Let’s Talk About Books, Baby

Last summer I read every young adult novel ever written, including every fantasy series. All of them.

And then I inexplicably moved into murder mysteries, which I never thought was my genre. But, it turns out, actually is. I have a blackened heart, apparently. With that introduction, I give you:

Everything Tana French has Written To Date

In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbor, The Secret Place, The Trespasser, and (currently) The Witch Elm. The first six are murder mysteries told from the perspective of various detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad and I LOVE THEM–the detectives and the books. Murder mysteries used to disturb me. Now I find them thrilling. Maybe it’s the concept of understanding the dark parts of humanity while not actually getting too close. Just a glimpse. French is a gifted writer. She has excellent pacing, psychological drama, police procedure, and an intuitive look at how people work. Don’t read these if dead people and/or salty language bother you. The Witch Elm is different in that it is told from a violent crime survivor’s perspective, and has the same enveloping look at the life of a Dubliner, particularly the way he must face his resulting brain injury. And it’s written by French, crime novelist extraordinaire, so I like it.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Atkinson also wrote Life After Life, which appealed to me a bit more than this book, which is about Juliet, a young woman working as a British spy during World War II in London. She gathers intelligence on spies who are feeding information to the Germans through her role as a typist who transcribes the recorded conversations between spies in an apartment next to hers. The book was interesting but felt a little less exciting than I guess I felt it should be. It jumps back and forth through time, following Juliet through part of the war, ten years later as she works for the BBC, and at the end of her life. It’s well written. I liked it. I didn’t love it.

A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos

Translated from French, this fantasy (the first in a series–I know. I can’t stop. Help) creates an utterly unique world which seems to be set in the future, yet which includes fashions and attitudes of previous centuries, despite having elements of newer technology. Ophelia, the protagonist, is a “reader,” meaning she can glean information from objects simply by touching them. She also has the power to move through space by walking through mirrors. She’s betrothed in an arranged marriage to Thorn, a cold and imposing figure from The Pole, a region far to the north which is housed in an ark, which is almost like a space ship hovering above the frozen forests. There is all kinds of weird courtly intrigue at the Pole, and Ophelia uses her considerable gifts to help her navigate this inhospitable world where no one seems trustworthy. This book is the most inventive fantasy I’ve read in a long time. It’s deeply creative and fascinating without being at all predictable. The second book in the series (The Mirror Visitor Quartet) will be available in May, and I don’t want to wait that long.

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

A ghost story set in 19th century rural England, Purcell’s first book has a deeply creepy premise involving a centuries-old ancestral home with a dark past riddled with unexplained death. Elsie, a young pregnant widow, arrives at The Bridge and finds a moldering, dank, sprawling country house with a locked garret containing waist-high wooden painted figures known as silent companions. One companion looks exactly like her and crops up throughout the house and stands at the window watching her as she comes and goes. This book has lots of tried and true Victorian horror tropes: dead children, abusive mothers, house fires, haunted dolls, and women relegated to mental institutions for “hysteria.” I enjoyed the writing and the moody atmosphere. It would be a good book club read with lots of discussion potential. Weirdly, I wished it were a tad scarier. What’s happening to me? Are the murder mysteries increasing my tolerance for the spooky?

What are you reading? I love a good book recommendation.

Beauty for Ashes

You know that therapy exercise (for those who’ve been to therapy, like me–yay therapy #therapyiscool) where they have you examine what you’re feeling, and then step back and examine what you are thinking in association with those emotions? It’s like the amazing human ability to look at our feelings as an observer and tease out why the emotions are occurring, which also gives us the chance to find the holes in our thought patterns and challenge faulty perceptions.

Behold, the human brain. It’s phenomenal and powerful.

Anyway, I have been putting myself through this exercise by observing my feelings regarding Truman’s Sensory Processing Disorder diagnosis and the accompanying complications it has wrought on my life.

