best way to remember him is to write. So here I am, after a long hiatus. Hello.

My dad was a writer. He loved words. He loved puns and jokes and games. He was clever and honored cleverness. And I think my decision to go back to school to pursue my own writing was a huge relief to him. It was something he could understand. I was never the kind of visual artist that he could appreciate. I made a lot of abstract “outsider” art, which means most of it wasn’t pretty. And that never clicked with him. And certainly, my five years studying Kabbalistic Healing with a Jew from Brooklyn was beyond his ken. But writing he could get. He got it, and he supported my dream to become a writer, even though he never really supported his own.

Dad was born into a military family. His father was a four-star general in the Air Force. Both of his brothers were career military. He was proud of them and, I think, ashamed of himself. He could never have been in the active-duty military, because he almost died of Polio when he was four years old. He was tenderhearted and wanted to please his parents. I’m not sure his tenderness was encouraged. He certainly didn’t encourage my sensitive side, I think mostly because it reminded him of his own, which he tried to hide. I’m only thankful that I was a girl and therefore more easily “allowed” to have strong feelings.

But he was sensitive, and intuitive. He could read people pretty well. I have that same gift. And so does my son. Jack is four years old now. Almost four-and-a-half, though he doesn’t really keep track of those things. He’s about the same age my dad was when he contracted Polio. I cannot imagine what my grandparents went through, knowing their boy may die, then that he may never walk again. How heartbreaking and exhausting that whole ordeal must have been for them — and him.

Jack doesn’t have Polio. He has autism. Some people think that autism is caused by vaccines. I have heard and read enough evidence to refute that claim, but in a recent conversation, I told one woman that in the worst case, if that were true, I would still rather Jack have autism than Polio. Autism won’t kill him. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t also a very heartbreaking and exhausting process for both him and us, his parents, to live in a world that doesn’t understand autism. Even the experts don’t really understand it. We still don’t know what causes it, and the symptoms can vary greatly from kid to kid, both in type of symptom and severity. There’s recent research indicating that a particular protein is involved, and if that protein were isolated and treated, it could help alleviate not just the symptoms of autism, but the underlying cause. I have mixed feelings about this, since I would never want a drug to change my sweet boy (and side-effects of any drug can be frightening). But if something could relieve the crowded sensory input in his brain, it could make him a much happier boy.

But the truth is, he IS a happy boy. He has been since before he was born. When friends complained of crying during their pregnancies, I was laughing. I even laughed during labor. (BETWEEN contractions, not during.) And another recent New York Times article featured a young man who has lost his autism diagnosis but who says that he could feel joy much more profoundly when he was “allowed” to wave his arms and jump up and down, symptoms some therapists (and cruel siblings) discouraged. I can see the distress it causes Jack in new situations, especially if there’s a lot of ambient noise. He gets easily distracted by lights and fans (*especially* fans – his favorite thing). Would a treatment make it easier for him to focus and become less anxious? Maybe.

But it might also take away that sweet vulnerability that I so love about him. He is sensitive. Like me and my dad. Like his own dad and Brian’s dad, both of whom are likely on the same spectrum Jack is on. Just as blind people tend to have more acute hearing, I feel that Jack’s autism, while limiting him in some areas, actually allows him to see more, to sense more, than the average kid. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a good thing to take that away. Maybe it’s time for our family to honor this sweet, tenderhearted sensitivity that lives in my boy.

I think on the other side of death, his ego gone and his heart wide open, my dad would definitely understand that.

The Idiot’s Garden

A new friend in my pottery class gave me a box full of plants for my garden today. I have to say, of the six or so different species she gave me, I can only name one: the lambs ears. And I remember those because I specifically asked for them. The others are a mystery. There’s a beautiful dripping succulent, a lovely smelling mat of ground cover, some droopy leaves, another with round and wavy leaves, and one brown leafless specimen that I think I planted upside-down, with the roots sticking up in the air. I honestly couldn’t tell which end was up. I have splinters in my butt and pollen-induced snot in my nose. But I planted them, watered them, and wished them luck. “I don’t know what you are,” I said. “But I’m glad you’re here, and I hope you survive.”

