Monthly Archives: December 2015

When English teachers have nightmares

Last night I dreamed that Spring Semester began and when I arrived to teach my 8:30 section, it was a university auditorium classroom with 5,000 students.

“What happened to the 23-student cap in writing classes?” I asked the Writing Program Administrator in horror.

“They all have 23 students except this section. It’s just really big. No one likes to teach it,” she told me, simply.

I spent the entire dream failing to make the projector work from the media booth above the stadium seating of my enormous class.

“How will I ever grade all their papers?” I screamed in my mind.

I woke up.

I exhaled.

And today I saw Joy on my date with Dutch, which I found hilarious and highly inspiring.

It can be good to wake up.

Earthward winging, Christmas bringing

My childhood Christmases glowed. They really did, every year. It’s a little bit nostalgia and a lot totally true.

Glorious things happened, like Santa bringing us a family-sized tent and setting it up IN OUR FAMILY ROOM as we slept. We got a hammock, once, and left it swinging in the kitchen all through Christmas Break. Santa was such a cool cat. One year we got a puppy. I’m not sure that anything more crazy exciting had ever happened to me before.

Our Christmas rituals sometimes changed, but usually:

*We delivered my mom’s loaves of homemade bread and jars of homemade jam to neighbors. Only with the perspective of being the age now that my mom was then, do I want to go back in time and 1) high five her, and 2) tell her it’s okay to stop giving herself so much work.

*We put up the chunky colored lights outside that weren’t cool in the ’80’s, but that I loved anyway because they looked retro (a word I didn’t know then) and more importantly, jolly.

*I curled up after school in the armchair by the back window on December afternoons and read the Christmas picture books that were stacked by the sofa. It was cozy, and I was unencumbered.

*We went caroling. It didn’t sound great, but it felt exciting.

*Our Thunder Tubes sailed down the steep hill by the Olympus High bleachers next to the football field, smoothing deep tracks through the powder. Never had anything as satisfying and thrilling in the whole world ever happened to anyone.


And then on Christmas Eve, the joy peaked because:

*We ate the cheesy bean dip, the kind with the Velveeta that is silky and addictive.

*My Grandma Wilcox sang “O Holy Night,” her signature piece. Whenever it plays now on the radio or is sung at church, my Grandma is right there with me.

*My dad read aloud “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” and the story of Jesus’s birth from the Book of Luke, the most magical part of the whole holiday for me. We sat in the dark by the lighted tree, and I hummed with anticipation and dreamed of reindeer and baby Jesus.


I don’t know that I am creating for my children the same sense of pure magic that I felt as a kid at Christmas. I hope that I am.

The reality is that raising my children is different than it was for my parents. My house is in more of an ongoing state of messy survival in the service of disabilities.  My home isn’t a beautiful gathering place for extended family and friends. It’s the house that Jack rebuilt.

Our traditions are fluid, as what worked one year may not work the next with our current family dynamic. I’m trying to accept this and let go of guilt and sadness.

We still read Christmas picture books and I’ve added considerably to our repertoire, for my sake if not for the boys who prefer to read the same three books over and over.

We still bake cookies.

Santa is obviously still a cool cat.

We still play carols.

We go to church and sing about angels.

We think about Jesus.

Christmas still comes, despite disabilities—or especially because of disabilities.

Now that I’m a grown-up, this is what makes Christmas glow.


Dutch is back

Jeff is home now. He’s been away working for the better part of the month which means that I’ve lost my mind.

My house has become a facility where I am sole caretaker, janitor, punching bag, and warden. It doesn’t feel Christmas-y. It feels manic.

Anyway, Dutch is back. Things are looking up.

A few things crystallized for me while he was away and I was a one-woman cattle driver. I’ll share them with you and you’re so very very welcome.

