knee-deep in higher learning

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Broken Moment

One week ago, everything shattered, exactly one millisecond after I knew it would.

"There's a ca..."
 <floating brief eternity>
BLAM! went the front of the oncoming car into ours.

What followed was basic small town post-auto accident protocol:
People rolling vehicles over crunchy glass bits, to move them off of the road and make room for the traffic flow.
A lady in her bathrobe. She lives nearby, heard the crash, and came outside. She says accidents happen all the time at this corner.
Numbly answering "ARE YOU OKAY?" a million times.
Not having air in my lungs to say, "Yes."
So am I okay? Where are my glasses? At my feet. Okay, now I can see.
I'm not bleeding and neither is my husband.
Yes, we're okay.
I want to get out of the car. I need to call my son. Is the other driver okay? How long has it been? 20 minutes?

"More like five! The police are on the way!"

Just writing all of that makes me shake a little. One week later, my mind stays, not in the moment of collision with that quiet dark grill, but in the moment before: when life did not feel like it was careening out of control. Instead, it was floating inexorably toward a smashing outcome. I am surprised at how afraid I didn't feel, as harrowing an experience as it was.

How close I actually came to my close that night, I don't know. Stuff really hurts now. If pain is proof of being alive, my thoracic cavity is a ring of pink-cheeked maidens skipping around the maypole. That may be the case for a month or more, but it could be worse. It could always be so much worse.

The kids were not in the car, and so, were blessedly over this traumatic event the day after it happened. Life shrugs and goes on, expecting dinner every night. Melancholy is mine alone, already looping in my head like a Cure playlist, thanks to autumn. Slather some near-death experience on it, and you have yourself a real reveling in the crispy old sadness that is life after its heyday.

A walk around my long-neglected yard today was a stroll through a gallery of embarrassment. Kids don't play here much anymore. They don't throw as many homemade weapons, dodged by a mom, pushing a full wheelbarrow, tending to unsightly sights and making whimsical planting arrangements.

Bindweed romps through the overgrown grass more than little legs, and the chickens are watched primarily by dogs, who wish there were still four small running shouters, playing hooky from September to June.

What's done is done, and over, and gone. Done well, but over. Good, and gone.

Funny, at this time, to think of seeds, right? Yet, for those who grow, autumn is when our choices and actions imply that we are not going to crash into oblivion on a highway in the night, but oversee another bright green dewy uprising in just six short months.

What made me think of life, springing back in spring, at a time like this? A chance encounter with some lettuce plants.

I saw their light frilly leaves while walking around what is left of the garden at the school where I work, and flashed back to a wet day in late spring, years ago, when we first met. How many years ago? I don't remember. That's how many.

I was helping the late, great, Shelly Bowe quickly home way too many lettuce seedlings in a raised bed. Warm rain was starting to fall on the school garden where we had been working together all afternoon.

She scurried around, picking up tools and brought me one of  many over-crowded seedling flats. "We just need to get these in the ground somewhere! We can thin them out and move them later!"

She taught elementary school kids to grow and sell their own lettuce from the school garden. Her Lettuce Grow program was a crucial model for my Food of the Future project. Not only were kids learning to grow and appreciate eating their own lettuce, she was intent on showing them their entrepreneurial potential, as full participants in a food system: food producers for their community.

With muddy fingers, we laughed about something, I'm sure, and tucked little roots into the dark soil, nearly too late, but just in time.

A day and a lady long gone.

Her lettuce, however, endures. Not the exact plants we smiled over that day, but their great great grandplants, tall and putting on the last of late summer blooms, as one season fades into what's next. Most of the flowers, spent, surely hold seeds now. Curled brown petals hug durable shuttles of code. Tiny ovoid-shaped instructions. How to Be Lettuce. just add spring, or a long mild autumn.

I might have to invite some of them come grow in my hoop house.

You know, after I clean it out. You know, after I can move without wincing.

Weeks ago, before the crash, the bolting lettuce presented its own lesson on perspective. Who knows what life is about?  But being alive? Well, that's obvious. It is an eventual end and shattered start. The dynamic balance between opposing forces. Youth, surging at the expense of exquisite structures, leaving cracked hulls and aching chests. The duality of it means you may see it how you like, whatever brings you back to the dirt. Maybe it's just about feeding everyone dinner.