Here’s what I was feeling, along with the *flawed* perceptions that peopled my thoughts:

  1. Frustration: that everything with Truman takes too long, that he is so particular about foods, that he generally won’t cooperate, that my parenting energy must once again be ratcheted up to match this challenge.
  2. Guilt: that my family has so many specialized needs, that we are a burden to the world.
  3. Anger: that Truman can’t just roll with it.

When I stopped to look at my thoughts behind these negative emotions, it stopped me cold.

I literally subconsciously worry that my unique family is a burden to the world?????

How tragic is that?

When I look at it from an outside/neutral perspective, I think it’s ridiculous.

Last Sunday morning, I read from 3 Nephi, where darkness covers the New World at the time of Jesus’s death. For three days, a tangible darkness permeates the land and can’t be driven away by light. The people literally cannot kindle fire.

I have personally experienced several periods of thick, unrelenting darkness in the last fourteen years.

As I listened to these verses, I saw those dark times as an encapsulation of mortality. My experience validates the theory that life contains inevitable seasons of deep darkness which will persist despite our best efforts to invite or create light around us. Sometimes it is simply going to be dark. The end.

Then I went to church and it was like a real-life manifestation of the rest of 3 Nephi– you know, the part where Jesus’s voice pierces them in the darkness.

This is what I heard, internally:

Truman’s special needs aren’t getting in the way of you living your life. Your family isn’t a burden to the world.

Thank you. Wow. Yes. Did I mention, THANK YOU?

Then this:

Your kids’ needs are giving you and others an opportunity to give consecrated service and grow in empathy. This is the point of life on earth. 

You guys, I went from mentally and physically holding onto so much frustration and stress that my right shoulder was completely knotted up in a perpetual pain spasm, to at once being perfectly healed (again) by The Healer. My shoulder stopped hurting. My frustration ebbed. The bitterness seeped out. Those dark emotions left. It was like someone shone a light on my life and instead of madness, I saw beauty.

I saw that I am well equipped to handle Truman’s sensory issues and food neuroses. I know him best. Thanks to the occupational therapy team, I now understand his needs and am viewing them with both clinical neutrality and swelling compassion (don’t ask me how that works). I suddenly saw my efforts to help him do life successfully not as an incredible burden, but as a lovely means of helping someone I love.

This is what Jesus did with the lost sheep, the black sheep, the hurt sheep. He didn’t–doesn’t–see us as a burden. He sees us as the point. We are His purpose. We are the reason and the meaning behind His enormous sacrifice. He’s teaching me to do what He does for me.

And so there it is. Once again, I am empowered by Jesus. He found me in the darkness, humbled by disabilities (yet again). He saw me in meekness brought on by trial, and gently taught me how to face my life.

Thanksgiving Miracle

“I suck at parenting” I said into the phone, to Jeff, after spending another morning being Truman’s cattle-driver, torturer, and worst enemy–all in the name of getting him to school.

I’ve been a parent for seventeen years and yet what do I know about effective parenting? It doesn’t feel like much on days like today.

Truman wouldn’t get ready for school. This is his low-key avoidance tactic. It doesn’t work, because I still make him go to school. What it does predictably do is INFURIATE me. I have to drag him from his hiding spots around the house into the kitchen. I have to physically force his feet into socks and shoes, like he’s a baby. Same with his jacket. I have to pin him between myself and the sink in the bathroom to comb his hair, else he runs away. I have to LIFT his seven-year-old self into the car because he won’t get in otherwise. At school, I have to physically place him at his desk until the teacher comes over to place a hand on his shoulders so he won’t run after me.

The other moms get to stay nice and incognito in their cars with their messy buns and their leggings. Meanwhile, I’m trudging past the drop-off line of cars trying to look like my sunglasses, beanie, and athleisure look is completely intentional.

I’m the muppet with the pitchfork in this scenario. And no pants.

Today, the last four months of doing this every day coalesced into this moment of white hot rage at the futility of hand-over-hand, step-by-step enforcing my first-grader to go do something he struggles with day after endless day.

