The inner spiritual life of an ambulance blesser

There’s been a story recently in the news about a boy with an intellectual disability who was denied first communion on the grounds that his priest did not believe the boy had “sufficient knowledge” of Christ, a requirement for first communion. In trying to think back to my own first communion, I can’t recall that I had “sufficient knowledge” of anything besides a really fancy white dress and shoes that I was going to be allowed to wear. Does any seven-year old?

Religion seems too big a topic to address here, so I won’t. This whole incident simply made me simply wonder about the inner spiritual life of my son, who is close in age to this boy and has intellectual delays as well. Even if we aren’t a real “organized religion” sort of family, I still want to instill him with a moral compass, a sense of compassion and a deep connection with the world.

Something happened recently that reminded me that I need not worry.

Like many kids, my son has trouble shutting out ambient sounds in his environment—but his filter is really non-existent. Combine this with a love of vehicles, and every train whistle, car alarm, back-up truck beep and fire truck siren must be commented on, regardless of what else is going on in the moment.

Recently he pointed out that several ambulances were going by as we walked in our busy neighborhood. I usually tune them out like all jaded city-dwellers, but they were loud and it was a little more intense than normal. He looked nervous so I tried to re-assure him by saying that I hoped that everyone was safe and OK. Imagine my surprise when I realized that he had created a very real and steady practice of pointing out every subsequent ambulance siren to me with the words, “Hope everyone is OK.” I had stopped hearing ambulances long ago, but here he was blessing each and every one and reminding me to join him. Is more “sufficient knowledge” than this required?

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Craziness is like heaven

“You have to forget about what other people say, when you are supposed to die, or when you are supposed to be loving. You have to forget about all these things. You have to go on and be crazy. Craziness is like heaven.”

– Jimi Hendix

I’m finding lately that my craziness is showing. I pierced my nose. I started this blog. I got it into my head that I wanted to learn to draw—and I did. I started chanting and referring to my chakras.

I blame it partially on turning 40. When I was freaking out about reaching this milestone birthday last summer, a good friend gave me a shake and said: “What are you worried about? Forty is great. Forty is when you stop giving a shit about what other people think.” As a woman who had spent most of her previous 39 and three-quarters years giving a very big shit indeed about what other people thought of her, this sounded pretty exciting.

But more than my mid-life meltdown, I feel like there’s something about becoming the mother of a medically, behaviorally and cognitively complex child that has propelled me right out of the realm of normal and launched me deep into the world of crazy. Well, not exactly at first; I clung on to normal for dear life with the aid of a strong dose of denial, but even that only lasted so long.

This complicated, unexpected life, with my terrors and my whining and my fears, is absolutely crazy. It is so far from perfect it takes my breath away most of the time. But what I learn each day is that if I want a life that is more than just coping and getting by, craziness is my ally. It’s a force I can harness and ride like a chariot to places I didn’t dream I could imagine.

My boldness is rewarded. I stretch myself to accommodate these unexpected demands, and in the process I grow more than I could have by simply willing myself to be more. Craziness lays out the welcome mat for a lot of messy heartbreak and turns it into breath-taking richness. It fuels creativity. It creates a fire in my belly. It makes my world and my heart much bigger and more interesting places.

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them,” Henry David Thoreau said. I realize now that the life I dreamed of having, with everything “perfect” and “normal” and to my exacting specifications, would probably have been a life of quiet desperation. But lucky me. My life is crazy. And craziness is like heaven.

Keeping your tongue up with the times

Stephen Colbert as the fictional Stephen Colbert
Image via Wikipedia

I remember, during the course of so many conversations, having to point out to my dad that we didn’t use this word or that word  to describe various groups of folks anymore. I know he didn’t mean to want to be offensive; he just needed a little help keeping up with the times. (Although I always appreciated that he said “dungarees” instead of “jeans” and he often called his shorts “Bermudas.”)

Well, now’s my chance to help some of you keep up with the times too. News flash, in case you missed it: the r-word, including the word “retard” and phrases like “That’s retarded,” are now off the list of words to use if you’d rather not appear degrading and hurtful.

Stephen Colbert interviewed Special Olympics CEO Tim Shriver who did a great job of explaining why here. They do a quicker (and funnier) job than I can, so check it out.

What goes down must come up

I flopped into my therapist’s leather couch last week and asked, “So…what should I cry about this week?” It’s become our little joke that these sessions follow a template that always ends in tears.

Like a fencing champion who deftly maneuvers and makes contact with their opponent’s chest, each week she skillfully reveals some tender point in my heart that needs processing. With her guidance to locate and stay with whatever I’m feeling, I crumble, have a cathartic cry, re-apply my lip gloss and head on home. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but since my father’s death several weeks ago, it’s been incredibly efficient.

Last week though, when she asked how I was doing, I scanned my body for an answer and couldn’t recognize what I was feeling. Was it numbness? Wistful sadness? Exhaustion? No, none of the usual suspects. Finally, after a few moments, I pondered aloud that I thought I might be feeling…happy?