Monday, August 26, 2019

For Teen

I pushed the cart down the thrift store aisle, absentmindedly engaging its passenger while perusing used kitchen goods."And what's 8 + 8?"
"16!" the husky little voice answered.
Having asked him to double everything from zero to that point, I kept on. "What's 9 + 9?"
"What's 10 +10?"
You can probably guess what George said, and that he kept answering, quickly and correctly, for several minutes more, as I turned over second-hand coffee cups and looked at utensils that once sat in someone else's countertop utensil container. Tongs for the memories, whoever you were.

It was somewhere around, "What's 49 + 49?" ("98!") when a surprised-looking older gentleman came around the corner, to have a look at the little mathematician he had been listening to from the neighboring aisle. That's when surprise turned into a stunned gasp, because the boy who could add any number to itself was three years and a half years old.

Now double that. 3.5 + 3.5 = 7, the age George was singing about in a video coughed up into my newsfeed by Facebook memories, early the other morning. With shaggy blonde hair and a short-sleeved shirt, he shuffle-stomped a beat, back and forth, among way too much front porch clutter, while singing, "Somebody's going to turn seven soon. Somebody's going to turn seven soon. Somebody's going to turn seven soon, and the correct answer is George!"finishing with the biggest, sweetest smile.

Lingering before getting out of bed, I watched it over and over, listening to how young he sounded, and noticing things. His long hair, his short sleeves, the messy porch: all of these could have just coincidentally been, but I knew better. Back then, haircuts frightened him, long sleeves bothered him, and the porch was his self-made classroom and art studio.

Although batteries of assessments conducted during his first, completely silent, foray into preschool had not decisively concluded that he was "on the spectrum," we knew better. We knew that he was his best when he decided things for himself. So his hair grew long, his sleeves stayed short, his time was his, and he smiled, sang, painted, wrote, invented, and connected, all on his own terms.

Now, double that. 7 + 7 = right now, and right here. Here? Is Mexico, at the end of a long trip he once announced he'd never take. Six years ago, when I started to take off for other lands, and eventually take kids with me, he disabused me of that notion in no uncertain terms.

"Mae can have my trip. I don't want to leave the country."

So she came with me before he did, to Mexico, last summer. Fond of familiarity, and rooted in routines; the world outside of the house where he was born, the yard in which he frolicked, and even the school he ventured to attend, was not enticing to George in the least.

Or so I thought, but he knew better.

Because he revealed something to me two months ago, when were just about to board our first flight out of the country. He had his support system, in the form of his father and sister, besides his wanderlusty mom. He had his laptop, some Spanish instruction, and repeated assurances from his sister that life in a different country could and would feature many of the creature comforts he feared leaving behind. The secret deep inside him, always covered by fear and denial, always allowed to stay there because until then, nobody had dared frivolously impose upon him something he always said he didn't want, surfaced as we stood in line in the airport.

"You know, it's good that I'm doing this. It's good that I'm traveling now, even though I didn't want to come. Because, I'd like to go to Japan someday. You know, have new experiences."

Like that guy in the thrift store, I was stunned.

Of course, besides being relieved that he was able to approach an adventure for which I so desperately wanted his company, I found this revelation almost heart-breaking. That he held out hope that the rest of the world might be exciting to him, and that he could almost see himself stepping out into it, was news to me. Shuddering, I imagined what would have been, had I stuck, single-mindedly, to the policy of never crossing his stated preferences for himself.

It was almost an act of faith, ignoring his decree, booking a ticket anyway, and even planning a trip so long, his birthday happened while were still on it. Tonight, as he inserted his, much lower, voice into the Happy Birthday song, adding "ME!" in place of each "YOU" sung by the rest of us, before blowing out the flaming 14 atop his cake, I was warmed by his resilient sense of humor. It shines on, in spite of this unexpected excursion, which I hope is only the beginning for him.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Back Where I Come From

This park is one of my favorite places in the city where I currently am.

Once a small zoo, it is now a shady site for sitting, playing, and enjoying a stroll, all under the watchful gaze of giant lions, frozen forever in a silent roar. Throwbacks to a different time, they guard this same spot.

Today, between a morning, spent teaching out of town, and afternoon meet-up with my family, I sat on one of the black iron benches, reading. A young man rolled up to me in his wheelchair, engaging, smiling, asking if I would like a map to his city. I began to reach for my pocket, assuming the map he offered was for sale. He smiled and said the map was free, but he would like for me to enter a little information about myself on the top sheet of a stack, mounted on the clipboard he extended to me.

With the attached pen, I wrote the requested information about our visit to Oaxaca, Mexico. Four of us, here for x amount of days. And then there was that blank, the one that asks where we came from.