  1. Do not post on social media that things are getting easier because this is when the universe perks up and decides that things should actually not get easier, but should definitely stay difficult. I don’t know why this is a hard one for me to learn.
  2. Do not buy ingredients for lasagne and other real dinners when the hubs is away. You will look at those ingredients every time it’s time to cobble together a meal for the people, and you will wish you had bought more frozen pizza.
  3. Accept that you will drink your weight in Cherry Coke each day because a) husband is gone and b) you don’t drink whiskey.
  4. Bless Jeff for being on poo duty most mornings while you do breakfast/meds/packing lunches/hair combing/talking Charlie down off figurative ledges/keeping Jack from running outside and wheeling the chock-full garbage can down the street/etc. Because when Jeff doesn’t do poo duty, you will do it, after doing all those other things.
  5. Realize that you are moving farther away from regular life into the hinterlands of special-needs parenting. It’s not getting more normal. It’s getting stranger all the time as the children get bigger but their deficits remain the same. This is another one of those lessons that just isn’t sticking for me yet. I think it’s because I want to evolve into a place of pseudo-normalcy, but the chasm between “regular family” and “family with mentally disabled people” is wide and deep….
  6. …which isn’t to say that it’s entirely awful all of the time. Sometimes it feels special and entirely blessed. But I can’t access that feeling all the time, hence, the Cherry Coke, and the fact that I took myself to a movie, alone, last week when I felt my marbles go missing. Self-care for the caregiver, is the official term for this. I call it putting the oxygen mask on myself before I put them on the sick, screaming, belligerent children.
  7. Avoid getting sick while husband is away, and forbid the children from getting sick. Not that saying it out loud will help. But try anyway, for the sake of your mind.


Editing Christmas

Jack and the Christmas tree had their first smack down of the season yesterday. So the respite sitter (who caught the tree before it was completely felled) and I put the ornaments back on. You know how decorating the tree at the beginning of the season is fun and exciting? Well redecorating it because somebody tipped it over ten days before Christmas isn’t like that.

Jack also spends a portion of every morning rearranging the lights at the bottom of the tree for sensory/stimming purposes.

And I’m all, “Okeydokey.”

And also, “Whatever.”

What I am getting at here is that I have taken a giant step back from caring about a lot of things. If my holiday standards were low before, now I have opened a trap door in the floor and lowered them into subterranean darkness.

Bye standards! Hope you’re not afraid of the dark in that damp hole!

I’m not just talking about decor, either. Jeff’s parents are talking about coming to visit us Christmas Day and I’m wondering if we can serve something purchased, because I don’t have the physical or mental energy to cobble together great food anymore.

Disabilities don’t take holidays off, as you undoubtedly know. They can be extra hard for parents like me who 1) try to maintain a normal holiday for the sake of the family while we also 2) keep the special-needs preteen from smashing the Christmas tree and opening everybody’s presents.

And somwhow, this isn’t really bothering me.

I think the reason I feel pretty neutral about ye olde Christmastime is because I’ve let go of making it something beautiful to show off.

Christmas isn’t going to be pretty at my house. It isn’t going to be a charming homespun wonderland lovingly staged for Instagram.

It is fun though, with lots of pounding out of carols on the piano and re-reading of the same Christmas picture books, eating lots of gingersnaps and iced sugar cookies and sometimes picking up the tree from its face plant on the floor to start over again.

I’m making our Christmas expectation-free and cruelty-free for my own benefit. Falalalala, lala huzzah.


Quiet Sounds

My mom read me a picture book when I was little about a man who lives in a cabin in the woods. I can’t remember the name of it to save my life, but I can vividly see the almost woodcut-looking illustrations in my mind.

Anyhow, it’s about this man who lives alone and is bothered by all the ambient noises in his small cabin—the teakettle hissing, the floor creaking, the fire crackling, the wind rustling the trees. If my memory is correct, he visits a wise man and asks for advice on how to have a quieter cabin. The wise man’s advice: bring a cow into the house.

Of course, the cow in the house makes noise. So the man goes back and says that it isn’t quieter with a cow in the house. The next advice: bring a sheep in the house, too. So a sheep comes into the cabin and makes more noise too.

This pattern continues as the wise person repeatedly tells the man to add a horse and other animals to the household, which is now noisier than ever.


The wise person advises the man to remove the cow, and the sheep, the horse, the birds, and all the other noisy creatures.

So he does. And what happens?

The man hears the teakettle hiss, the floor creak, the fire crackle, and the wind rustle the trees. And he thinks, “Ah, how quiet!”

I keep thinking about this reclusive bearded man because I am now very much like him. Without the beard, though. And I’m not reclusive, most of the time.

I’m like the man in the little cabin because I thought I was once surrounded by noise and chaos when Henry and Jack were small, when I had one typical child and one special needs child. And you know, it really was chaos, but it was largely emotional as I grappled with the sadness of Jack’s differences and our collective limitations. It felt like an insane life.

So I prayed and counterintuitively knew that our family wasn’t complete. We had Charlie. Who has special needs. Even if they are different than Jack’s, they are there and they are real.