For so many years there was a lot to be angry, afraid, confused and sad about in my life. Whether I was missing the tool required to handle these overwhelming emotions or because I simply believed I was missing it, my mind (or heart?) kept me safe by pushing this pain away with the occasional help of food, mindless screen time and general busy-ness. My body soldiered on, putting one foot in front of the other, keeping calm and carrying on.

Suppressing emotions, however, has one major drawback as a defense mechanism: you don’t get to choose which emotions you push away. Special thanks to my friend Debra Woog who helped me realize this by sharing a quote from PhD-level licensed social worker Brene Brown, who so aptly puts it this way:

The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the
bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment — I don’t want to feel these.

Eventually, you start shutting off the desirable feelings too, the joy, delight and happiness.

Despite my father’s illness and passing, this past month has brought some amazing progress: the switch to a more appropriate school for my son and the hiring of a much-needed PCA, among many other positive resolutions to some painful obstacles. But after so many years of inadvertently numbing all of my feelings, the well deserved sense of relief and happiness which had eluded me for so long still escaped me. Even when some joy did manage to work its way to the surface, a small demon discounted the experience by pulling forth some new obstacle and asking, “How can you be smiling when you’ve got THIS to contend with?”

Ironically, I ended last week’s session with tears too. But these were happy tears, because I was completely overcome by the realization that the happiness which I had been seeking for so long was there, but it just needed to be seen and felt.

It’s been a full seven days since I left my doctor’s office with the marching orders to simply let myself feel happy when I feel happy. It’s been a week of transcendent moments, lots of dancing while I unload the dishwasher and some long, hard runs. Even some creativity and playfulness is seeping out, which is unexpected. Gratitude has shown up too, which is also welcome.

So to all you fellow stiff-upper-lippers out there, I encourage you: Question your tendency to push away the negative emotions. Find a safe way to let the feelings come out, one at a time and with support. I know it’s scary, but you can do it. With time, the good feelings start coming out, too.

Durga Tool #3: Pushing my physical body to its limit, as symbolized by my sneakers

Here’s the third in the belabored series on tools that inspire me as a special needs parent to live with joy, courage and compassion, as inspired by the Hindi goddess Durga.

I am not a naturally athletic person. Lest you get the impression from the post’s title that I am one of those people with a vexing bottomless well of physical energy, aptitude or endurance, (though my favorite is Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger’s character on Parks and Recreation) I must assure you that I am a clutz.

I was a good student in my youth. I felt secure and comfortable in the realm of my mind but completely at a loss when I paid any attention to my body. Growing up I barely completed a season of any sport, most often quitting after the first few lessons or games. My athletic prowess extended to the occasional aerobics class or a night out at the bowling alley every decade or so. I learned to swim and ride a bike years after friends my age did. Oh, I did play softball one season, though it ended with a broken nose and the assistant coach sarcastically yelling, “Look what I got!” on the single occasion I managed to catch a ball during a game.

In my late 20’s I accidentally cultivated a slow-jog habit. I say accidentally because I really can’t otherwise explain how I found myself pulling on my sneakers and jogging while trying to hold steady a very skippy portable CD player during many of the summers of the late 90s. The object was to simply move my body, not push myself too hard – which I was very good at.

Once parenthood hit though, the sheer physical exhaustion and a sleep-deprivation induced fogginess punted that shaky practice right out the window. Finding time to exercise meant getting up early. Sleep was what my body needed there was no way I’d miss a minute of it. Besides, I hardly had enough time or energy to go to the bathroom; why would I squander precious energy on running a loop around my neighborhood when I needed it to unload the dishwasher?

At some point in the last few years though, the sneakers found their way out of the closet and I am just as surprised as you are to find out that I have a pretty decent jogging habit again. I’ve even done a few 5ks in the last year or so, run through the last two winters and I’ve probably doubled my speed – I can run much faster now that I’ve upgraded to an iPod.

What has come as a surprise is the pleasure not rekindling the slow jog ability, but of pushing my body really hard. As I crank up the volume of that perfect heart-thumping track, I’m almost always able to run faster and farther than I believed possible, and with that success comes the insight I am quite possibly mentally and emotionally stronger than I believe. I push myself by choice out on that sidewalk so that when I’m faced with a surprise obstacle in my everyday life, I already have experience of ignoring the voice in my head that tells me, “You have to stop, you can’t do this.” I don’t know how it’s possible that this is the same voice, but it is.

Another gratifying by-product of voluntary exhaustion is the way it can simply shut off my incessant mental chatter and calm my anxiety. Though my mind continually seeks out things to obsess about as long as it’s awake, it does take a little break in the hours after a good, hard workout. I have worked through and integrated some experiences more effectively by simply moving my body than I ever could by thinking about them. Sometimes the body knows how to handle that which the heart and mind simply cannot process. It took an apparently smart girl a surprisingly long time to learn that.

I don’t need to be a jock. I’ll always have my curves and my clumsiness. But I do have a new appreciation for my body’s wisdom, its value and its strength. And now when life throws me a curveball, I might just be able to catch it without breaking something.