A similar event happened last year, when friends gave me extra veggies they didn’t have room for in their garden. I knew nothing. I stuck them in the dirt and watered them and talked to them and hoped they would keep growing. And miraculously, they did – mostly, except the worm-infested cauliflower, which I finally gave up on. The generous donors asked me if I had Ph tested the soil or included compost tea, and I looked at them as though they were speaking Swahili. Because to me, they were. So this is my second year for what I call an “idiot’s garden.”

I’m learning, though. I now know what Ph-testing is, though I don’t do it. And I have a composter and compost tea. I knew enough today when I was digging to be careful and nice with the worms and indifferent (if not outright hostile) to the ants. But if you asked me what I have growing in my garden, I would point to the lambs ears and name them and then admit I have no idea what else is in there. I really do wish those little guys the best of luck. With me as their caretaker, they’re going to need it.

But here’s the thing. I love it. I LOVE IT. I love to garden and plant things and watch them grow. I just don’t know what the hell I’m doing. But for now, I don’t really care that much. Mostly because I’m just lucky, and I have friends who do know who are willing to teach me. And because life does seem to hang on, even in the most trying of circumstances. And what’s true in the garden is true, I think, everywhere else.

Take pottery, for instance. And poetry. And Zumba. These are all things that I love, love, love to do. And I think I can safely say that I suck at all of them. But I don’t care. I used to care. I used to care a lot. When I was in high school, I wouldn’t even try something if I even thought I may possibly not be awesome at it. I “lost interest” in any number of things because I wasn’t already good at them, or if I didn’t pick them up very quickly. I stopped horseback riding after one year, because you know what? That shit is *hard.*

But you know what else? LIFE is hard. Living is hard. I’m not a defeatist. I don’t think it sucks or isn’t worth living. Not at all. Life is full and beautiful and challenging and boring and thrilling. It is all of these things, but one thing it is NOT is easy. And maybe I just had to live long enough to learn that lesson, so that I no longer give a shit if I look foolish in Zumba class or my pottery flops over or looks wonky. Maybe it’s a sign of maturity. Or just acceptance of my own imperfections. So now I’m taking pottery and Zumba because *I LIKE THEM* and not because I’m waiting for someone to praise me for being so amazing.

I may not know what I’m doing, but the plants seem to, and so does the clay, and so does the music. So when I surrender to those things and let them carry me away with them, that’s when I *feel* amazing. And that’s what counts the most.



Now I need to write about something lighter. That’s a joke. Dark humor. Here goes.

I was in a waiting room the other day and saw a People magazine with Philip Seymour Hoffman on the cover. I have so many feelings about this, I don’t know where to start.

When PSH died, I had assumed at first it was a heart attack. I saw him in the second Hunger Games movie, and he didn’t look good. He had gained weight, and his face looked red and blotchy. I hadn’t ever known about his drug addiction. When I found out his death was a result of heroin, I didn’t feel sad. I just got angry. How dare he waste himself like that? He was so talented, such an artist, so gifted. How dare he deprive the rest of us of his presence? See where I’m going with this?

I have many friends who were all much more sympathetic and sad and supportive of Mr. Hoffman’s life and addiction. All people whose opinions I respect. How could they see such a different picture? All I saw was someone who threw his life away. What about us, yes, but what about his children? What about them? Didn’t he care about them? How could he choose to waste himself with such a notoriously dangerous drug?

Yes, I have heard that addiction is an illness, not a choice. But he had chosen to stay away from heroin for twenty years. At some point, it’s a choice. At some point, you have a needle in your hand, and you can choose not to put it in your arm. But in the face of my friends’ responses, I had to ask myself some questions. Why am I taking this so personally? Why am I so personally angry with a man I have never met? And why do I feel so rigid in my condemnation of addiction as weakness?

If you are at all considering the role of my father in my life, you win the prize. Ding, ding, ding! As I’ve mentioned before, my dad was an alcoholic. I have said many times before and will say many times more what havoc that wreaked in my life. A couple of years ago, a friend talked to me about a woman in his life who drank too much. He said it didn’t bother him for his own sake so much. He just didn’t want it to affect any children they may have. I think I may have even stopped the car. I turned to my friend and said, “I am here to tell you that it will definitely, definitely, affect your children.”