My house grew noisier. More barn-like. Jack did not accept Charlie as a baby, throwing things at him and screaming every time they were in the same room. Literally.

I told God that everything was impossibly hard, because everything was, and He told me to have another baby. Jeff and I stared at each other in mutual desolation when we had this conversation. We knew exactly what we were getting into with another baby, and our house was already figuratively stuffed to the beams with livestock and noise. And droppings.

But we just knew. So we did. We had Truman. Who was premature. And on a ventilator. In the NICU. For weeks.

Our house was by this time a veritable 4H convention with livestock roaming the halls and chickens roosting in the corners. In a sense, anyway.

It wasn’t more peaceful. It was crazy. Deafening.

I needed the animals to go.

This is how it happened:

Charlie was diagnosed and treated with medication and therapy. He was enrolled in an autism unit at school, where he flourishes.

The cow left.

Truman came home from the hospital and grew big and healthy and smart and bossy. He’s Baby. And our lives wouldn’t be complete without him.

The sheep left.

Jack adjusted to Charlie and eventually to Truman. He progressed in some areas, but not all. He does regress, too, because that’s life. But he’s growing and we are figuring him out, slowly.

The horse left.

Jack qualified for disability services. We started getting respite care and summer camp for Jack. We found meds and strategies to avoid and calm Jack’s tantrums.

The noisy rooster left.

And while it may seem pretty wild, my house is relatively quiet. I can appreciate this now since the herds of domesticated animals have gone.

Jack listened to Christmas stories tonight, peacefully. It rained and blew outside.

Inside, there were quiet sounds.



I have this recurring sense that my life is constructed of extremes.

Some days, this is what I think:

*My time and opportunities are awfully, horribly confined by the needs of my kids.

*My energy is perpetually sucked away by the nature of the disabilities in my house.

*There is so much we can’t do as a family.

*Our house is like a racquetball court, taking constant hits from sensory-seeking children and, incidentally, their bodily fluids.

At these times I feel blue. I’m mad that Jack can’t speak, that it’s unfair how many abilities some people have and how others struggle to just be alive. I’m mad that I clean up urine and poop from random surfaces every day, that my house is broken and smelly. That things just are as they are.

And then, strangely, some days it’s like someone has wound up a tiny little buzzing toy inside me. It’s as if all the strange hardship turns from something nebulous into a laser-focused vibrating nugget of clarity.

It hummed in my center after I decorated the house for Christmas. All my pretty decor went the way of all things everywhere that Jack manhandles. What remains is a felt Merry Christmas banner I bought for $3 at Target last year, and a Christmas tree with felt and fabric (read: unbreakable) ornaments.

My tree, a fresh cork bark fir my dad planted and grew in Idaho, shone from the corner this week. I looked at it and saw that it is unmatched, naturally lovely, with charming (and durable) ornaments. No one’s tree looks just like mine and I like it.

That little humming wind-up thing buzzes in my head when I think about my life…

*as a mom

*who teaches writing at a university

*who instructs a Sunday school class of twelve-year-olds

*who sits on the school community council

*who writes things

*who goes on dates religiously with engineer husband

*who drinks Cherry Coke and doesn’t care if that bothers you

*who is rich in friends

*who is over the dumb idea of being defined by one’s stuff

*who feasts on books and movies and stories

*who has learned a lot about stress and imperfection and grace

*who really just wants kindness. And naps.

Here’s what the humming thing helped me understand:

My life is exactly what I always wanted.



Reasons Why I’m Happy

A) Jack has been really happy this week, mostly. 

B) Dutch didn’t have to go out of town for work.

C) I am at the end of my first semester back at teaching college writing and I survived it. 

D) I have a bank of lessons and experiences to draw from for next semester and beyond.

E) I have the best students ever and I love them. 

F) Some of my students asked me how old I am. It went like this

      Me: “How old do you think I am?”

      Them: “25? Except you said you’ve been married for 18 years. How is that even possible?”

      Me: “I HAVE been married for 18 years and I have a 14-year-old. You’re funny. I got married when I was 20.”

     Them: “So you’re 38 and rocking it.”

      Me: “Hahahahaha. I love you guys.”

G) Dutch and I went on a walk in the winter dark tonight, with ample layers to keep warm and a giant flashlight (because Jeff + flashlights = true love).

H) It was cold, but not too cold, and our feet crunched over the snow. It felt nice not letting winter suck the life out of me. Moving and teaching and living with contented children feels like victory.