Well, that's easy, isn't it? Sure. There's nothing inherently difficult about writing "United States." There's not even anything ideologically difficult about writing "United States," because I have always thought of my country as an anything goes, free to be me, live and let live sort of notion of a nation, sort of.

It's about as patriotic as I get, thinking of the wide range of true things about the United States that make it decidedly, dividedly, united. No particular way, that's the rule. We all have to live together, grumble about each other, help each other, and do our best to ignore each other. Go to that homespun holiday dinner, avoid politics, pass the turkey, and let live, right?

Yet, I felt a pang of shame, stating on that sheet of paper, where I come from: a direct result of paying attention to what is happening there now. Who is saying what, about whom, all the outrage, praise, and deafening silence it garners. Even though I am thousands of miles from home, I feel close to events already starkly in the sharp focus of a 20/20 vantage point of the future- one I hope will be "a different time," but, I know better.

Growing up in the United States, I thought a lot about racism. It almost fascinated me as a child, the history of slavery, segregation, the struggle for civil rights, and systematic oppression. The clearly terrible bad guys in white hoods, the clearly noble good guys stirring the masses with soaring rhetoric about a better future, one which should have happened already.

It was at once unbelievable, and unnoticeable to me, how atrocity and inspiration formed the story of the United States: the place I come from.

All the places and times I have been, in that mostly lovable, earnest mess, they all have something in common. Although I was told the black and white good and bad of U.S. history was thought to have happened in "a different time," it still happened all around me, frequently.

A neighbor shouting a racial slur at her annoying dog, insisting it wasn't racist, because she used it for everybody.
My sweet great grandmother closing our front door in the face of my mother's employer, a black man she did not know and certainly would not be inviting indoors.
The scowling elders who once smiled at me kindly. As a cute little blonde girl, I was adored by them. As a young woman, holding hands with a man I had loved for years, I was a troublesome example of the changing times.
The store employees who followed that boyfriend whenever he shopped out of their sight.
The word that was scrawled across my dorm room door when he and I first fell in love.
Horrible remarks jokingly made to me about my co-workers in high school, because we sat together at lunch.
A bus ride to school, during which a classmate retold his dad's favorite jokes, and I came home with so many questions. What did those words mean? Who was he talking about?

So, why take to the blog to telescope back into time and look at just a few instances in which the privilege of being white meant I got to witness, first hand, the unvarnished view of some who shared my skin color? Why bother writing about how casually they committed the same category of crimes as the bad guys in the those black and white photos in history books?

Because sometimes I fancy that the things I write here might be read by people younger than myself, people whose early memories coincide with news stories about human beings whose lives should have mattered more, if only they had been the right color. I want to say something to them, to you, that was never said to the younger me. It is a hard and solid truth that was denied, though it roared, not so silently, at the corners of my existence. Racism in the United States is not the stuff of history books. It rarely wears a white hood, and it never admits that its story never ended.

That "different time"? Is now. Unless those who know are believed, unless those who come from it can call it what it is, it is tomorrow too.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Into Awareness

"Will you wear this heart for MPS?" I turned to see who had asked me that, and found myself face to face with a woman holding hands with a little girl in glasses. A longer look at the purple construction paper heart on a string of purple yarn, tied so that I could hang it around my neck, made me certain of what I already suspected: I did not want to wear that heart for MPS. 

But, rejecting it would be, well, heartless, so I took it, asking with attempted nonchalance, "What is MPS?" After all, that little girl was looking at me. Like, really looking into myself.The woman responded, "It has 21 letters." as if to say, "Yeah, Google it."

Then, I asked what everyone wants to know. 

Is there any.


She shook her head sadly and said, "Not at this time." From hip height, big bespectacled eyes watched me as I hung that string of yarn around my neck. The paper heart fluttered down and I noticed the date "May 15" on it. Probably, an official day for raising awareness about this terrible disease, I figured.

I don't even remember taking it off and tossing it later. I sure as heck didn't google, "MPS." That was my luxury then, to walk away from a morning of volunteering at my local elementary school and let terminal childhood illness drift out of my mind. Just another heart-breaking detail that recedes as the present moment makes its incessant demands. Except.

Except, not long afterward, I started to work at that school, and her little hand was put in mine on that exciting first day. That was when MPS was no longer something I could, or would, walk away from. 

Later that week, I finally Googled it. Actually, I YouTubed it. I watched video after video of young lives lived through the slow accumulation of metabolic byproducts in their bodies, no thanks to one missing enzyme in their cells. Chubby, extra-active, cherubs become silent still angels with smiles that stop the whole room (or boat in one video.) 

