Saturday, December 31, 2011

Working it Out

I have not jogged much in recent months, given the longer hours and seemingly endless commute of my new job, and the shorter days and busier weekends of winter. The other day, thanks to vacation, I found myself on a treadmill, and I saw all kinds of symbolism in it. Humor me.

Completely out of shape, I set the bar low, the time for a half hour, and the difficulty level at 3. Then, I began jogging in place, negotiating with myself, tired and wanting to quit as soon as I started.

This, I thought, is who I am now? When did I weaken to this pathetic degree?

I made deals with myself. First I thought, if I get to halfway, I can quit, and at least I had fifteen minutes of cardio -- that's a start, right? I stared at the timer, appreciated the psychological genius of how it switched often between counting up and counting down.

Planning to quit halfway enabled me to get to halfway and say, well, that wasn't so bad, I'll just do five more minutes, and continue in that vein until, five negotiations later, I jogged further than I had planned. I didn't set any records or anything, but I surpassed my goal.

Sometimes, parenting and coping with the additional special needs my son has overwhelms me. I feel that there is no way I'll be able to finish the course. It stretches out too far, the hills look too steep, and I just know I lack the stamina.

It helps when I can dial things back, and focus on the small increments, one lap at a time.

This school year won't kill me if I only focus on this week. This week won't kill me if I just focus on this day. I can survive the day if we just get through this chore.

But eventually I do get really bone weary. Eventually I do need a break from the treadmill. I need to stretch, to cool down, to replenish.

Remember I mentioned I was on vacation when I found myself contemplating all this, right?

Even the word vacation had felt out of my league. Felt like Publisher's Clearing House; you see the videos that show it happened to other people, but you're pretty sure it doesn't exist, and, if it does, it'll never happen to you. If I can't figure out how to drive across town to see my best pals, how could I wrangle a vacation? Aren't those things EXPENSIVE? But the need for a break was written all over me. I kept telling people I would take one, but no one was fooled - certainly not my husband. So he and his parents (world's best in-laws) called TO. They yanked me off the treadmill of workatwork-and-workathome-and-work inmysleep...workatwork-and-workathome-and-work inmysleep... and they laughed at my objections, my belief that my kids' worlds would stop spinning if I didn't keep running in place. My husband took me on a vacation, and I had nothing to say about it. His parents kept the kids. They took better care of them than we do -- made them eat broccoli and practice math, took them to see parade floats and The Muppets, improved their table manners -- and when we got home to our sleeping angels, clean house, cheerful MIL and FIL, and even all new light bulbs, I knew two things: I am very, very, very, very lucky to be loved and supported by my amazing family, and I was kidding myself if I thought I was going to make it without a break. I couldn't have made it another yard. All the warning lights were flashing wildly while I pretended not to sweat.

The world kept spinning even when the treadmill didn't. I stopped. I rested. I wept. Hey, people. I even found the time to jog. And to have epiphanies I could blog about again, in case anyone still reads here.

I don't know what the trip cost. It was cheaper than dying.

If you are running on a treadmill, here is the wisdom I offer:

Pace yourself.
Focus on small increments.
Don't always look at how far you have to go, sometimes count how far you have already traveled.
Step off sometimes, especially if anyone offers to help. If they don't offer, ask.
Rest, or you will never go as far as you need to, and you might fall off the treadmill and really hurt yourself.
Blog about it.

That's all I got, people. Now, I'm limbering up; vacation is over, and the treadmill awaits.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Seasons, Reasons, Celebrations

Before I even knew I was Jewish, I can remember all kinds of Christmas guilt and anxiety. It had nothing to do with religion.

I grew up with an alcoholic father I rarely saw, who traveled for "business" most of the week, and who bought us a 40-foot camper so my mother would keep my brother and me away for the summer, but Christmas eve found us all around the tree each year, unable to figure out how to be a family. Inevitably, my brother and I bickered over ornaments, my mother complained about how hard she worked to make things "perfect", and my father smilingly slurred snide and sarcastic zingers from his corner of the sofa. My mother grew louder and my father quieter and more sour, as my brother's head nearly exploded from the pressure, until at last I wept.