I shouted at him as I put on his shoes. I told him I am working really hard as his mom to help him, and this behavior is making me crazy. I yelled. He cried. He told me he doesn’t like school. We moved like a shuffling chain gang to the car, where I backed out of the garage and said the prayer. Yay for praying just minutes after screaming at your little kid. Do prayers like that even work?

I suppose I am making this about me, when it’s really his struggle. I’m the parent. The adult. The person tasked with remaining call in the face of every bad/difficult behavior autism has ever thrown my way. I know enough about behavior modification to know that reacting with ANY EMOTION to such behaviors is a surefire way to make sure those behaviors are repeated.

But here’s the thing. I feel physically incapable of remaining neutral. It’s a little late to ask me to remove all emotion from my parenting life, isn’t it Universe?

The irony of disabilities parenting is that the most egregious and heinous behaviors should ideally be met with complete and utter indifference.

Reader, I suck at this.

One might think that one’s reactions to the most maddening behaviors associated with autism would dim over time. Well, it’s not actually playing out that way for me. It’s like all the neuroses, rigidity of thinking, and pervasive anxieties I’ve faced in parenting people on the spectrum these many years are building with volcanic pressure to the point where I am effing losing it.

Allow me to pause from my lament long enough to tell you about two other notable things happened today:

First, I listened to a handful of the war chapters from Alma in the Book of Mormon and while I was fairly distracted with feeling my own inadequacy, I did pick up on the fact that in every threat, hardship, and battle, the Nephites were triumphant when they relied on God and lived as He had taught them. When they didn’t, they faced those threats and hardships and battles without God’s strength behind them, which basically meant they floundered and flailed.

There was no victory.

So I salted this little nugget away and wondered what I need to be doing differently to feel shored up by divine power when I’m about to blow a gasket.

Second, I took my mom on some errands and we stopped at Habit Burger for lunch, where I happened to see two of my dear friends from college, Nick and Emily. They were there with their caboose baby and we shared big hugs and a table while we ate burgers and fries and talked about how Henry is now the age that Nick was when I first met him (stop it; mind-blown).

When we left, I thought how funny it was that I ran into them. We never see each other. And to bump into two of my favorites and share a serendipitous lunch with them? Are you kidding me? There is no such thing as a coincidence. We drove toward Target (yay Target) and I felt God had organized this little random meeting as a gift to me on a day when I felt like a person-shaped object constructed of crap and regrets.

He did that for me. He helped me see my friends and feel love–to grasp a sense that the world is bigger than my parenting woes.

He rebooted me.

I felt happy.

Reader, I was a brat this morning. I was not a great mom. I didn’t even deserve this tender mercy, and God gave it to me anyway.

Why is He so good?

I guess it’s His prerogative. He’s God and as Elder Holland has said, “Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it.”

He did that for me.

The other day I read this: “And thou didst hear me because of mine afflictions and my sincerity; and it is because of thy Son that thou hast been merciful unto me, therefore I will cry unto thee in all mine afflictions, for in thee is my joy; for thou hast turned thy judgments away from me, because of thy Son” (Alma 11:33).

So there you have my Thanksgiving Miracle. It’s Jesus. He redeemed me in my ineffectual, overly-emotional ways. And my Heavenly Parents turned to me and poured out love and mercy.

I mean seriously though.

They did that. For me.

Mulling Over the Good Gifts

In a spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m pondering things for which I’m profoundly grateful. It’s appropriate for this month, but really for anytime, always.

Being Well

After having been sick for several weeks, I’m thankful for health, and modern medicine, and hot showers. Emerging from illness is like breaking free from an eggshell and giving thanks that life can be big again–not defined by the confines of one’s shell. For those who face chronic illness, my heart aches for you. You do things that most people can’t understand, and you do them bravely.

Stories

I’m deeply thankful for books, and for the time I have to read them. There have been periods in my life when I couldn’t read. I just mentally couldn’t be still enough to focus. Sometimes I felt the weight of my own problems so much, I couldn’t read about someone else’s problems. This distance from the release and rejuvenation I find in reading was painful. I’m so glad that people write stories, that the world is a creative place, that books nourish my mind in ways the internet simply can’t. I have wondered if there are books in heaven, or if everything is simply instantly accessible by our big, brilliant minds. I don’t know, but I’m banking on oodles and oddles of stories. I also love movies, which are visual representations of something that someone wrote. Three cheers for films. And libraries.