My father never hit me. He never left my mom and me. He never lost a job due to his drinking. He was what many call a functional alcoholic. He was never lying in a gutter, singing songs to himself. But he drank every night, and he drank a lot. And the only time he stopped was when he got a DUI when I was a sophomore in high school. He stopped drinking for four years, then. Cold turkey. He was court-ordered to attend AA meetings for six months. He started drinking again when his mother had a heart attack and became bedridden. He never stopped again. When he was dying, he told the Hospice nurse that he drank six to eight drinks a night, every night.

Dad was there, in the house, but he was rarely actually there. I can intellectually understand that he used alcohol to manage his emotions, to medicate the constant pain in his legs from Polio, to salve the horrible wound of having lost my mom. But I don’t know if I will or can ever forgive him for it. My childhood is riddled with the holes made by his piercing addiction. When he was drinking, he made cruel jokes about my weight. He forgot about important dates and events in my life. He interrupted me when I was trying to share something important to me, to make jokes at my expense. He never let me finish a story. He ignored my needs, usually because he was so consumed with his own. He left me millions of times, even though we always lived at the same address. And I don’t know if I can ever let that go.

But then I need to look at myself. I am not an alcoholic. But I use sugar and food as drugs. I sit at the computer when Jack is in the room, so often keeping this wall of laptop screen between us, compulsively looking for news and drama online. It may not kill me as quickly as a heroin overdose, but it may pierce holes in Jack’s childhood that I can never repair. So the rage I feel at a stranger who has left his family and life work behind is really meant for the dad who left his family, who left me. And for myself, who leave my own child in big and small ways all the time.

Maybe it is a weakness. But maybe it’s a weakness that needs care, not rejection. I wonder if I can make room enough in myself for that.

The Things That Don’t Go Away

A year ago this weekend, I had an argument with a friend that basically ended that friendship. Every time I think about her, I feel sad and also still a little angry. I feel like I was unfairly treated. She felt like she was unfairly treated. My guess is that we were both right. But then she left town, moved out of state, without telling me, so that was that. But it’s one of those things that will probably always make me feel bad, guilty, hurt, etc.

Here’s another one. I recently hired a babysitter I had misgivings about, whom I didn’t investigate thoroughly enough. We’ll call her S. I had hired her through Care.com, an organization that charges $34 per month so you can search for caregivers for children, pets, and adults. I had assumed – stupidly – that the verification check they do on all of the registered service providers was equivalent to a background check. It’s not. They offer a background check, starting at $59 for the most basic one, and the cost goes up from there. I figured it would be overkill. So I thought this woman was a little bossy. That doesn’t mean she couldn’t be good for Jack. And Brian would be here at the house a lot of the day, working downstairs. I am so ashamed to admit this, but I didn’t even ask the woman for references. Didn’t even Google her.

And she turned out to be a very angry person, indeed. As far as I know, she was always gentle with Jack. I *assume* he would have bolted or cried when he saw her if she had been unkind. But you know what? That’s shameful. Because it’s not up to him. He’s just a little boy. And with autism, to boot, so he can’t verbalize very well. In the four weeks that she worked with him, though, he did start acting out and having more tantrums. I should have known. I should have protected him. I should have followed my original gut reaction and hired someone else.

But I doubted myself. I figured I was just defensive because the woman was a few years older than I am, with grown kids of her own. And she was working on a Masters degree in Psychology, focusing on child development, and she wanted to work with autistic kids. She was willing to keep a log of the work they did together every day. It was only seven hours a week. The excuses mounted. And then there was always, “Well, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll know in a couple of weeks and replace her then.”

Fuck. Me. First, there was the e-mail telling us to change Jack’s diet. Then the e-mail informing us that she was changing her hours, because it was “better for Jack.” When I argued that the hours we had originally set out were still what we preferred, she responded with, “Sorry, I have another client in Loveland. I have to leave by 2:30.” This “new client” was certainly news to me, particularly since it conflicted with our previous agreement. There was more. The implication in many small acts and comments that I didn’t know how to raise my son, that I was doing a poor job of things.

I’m raising an autistic child. I question every single fucking thing I do. Everything I say. Could I be doing more? Should we use brushes for OT or a weighted vest? Is he getting enough support at school? Did he have enough protein today? Jesus Christ. I already have a voice telling me I’m not good enough, pretty much all the time. It’s just usually in my own head. For it to come from the outside was a blow I hadn’t expected. And it worked like an ignition, pressing the button for all of my inner demons to rush to the surface and join the chorus.