My crying infuriated everyone. Once I cried, my mother blamed my father, my father blamed my brother, my brother called me a baby, and I cried more. My mother hurled something against a wall, I cleaned up the splinters, my father passed out, my brother turned up the music... Then, to bed, so we could wake up and unwrap countless presents wrapped opulently in guilt and misery.

The Christmas morning I was ten, we left on our one and only family vacation. With gifts of Arthur Ashe tennis rackets and tank tops, we headed off to Disney World, where my parents took Polaroids of us by day (wearing parkas purchased in the gift shop -- Orlando had a record cold spell and flurries) and took their screaming matches out on the town by night, while my brother and I stayed in the hotel room with a babysitter and a television that seemed inseparable. By my eleventh Christmas, my mother had left my father, my father had fled the country, and I had learned about Judaism when we moved in with my grandparents.

What on earth does this have to do with autism?

Well, it's convoluted, I admit.

I started liking Christmas a lot better after my parents split up, the inclusion of Chanukah in my life notwithstanding. I liked celebrating without the smell of alcohol, without anyone smashing things and screaming, without such fancy and expensive gifts. I started making my own community and spending time learning about my friends' traditions, making my own traditions, reclaiming the ideas of celebration and joy. I began dreaming about one day having my own family, raising children who never associated Christmas with vodka or beer, bitterness or misery, nor with religion -- children who knew they were Jewish and felt free to live, worship, celebrate, believe, and be, any way those chose, any way that made them happy. We would light candles and eat latkes, we would decorate the tree with ornaments we made ourselves. We would try, learn, love, be happy, and celebrate.

To paraphrase Sandra Cisneros, what no one tells you is that when you are a parent, you are still a child. The trick is not to let your own childishness ruin things for everyone. This is especially true if you are a parent of a child with special needs.

When it comes to Christmas, I don't want to neglect the little girl I still am inside, but I don't want to put her needs over those of my own children, who I want to put first. First, but not only.
So, it's complicated.

You can bet that Christmas has not turned out like I expected. Some years we light candles for eight nights, and some years we settle for two or three. Some years we have a tree, and some years it is just too much. Once or twice we have visited Santa. This year I managed to get out just a few Shutterfly cards. Part of this has to do with autism. It just does. It just does.

Once again, screaming has become part of my holiday traditions. I find that I have resumed my role as the one who ends up crying sometimes. And I admit there is some bitterness. Some guilt. These are not the holidays I envisioned as a child. This is not the life I envisioned. But not all of this has to do with autism. And I don't "blame" autism. We all are who we all are. We're complicated. We are real. We are a family.

And here is the thing: what I really wanted from holidays as a kid was not some picture of perfection. It is pictures of perfection --- and the insatiable desire for those illusions --- that led to the mess of my childhood. Yes, I had dreams of gingerbread houses and stringing popcorn. Yes, I had dreams of grating the potatoes and following my grandma's handwritten latke recipe, and playing dreidle and singing songs. But really all I truly wanted from my holidays was a loving family, warts and all. And so I am trying to joyfully celebrate the way the family I have today needs me to, not the way the girl I used to be might wish we could.

No latkes this year. No gelt. No tree. No gingerbread.

Warts? We got 'em. Oh, how we got 'em. But tomorrow we will gather with extended family and there will also be no vodka, no beer, no snide remarks, and no guilt. There will be autism, and maybe some (kids) screaming, possibly a moment of anxiety, but not too much. And there will be love, in abundance - the greatest gift of all. And because that means so much to me, I will try - try my best - not to look too far back or too far forward, but be right there, in the moment of celebration.

Whatever you believe or celebrate, I wish you love, peace, and all the best for a bright 2012.