Live Music, Dancing, Theater

I attended the ballet last weekend with my mom and Charlie (he’s my one ballet-loving child), and felt that familiar exultant tingle through my body when the conductor led the live orchestra in playing live, glorious music to accompany the live, exquisite ballet dancers. It is just so incredibly beautiful, all of it. And magical, all these moving parts and people creating something so lovely in real time before our eyes. I will never not be astonished by the power of the arts.

Jack’s Caregivers

I got to Facetime my giant lanky ginger teen yesterday. Every time I see him, I’m filled with a swelling of gratitude for the darling and wonderful young men who take care of our Jacky. They are so good. They see Jack for who he is. Jack loves them. They make all our lives possible. It’s pretty ding dong fantastic the way Jack is influencing everyone in his sphere, while they are doing the nurturing, charitable work of helping Jack to fulfill his life’s mission. I feel God arranged this intentionally. We are a web of caregivers, all of us, helping and being helped by the people life brings to us.

My Students

Every semester they change, and every semester I love them just the same. It’s such a privilege to meet so many people and learn from them, even while teaching them. God gives me a little glimpse of my students’ potential when they are in my classes, and I just basically absolutely freaking love them. I love them for who they are now and for who they have the capacity to become. It’s a gift to me that our paths have crossed.

The Promise of Eternal Life

When my dad died, when Jack’s diagnoses leveled our lives, when two of my other boys were diagnosed, when every hard thing happened in the interim, my baseline thought was, “I’m so thankful for Jesus Christ, for making life about more than the pangs of mortality.” There’s healing and strength in Him. When everything else is bombed from our lives, He remains, and he nurtures us with both power and pure love.

Tiny Thankful Letters

Dear November,

You’re a beautiful woman of a certain age. There’s loveliness in maturity, and you’ve got it.

 

Dear Murder Mysteries,

Why did it take me my whole life to find and appreciate you? Let’s get married.

 

Dear My Students,

I love you all so bleeping much. You’re adorable and amazing. Stop emailing me late papers.

 

Dear My Children,

Just when I think I know about parenting, you get creative with the attitudes and behaviors. Remember how you thought I didn’t ride roller coasters in Disneyland? Well, parenting you guys is a giant roller coaster so joke’s on you.

 

Dear Holiday Music,

I really love you, but you’re making all the feelings of my childhood Christmases well up in a hot pressing ball in my chest, and I can’t even. Maybe in small doses. But if you whip out I’ll Be Home for Christmas or Silent Night, there is going to be a situation. Those are my dad’s songs. Back away slowly.

 

Dear Daylight Saving Time,

Ugh. Everything that everyone says about you is true, which is not a compliment.

 

Dear Jack,

Seeing you for 20 minutes last week was really good. Some day in the next life we will have long conversations and all the distance between us will shrink to a hands-breadth. When that day comes, I WILL BE THERE FOR IT.

 

Dear Charlie and My Mom,

Thanks for being my ballet dates this season. I love that you love what I love.

 

Dear People Who Loathe the Christmas Creep,

I’m putting up my tree within the week. Avert your eyes. It will be okay.

 

Dear Sweater Weather,

I like you. You can stay.

 

 

Empathy and Equilibrium

My littlest boy is seven years old today and I’m like, “what.”

I can truthfully say that Truman’s birth was the actual beginning of the most trying and refining period of my life. I honestly don’t even know if anything I have yet to experience will come close to the deeply difficult, yet transforming experience that was the half dozen years when I had all my young children under one roof.

It was so hard.