Even in the midst of all this, I said to Brian, “Maybe it’s good to have someone who pushes my buttons. Maybe she’s still the best person for Jack.” Brian looked at me for a long moment. “The best person for Jack wouldn’t push your buttons,” he said. “Not like this, anyway.”

So we set about finding a replacement for S. We had interviewed two other candidates, both of whom were good options. One of them had her own transportation and had brought a resume with references. We called her. I’ll call her M. M came by for a “trial run” with Jack, and he really seemed to like her. She agreed to the hours we needed, asking if we could adjust slightly because she has class until 12:15 on Mondays. She actually asked, so I was OK with that. Once that was all set up, we were starting to prepare for Jack’s birthday party. Family coming into town, etc.

It was after the dust had settled from the birthday that I emailed S and let her know that we had found someone who could more easily accommodate our schedule needs. She replied with one of the more scathing e-mails I’ve ever received, calling me “tacky” and unprofessional. She referred to both Brian and Jack as “slow,” which made me realize that she obviously wasn’t paying attention. I responded that I’m not a business person, I’m a mother. She had no right to judge us as parents, and she would do well to work on kindness if she wanted to work with children as a career.

Her follow-up e-mail I never saw. Brian deleted it and blocked her account before I could see it. He shared some details with me, including that she called us both “idiots.” Throughout this e-mail, she referred to Brian as “Brain,” and she also said that he was “creepy” because he “stares at people when they talk.” And this person wants to work with autistic children? Is she aware that people with autism, including just mild autism, stare at people when they speak, because communication is difficult? Had I not already emphasized that communication was an issue for Jack? And also: Seriously? How old are you?

It was the following day that I heard from my mother-in-law, who had been aware of some of these proceedings. She had Googled S and discovered an arrest record from July of last year. S and her husband were both booked with charges of domestic violence. This wasn’t something that had happened twenty years ago, in her heady youth. This was less than a year ago. She and her husband had fought so ferociously that the police got involved. And she has an eleven-year-old daughter.

In a way, this discovery was immensely liberating, because I can hardly take seriously parenting advice from someone arrested for beating up her husband in her own home, possibly in front of a child. But the follow-up was fierce. I let this crazy person into my home. I hadn’t even Googled her. If my mother-in-law could find this out about S, why didn’t I bother to do so two months ago and save myself a lot of heartbreak? And what about Jack? He’s just a little boy. It’s my job to protect him from nut-jobs like her, and I failed him. He can’t speak up for himself against bullies. But I can. And I didn’t.

I feel so ashamed to admit all of this in a public forum. It makes me cringe. But I can only hope that my transparency will help someone else. Maybe you can learn from my mistakes. Maybe I can, too. And the pragmatic side of me says, “Well, she’s gone, now.” But this is going to be one of those things that will never go away. That time the crazy babysitter came in. Like that time the friendship ended. That time things went wrong and I wish I could go back in time and make them right again.

But I can’t.


I’ve been attending a Shambhala meditation center here in Fort Collins, where they teach tenets of Tibetan Buddhism philosophy and practice. My attendance is pretty sporadic, but I’m trying to get into the routine of waking up and getting dressed and driving downtown, so I can sit still for an hour or so and stop spazzing out all the time.

Going to a Buddhist center was the only thing that felt honest to me. We tried going to Christian churches, and we tried the Unitarian congregation, and nothing quite fit. The Unitarians were frankly boring, not what I had hoped for at all. I thought to myself, “You have generations of beauty and wisdom to choose from! We could be reading Rumi, Anne Sexton, Salman Rushdie. Why are you telling me about your trip to England?” It just felt dry and overbaked and blah.

Then we found a liberal Christian church where the people were very friendly and welcoming, the community vibrant and lively. But I couldn’t get past the Jesus stuff. Can you believe I used to be the Director of Christian Education at a church? I used to want to be an Episcopal priest. But the reason I never went to seminary is the same thing that has turned me off of Christian doctrine. Women seem marginalized, even in the best of circumstances. No matter how liberal your interpretation, you can’t change the fact that in a Christian church, you’re working with male-dominated literature from a male-dominated culture. And I’ve done enough research about the ancient Goddess religions to have even less favorable opinions about the Judeo-Christian track record with regard to the treatment of women and the demonization of the Divine Feminine.