I cried, of course, stuck in the pitiable position of having to hope my new friend would live long enough to need all of the machines that supported and sustained older SanFilippo (MPS' nickname) kids.

So, is there any hope? Maybe. Research has been yielding promising results. There is also more awareness, and funding, and connection between families impacted by MPS, thankfully.

There is also something else, and I'll give you a hint: It's heart-shaped. 
Because, in my line of work: Special Needs E.A., Caregiver, Gandalf, in general -there is so. much. love.

Love, for all of the best of people, all people, everywhere I go with her. Love, for her surprise victories, that when you think about them, seem more tremendous than a strong man lifting a million pounds while spelling Mucopolysaccharidosis, backward. Love, for determinedly holding life to a high standard of quality, and then getting to live it with her. Love, knowing that the immensity of pain is promised will absolutely and always be dwarfed by the joy of this friendship.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Not Freaky Friday Fans

George: Welcome to our reaction to Freaky Friday, the movie.

Mae: Some parts were Very Embarrassing, and some parts were like, Good Job, Guys.

 It's about this teenager named Anna. She's 14? 15? years old. And her mom is Tess, who is, maybe in her 40's?

So there's this very big difference in age, and there's this very big difference in behavior. Anna is into punk and rock. Most of her stuff is pierced, she has earrings and that stuff.

George: I did not like the movie that much. At first, Anna's life is unfair sometimes, but you know, sometimes what happens is her own fault.

And, once they switched bodies, I freaked out a little, and then I panicked. Then, I was watching the rest of the movie like I didn't care.

And then, the rock concert, what happened was Anna, as her mom, didn't want to play, but she played. And in the end, everything turned out fine.

But just, why? I can't believe they would make a movie like that.

Mae: At some parts it got very disturbing. It got very awkward.

A grown woman is calling a teenager "Mommy."

Spoilers: Anna's friend, like Best Friend, threatens to put duct tape over her mouth and I was just SAD.

So I ran upstairs to collect my emotions and try to calm down. I thought, "Buttercup needs to see this."

I returned with her because she makes me feel better when bad stuff is happening.

George: I'm never going to watch that movie again.

Mae: Also, when they go to the Chinese restaurant, it gets So Dang Racist.

George: They could do better.

Mae: Embarrassing.

George:We don't want to switch with anyone, okay?

Mae: I want to see the world with my own eyes. I want to keep it this way.

George: I want to keep my eyes. 

Friday, March 8, 2019

Close to Special

The baby is ten.

She is also funny, bright, bouncy, active, a great artist, driven, and a sister.

 And a special sister. 

That last one is pretty defining, and it just dawned on me. Why? Because I've always said to myself that it's hard to imagine George being George, without Mae.

Just days before turning the big 1-0, she was mentioned in my conversation with an Autism Specialist. I was talking about George, and how much he followed his little sister's example when they were both younger. At times, George looked to her as a model for how to act, or feel, or act like you feel. He is who he is because of her. That's always been obvious. She, however, slipped right past my noticing. She's a special sibling, and as she grows up, it shows.

Last week, we celebrated her birthday, and the end of anyone in this house being of a single-digit age. An appropriate number of helium balloons awaited the birthday girl's arrival home from school.

 She was elated and generous, sharing the red balloon with George. 

Red is George's favorite color. Like, favorite, in all ways, for all things. RED BALLOON.
Overjoyed that his sister's birthday meant good things were coming his way too, he decided to take his balloon for a romp around outside. That's when the bewitching beauty of his other fav, Lint the Cat, caused him to look away and forget about hanging onto the balloon firmly. He looked up, just in time to realize it was lost forever. That merry shrinking red dot, bobbing away in blue sky, just
getting loster,
                              and loster,
                                                      and loster.

I'll be honest. There was wailing- that morphed into a roar of agony, thanks to the chuckling of a mean big brother. After all, a thirteen year old isn't supposed to react that way to losing a balloon, is he? ha. ha.

George found consolation inside, if not what he really wanted, which was for me to say that I would immediately drive to the store and buy him a replacement balloon. Regretfully, I was not able to offer him that remedy, but did acknowledge how hard his loss felt, offering empathy, hugs, and a listening ear.

He said he didn't need those things. He shouldn't be feeling this way. He shouldn't be acting this way. He should stop thinking about it. Thinking about that moment, when. STOP! When the string left his hand and..STOP! Just stop thinking about it. Just STOP feeling bad about it.

His breath was quick as he worried more and more, would he ever be able let it go? The fact that he literally had LET IT GO? He started to panic about feeling intense grief forever, so he told himself, sternly, repeatedly, not even to start.