Once in college, I had an education professor who was then in the season of her life where I am now. She was teaching college classes and raising two young boys. In class one day, she said something to the effect of, “You think you are busy now. And you are. You are in school and that makes life busy. But you will one day become infinitely busier. It will make this time in your lives seem like a cake walk.” I’m pretty sure I curled my lip in disgust when I heard this, because gosh dang it, I WAS BUSY. Who did she think she was?

But she was right.

Life ratcheted up the intensity steadily through the years until that moment early in the morning one November 3rd when Truman came into the world prematurely. The increasing pressure did not let up. Not ever.

Not until sometime in the last six months–as I came to terms with my dad’s eternal progress on the other side of the veil & Jack’s living situation changing in miraculous ways–and I reached homeostasis.

It may be fleeting, but I am holding this sense of equilibrium gently and carefully within myself.

In the last week, I’ve talked to two friends who are facing a new diagnosis and a premature/scary baby delivery, respectively. They both reached out to me and I felt this huge sense of gratitude that I had been through it before. I simply knew what it felt like. I could offer them my experience as a bridge to a future day when things will be less terrifying, and even peaceful.

I hope that doesn’t sound smug. I don’t feel smug; I feel empathetic. And grateful that the Savior led me through the supreme mess of my parenting life into a place which often feels balanced.

I know it’s not fashionable to talk about Jesus being the reason for finding happiness in the weird complexities of life, but that’s the reality I have lived. I don’t believe he’s there for me. The last seven years have shown me that he IS unequivocally there for me.

My friend Marla and I were recently texting about some things, and about the counter-intuitive feeling of peace she has in the middle of so much uncertainty. She said, “I don’t think it is positive thinking. I think it is my testimony of God and His ability to take care of me.”

It was like she had struck a gong somewhere in my midsection. I thrummed with the resonance of her words.

Life can be impossibly hard. It will be impossibly hard. My Heavenly Parents get it. They weep with me.

The good news of my life has been that Jesus gets it because he’s lived it.

My miracle is that his whole purpose is to see me in my trials and see me through them.

I Don’t Like Halloween

I’ve written before about how Halloween is a sad day for me. It just is. I suppose I have PTSD from all the years when my children on the spectrum struggled mightily to both embrace and tolerate the excitement and sensory overload of this particular holiday.

I don’t like the way it makes my kids into overwrought child-shaped tornadoes. Too much candy. Too much freaking out over costumes. Too much noise and expectation and frenzy. Autism plus Halloween equals the worst, don’t ask me.

Well, this Halloween has been no exception to this stupid personal tradition.

Truman opted out of the party/parade/chaos of the elementary school. Charlie soaked it up, meanwhile, in his truly hideous creepy clown costume, but also flipped out over just about everything. Henry and pals dressed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He was the one with the orange mask. I forget which one that is.

And I finished prepping my Thursday lesson and cleaned the kitchen. Raise your hand if you cry while doing the dishes.

I feel old.

I feel wrinkly.

I feel out of shape and my shoulder hurts since I’ve been sick and haven’t exercised in quite some time.

I feel incapable of fully managing Truman’s neuroses and sensory integration issues.

I feel tired of the sensory explosion that is Halloween.

I feel sad remembering my dad dying at this time last year.

I feel like I want to be a hermit and never leave my house.

I feel like taking a nap. Or reading. But definitely escaping my own thoughts.

***POST UPDATE***

I’m writing this addendum after Halloween.

When evening rolled around, I put on my happy face and handed out candy with a smile. The boys went trick-or-treating with their friends and loved it.

I put Jeff on door duty at 8 pm and I cleaned up all the Halloween decorations. After boxing up the vestiges of the holiday which wears me out like nothing else can, I got in the shower and let the day die.

November 1 dawned cloudy and drizzly. I listened to Christmas music on my way to campus because it’s my car and I do what I want.

It was a new day, and it felt like a clean start.

Here’s the Tea, Sis

I haven’t been writing a whole lot. Part of this is because I have been sick for the last ten days and the only things that interest me are sleeping and not coughing.

Part of this is because of a cloak of ennui has wrapped itself around me–a nice, soft, velvety cloak of weirdly complacent intellectual boredom.