But I digress. My whole point in starting this was to share a recent experience at what seems to be my new spiritual home. (That’s a phrase I haven’t used in a while!) During the discussion portion of our Sunday morning meditation session, the time-keeper/leader of our little group brought up the topic of gentleness. “What does gentleness look like when focused on ourselves?” she asked. She mentioned that in her experience, it seemed only to be an absence of self-abuse and criticism that she usually heaped on herself. It led to an interesting discussion.

I’ll say here that the word gentleness didn’t and doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve long equated the idea of gentleness with timidity and even weakness. I’m sure that says a lot more about me (and my upbringing) than it does about gentleness itself. But for the sake of our discussion, I substituted the word kindness. It feels stronger and less passive to me, somehow. And it works well enough for my purposes here, as well. The consensus of the group was that gentleness/kindness can take many forms, and that it doesn’t only entail not doing something. For instance, if you’re feeling exhausted, the kind thing to do for yourself may be to rest. But sometimes the kind thing isn’t about rest. It’s actually about effort. Getting up and getting dressed and driving downtown and parking and walking on a Sunday morning so I can attend group meditation practice is a kind thing to do for myself. I need that stillness, and I need the community. I also need the break from our daily routine at home, which can be anything but still. But it takes effort to get there. Likewise, the kind thing is often to take a walk, rather than a nap. My body needs that movement and fresh air. These are kind things. Not always easy things.

I may have mentioned before that Brian’s had some health problems. An odd, indefinite fatigue that seems to have vague causes that seem more mild than the symptoms would lead us to believe. Meanwhile, we’ve begun private speech therapy with Jack, and his therapist is sending home weekly assignments for us to work on between sessions. At the same time, I’ve been trying and failing to get back to a writing project very close to my heart. All of these things demand of me great kindness — and yes, gentleness — to myself and my family. But none of it is weak or timid. Not one bit of it. These are daily efforts that I don’t always feel like dealing with, but which will help each of us separately and all of us together feel more whole.

Wish me luck. And kindness. Amen.

Cow Town

When I was in college, I dated a guy from Fairfax County, outside DC. He and his friends from UVa made fun of me and my hometown of Winchester, VA, saying we were a cow town. I was incensed and offended. They pointed out that at one location, there were cows within the city limits. They thought this was worthy of derisive laughter.  And I supposed I agreed with them, or I wouldn’t have been embarrassed.

Now I live in a town with numerous horse trailers, paddocks, sheep, and chickens within the city limits, or at least very close. I haven’t seen cows, but a sign on the ridge west of town warns drivers to watch out for roaming cattle. When I left pottery class yesterday, I noticed that one of my classmates had hay in the back of their car. Several of my new acquaintances raise chickens and eat and sell fresh eggs. And it occurs to me — not just because of the eggs, but it helps — what exactly is wrong with living in a “cow town”? In what ways and why is it inferior to living amidst suburban sprawl, where nearly every square inch is paved over or subdivided?

I may have recounted this before, but it bears repeating. The university a mile from my home is known as an agricultural school. Temple Grandin, the famous autistic woman who redesigned cattle handling facilities across the country, works there. At football games between Colorado State and the University of Colorado in Boulder, the Boulder kids shout at their rivals, “Go back to your cow town!” To which the Aggies reply, “Go back to California!” Since the Buffs are infamous out-of-staters riding into Colorado on trust funds, the retort rings true (though obviously not for everyone).

This response also makes me proud of my neighbors, the Colorado State kids, most of whom came from a farm somewhere in rural Colorado, who exhibit the typical careless drunkenness of undergraduates everywhere, but who, when sober, always wave and say hello when they see us walk by. They’re in general a very polite, down to earth bunch, for college kids. I compare them mentally to the often spoiled, beautiful, and less-than-genius undergraduates at UNC Wilmington, where we used to live, and they definitely come out ahead. Maybe that’s unfair, and of course I’m generalizing. But so were the snobby kids from UVa who teased my friend Joy, whose pronunciation of the word pie rhymes with the sound sheep make.

I find that the people I have met here are durable folk. My pottery teacher told us that when they lived in a cabin in the mountains, they had no electricity. Her children did their homework by the light of a kerosene lantern. Does this make those children less intelligent than their better-heeled counterparts in Great Falls, Virginia (median home price: $900, 000)? I doubt it. But it does make them more resilient and better able to handle adversity, because they already have. What happens when the lights go out in the high-end suburbs?