Before I could abandon wiping a counter and come drop some state college psychology on him, Mae stepped in. She got closer to George, who was sitting at the table, dabbing tears away from his eyes and trying not to feel like he acted, or act like he felt. She put a hand on his shoulder and came down low so their eyes were even. She said to him, very softly, "Listen, George, you are really close to me. When you feel bad, I feel bad. Those are the kinds of feelings you should share. So, if you feel bad, you have to be able to talk to me about it so I can help both of us feel better."

I closed my mouth and tried to look busy. George sighed, and moved on to a therapeutic writing project: a postcard to balloon who got away. Mae came to me and whispered loudly in my ear, "HE KNOWS HE HAS AUTISM, RIGHT?"

Well, shoot, now he does! (Just kidding, he already did.)

But what I didn't know, until that moment, was that Mae has a special condition too. And it's wonderful.

She is about as close as someone can get to someone else who has special needs. She has grown up with an outlier in her definition of normal. Uniqueness became standard; boring and aggravating sometimes, lovable and extra-cool other times -but never ever unique to her. She takes for granted, things which others struggle to understand. Her sense of justice is instinctive, identifying so deeply with the interests of another individual who may be vulnerable or at a disadvantage. She knows how to honor emotions, and forge a way, wide enough for two, through them.

 Look, we're all Modern Independent Ladies here, but the fact is, I can't imagine Mae being Mae, without George. 

She might be as bright, even if she weren't someone else's nearest example of how other kids act; but her buoyancy would never be this strong, if she'd never had to share it with someone else.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Fall with Us

Sometimes fall feels like Autumn. Much-needed change, and much-needed rest. If you like school clothes and sweaters more than shorts and t-shirts, it's the most! wonderful time! of the year! Like another favorite feature of the season, a comfort food recipe, it's equal parts invigorating beginnings and peaceful repose.

And sometimes fall feels like FALL. As in falling, careening, skidding, smouldering, over the finish line of the year's end, never having gotten a handle on some unexpected challenges over the last eleven months. That's us, this year.

This year, we launched our oldest student out of the house, and into the world. New baby chicks joined us in spring, joined each other in the summer, and then joined the pre-existing flock. The human ladies of the house went to Mexico for a month of aventura, Three out of four of the school-goers here made a transition to a new school this year, with one of us being me, returning to college to finish a degree in education. Brisk!

But, on most of these things, the axis tilted away and things started falling.  This year, Henry leaving was not without impact The other kids' roles shifted; we have all been on this curve together, learning how to be the new us.

Then, a family of what can only have been Chupacabras nested under a nearby house and feasted on our young hens relentlessly over Mae's and my month of travel.

 Now, there's one lonely girl, with a whole coop to herself.

Oh yeah, and about this time last year, I woke up, sat up, and then...
                                                                                  tipping over.
Powering through the wooziness, I got up and ready and went to work, where the hallway
                                          tilting? Or was that my imagination? This, and other weird symptoms, manifesting over the next 12 months led to, not only many medical visits and tests, and scary suspected causes, but pretty much nothing in the way of actual answers; it made every. other. thing. harder. to. do. And some things? Just impossible.

Changes and unrealized goals. Everywhere, depending on your outlook, there are signs of our failure to preserve the fleeting. A hoop house untended, the lone hen, kids growing up, their pets aging.

Melancholy yet?

Oh good. This is the great thing about fall, or autumn, depending on how it's going for you. The passing over the hill of the year, a time when loss surrounds us, we don't have to pretend that things are growing and full of promise. That's what spring is for.

Notice we don't ask anyone what they're "thankful" for in springtime? Ha! What'd be the point? Everything is awesome when the sun is shining and birds are chirping. How about when the flowers have faded and the winds are howling? This is why, in spite of it being a ritual, enshrining an ethnocentric fairy tale, in spite of having nothing special planned, I am really looking forward to Thanksgiving this year.

 Who wants seconds on small pox?

This year, I'm thankful that we are helping each other as a family, finding our way. That we have a big funny handsome reason to visit Portland, and one free egg a day. And that, as a way to improve my physical health, I have begun to take care of myself as I never have before in my life. That's going to have to do this year. Call it thankfulness or stubborn appreciation, maybe Pollyanna glad-gaming, which is fitting, considering the U.S. Thanksgiving honors a sugar-coated rendering of a tragedy.

When Autumn feels more like Fall, gratitude feels more like reminding yourself that it could be worse, and maybe that's got to be good enough.