I have stopped reading. I had been devouring Tana French murder mysteries, up until late one night when Jeff was away working and the boys were sleeping, and the TV in the kitchen turned on, blaring loudly, BY ITSELF and I wanted to die, but instead I crept downstairs and turned it off like the warrior princess I am. I’ve since decided to lay off the murder mysteries for now.

But my brain also just can’t focus. Reading? Writing? What, why? All I care about currently is cough syrup and the mint chocolate chip ice cream that feels nice on my throat.

Anyway, ennui.

This could be because I am always questioning my writing content. Is it just more of the same? Is it simply processed and re-formed sentences about my version of spirituality? Do I even have anything to say? Ugh and also blar.

Because my brain isn’t firing on all cylinders, I offer you a few vignettes loosely related to special-needs parenting. Or my take on doing life. Or something.

Truman at OT

Truman has taken a real shining to occupational therapy because it involves a giant gym, which includes a zip line. So he’s a fan. Also, we now know how to talk about his inner “engine” and how fast it’s working and how we can effectively slow it down at times. It’s terrific.

I noticed in the waiting room that all the other moms were much younger than me, except the grandma who brought one child. One woman followed her preschool-aged son around with the backpack and tubing connected to his trach. She was petite and energetic, and at the beginning of her SN parenting journey.

If I’m being completely honest, I’ll tell you that I felt like a wizened husk of a parent. “I’ve done this so many times before with so many of my children,” I thought. This is like literally my fourth rodeo and I’m not so much jaded as I am tired of pretending to be bouncy about disabilities.

One thing remains consistent, I bought Truman a celebratory Happy Meal and myself a crisp Diet Coke when we were finished. We have always used drive-thrus as a means of reward and survival. Yay drive-thrus.

Jack Update

We haven’t seen Jack since August, which is the way it goes when he lives three hours away and we have three other children, so we planned a couple of visits for November and December.

There are moments which creep up on me, not quite daily, but often, when I have to pause and deal with the disconnect of Jack living far away and in other people’s care. I used to get an icy splash through my veins whenever this happened. My inner engine was working overtime in these situations.

Now, it’s more of a mental conversation I have with myself. It looks like this:

Me: I hate that Jack doesn’t live with his family. Are we doing enough for him? Even when we drive three hours to see him, he can only tolerate seeing us for around thirty minutes. And he can’t talk to me. Life is so strange and unexpected and frequently uncomfortable. Ugh.

Also me: Jack is living where God told us he needed to live. We are overseeing his care and praying for him and his caregivers every single day. Jack doesn’t want to hang out with us for long periods of time. He wants the Happy Meal, Reece’s cups, and toys we bring him. He is at peace with his life’s mission. You know this. Jack isn’t afraid. Stop worrying.

Will this inner dialogue ever cease? *insert shrug emoji*

Me at Hair Salon: A Tableau

At my hair appointment today, I thought about the fact that I am in a (knock on wood) calm stretch of ye olde parenting journey. I mean, yes I have to still physically drag Truman into first grade every damn day and we have to engage in ridiculous negotiations to get him to try any foods other than dino nuggets.

But comparatively, this is nothing.

My home isn’t full of behavior therapists or respite sitters every day. I’m not battling one school district or another for Jack’s right to an education. We aren’t living at Primary Children’s Hospital (just popping in occasionally). Our house doesn’t look like an orphanage anymore.

I stared out the window as I waited for my appointment and all I could think about was this: There is such luxury in spending time on things other than one’s survival.

I recently bought myself a handbag for my laptop. I hang out more with my mom. My house isn’t facing daily destruction. I can spend a day helping a neighbor. I’ve started cooking again. All of this is because I’m not drowning anymore.

Maybe this is how it works. We get periods of respite when we aren’t treading water, when we are in a rocking boat or, better yet, dry land. We will inevitably re-enter the water by some tide or sea creature dragging us in to once again swim for our lives.

But when we can, we rest. And we can help those who are still in the water.