Friday, December 16, 2011

It's Not You, It's Me

If, hypothetically, my children had a great day, I would not tell you about it.

I don't mean to hurt your feelings. I know you more than anyone would completely deserve to hear if they, say, had a day of no fighting, and made me Hanukah presents out of construction paper and found items around the house. After all, you have put up with my kvetching for years now.

It's just, to be honest, I don't blog for you. I love you, I really do, but I blog purely for medicinal purposes -- life-saving ones. You and I know for a scientific fact that if I told you something purely fictional of course like that they cuddled and smiled and called me cute and read books and went to bed on time with no complaints, that tomorrow I'd be doomed. I don't want to be so doomed that even coming here for my one catharsis could not sustain me. That goes against everything in my survival instinct. I will understand if you feel this relationship is out of whack and don't want to put up with my madness anymore, but a girl has to do what a girl has to do.

No, even though you have seen me through my darkest hours, lovingly and unselfishly, you won't hear me ever tell you about any crazy rare days when everyone in my family felt happy and good.

But I hope we can still be friends.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Starting Stopping

When I met my husband, I taught fifth grade, and he loves to recount how I never let him carry my very heavy teacher's bag for me. He also enjoys calling me his "locomotive." He says I have lived my life like a mission, and that I get a sense of control over the world by doing everything I can every chance I get.

But it's changing.

I have not yet met my son's new aide. This guy started work a couple of weeks ago, and I've already had three or four people tell me how talented he is at helping the Rooster, but I've let my husband handle that relationship. My kids take swimming lessons on Saturdays. They started about two and a half months ago, but I don't even know the name of the place. My only contribution to this endeavor involved terrifying my husband with stories of kids with autism and water danger, and sending him a list of local swimming classes; he took care of the rest. He has fought the battles with the discrimination and negligence at Roo's school more than I have. He has sat alone in the tiny blue plastic chairs at parent conferences for the very first time, putting me on speaker on his cell phone. He drops the kids off at school this year. He takes them horseback riding on the weekends.

After three years of frustrating our neighbors with our lawn, we have finally hired a gardener. Instead of volunteering for things, it's all I can do to send checks.

It's not one thing, it's everything. Even this blog. Where am I? What am I doing?

It hurts me, this falling away. In the hardest moments of it, I feel a little like I'm failing, a little like I'm dissolving, and I'm sad, worried, scared.

But my husband looked at me tonight and told me to get a grip. He didn't mean: go do more. He meant, lovingly: make peace with taking a breath. He meant, embrace stopping the madness. Don't weep about it, do it with intention. Choose to stop, don't go til you crash. He meant: it's okay to let your husband help you.

He said, "You have been holding the spinning world over your head and protecting it with your two hands while taking whippings, beatings coming at you from all sides. It makes sense your legs are tired and you need a breather." He said, "You have been working since you were 14. No one has ever said before, 'It's okay. I got this.' But honey, it's okay. I got this. Ok? I got it. And listen to me: everything is going to come back to you. Your energy. Your sense of yourself. It's going to come back. But only if you stop for a while. Stop, it's okay. I got this."

I don't exactly know how to start to stop. I don't know the rules for embracing letting go, dialing back. I have no experience at it. But I carry my husband's words around like a love letter in my back pocket, and they are giving me strength to try. To try to not try so much.


I have been given strict orders not to touch this... magic. Under penalty of being sent to my room, and other black magic consequences.

You see, my son tells me that his magic kit needs to "gain strength" so he will have "more power." His buddy McCabe from after-care at school told him that the recipe for improving magical powers involves GATORADE and RUFFLES, which, as you can tell, have been carefully mixed in my baking dish, beneath Roo's magic kit. They must sit there, undisturbed, I am told, for 10 days.

I've been sitting here staring at the photo and the above paragraphs for minutes, trying to figure out a conclusion to this post. Isn't that silly?