Please understand. I’m not knocking my friends who live in cities and suburbs. I own a house in one of those suburbs. I lived in the DC area for twelve years, and it has so much to offer: music, theatre, museums, excellent schools. But the city hasn’t cornered the market on culture. If you look, you can find art and music pretty much everywhere you find people. And I like this better. I like fresh eggs and the smell of horse shit and the grubby integrity of people who live in the country. You can call me an Aggie if you want to. I don’t mind.

Racing the Sun

I’ve mentioned before that we live near a mountain range, right? And have I mentioned that the sun makes a big difference in temperature? Well, that’s true in the cold as well as the heat. The sun shining on me at 11:15 this morning, for example, made me doff my coat in forty-five degree weather. And I was perfectly comfortable. But the ridge closest to our house hides the sun at about 4:05 pm these days (and getting earlier!). So I find myself racing to get out the door to get my walk in before it gets shady and cold in these here parts.

Now, something I’ve also probably mentioned once or twice is that I have a son, yes? You’ve heard about this? Yes, he’s a rip-roaring three-year-old, and he pretty much wears me out every day. When I put him down for his nap at 2pm every day, I have to take a nap, or I will die. I think that may even be a verifiable medical fact. Not sure. I haven’t had the guts to test it.

Are you getting the idea here? I have to nap at two (to avoid death), and I have to finish my walk by four. I’ll add into the mix the fact that I’ve had insomnia for the last three nights. So today, I lay down at 2:15, tried to read for about thirty seconds, and then fell asleep. I didn’t wake up until after 3:30. When I saw the clock, I sat bolt upright in bed, like I was having a heart attack. I remember waking like that on mornings when I had to catch a flight or get to work on time, but this was getting a little ridiculous.

To make matters more complicated, I decided to go out without a coat, since it had been so warm earlier. Dumb, dumb, dumb. And because I was still disoriented from the nap, it took me nearly twenty minutes just to get my shoes and scarf on. And even though the sun was technically above the ridge when I left the house, I walk in a neighborhood with houses in it. (Shocker, I know.) And they blocked the sunlight. So I was in shade most of the way, shivering and beating myself up for being so lazy, stupid, selfish, and Communist. (May as well throw in everything.)

It occurred to me on this chilly walk, which I admit I shortened to avoid the cold, that what I have been doing with my walks, I also do with my life. I’m racing the sun, trying to fit in everything before I die. Or before bedtime. Or before the first of the month. Or whatever deadline exists, either real or imaginary. I don’t fool myself. Many of my time limits are self-imposed and arbitrary, but death is one I can’t fudge. That’s for real, and whether or not my conscious mind admits it, that deadline – no pun intended – runs me.

I guess it runs a lot of us. There’s even a country song about “rushing, rushing, till life’s no fun.” And that’s a country song, one of the more laid back musical genres in existence. But maybe we – I – are rushing and panicking about all the wrong things, because we don’t want to look at the big thing. We have so little time on this planet. I didn’t even realize it until I turned forty, and now it seems more true every year. Every month. Every day. It doesn’t really matter if I get the cranberries cooked in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Or if I get in a thousand words of writing instead of nine hundred tonight.

What matters is this sense of urgency deep inside me to live my life to the fullest, to stop wasting time, to pay attention. Lately, Brian has been very tired. Not normal tired, or even normal-with-a-kid tired. His energy levels are way too low. He’s seeing a doctor about it; two, in fact. He thinks it may still be the Paxil withdrawal, but his biggest fear is that he will never find out what’s wrong, and he’ll never get better. This is a pretty serious development for someone who wants to climb mountains for a living. And I don’t know what to do. I can’t help him. I don’t have the answer. And I want to fix him.

I want to fix him for my sake, so he can rush around alongside me, doing all of the things that make our household run. I want to fix him for his sake, so he is happy and strong and hopeful again. I want to fix him for Jack’s sake, so he can be tickled and joked with and chased and held. But I can’t fix him at all, and this is causing me more anxiety than I have been willing to admit even to myself.

But maybe what I really, really, really need to do is slow down. Listen to my husband and hold him and cry with him and let him know, over and over, that we are in this together. Because that is the only truth I am sure of, right now.

And maybe, maybe, this slowing down thing will be enough.