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.


Spending a day on the island of Sodor

At the parenting workshop I attended several weeks ago, we were asked identify our special needs child’s hobbies and interests. I’m sad to say that I was really at a loss on how to answer that question.

Had the subject been my typically developing six-year-old daughter, a host of answers would have sprung to mind. Studying insects, telling knock-knock jokes, riding her bicycle, reading – she is willingly fascinated and voraciously curious.

Seeing my son’s interests clearly is not as easy. His combined cognitive and communication delays, incredibly short attention span and even his extremely go-with-the-flow attitude make it difficult to say for sure what he’s interested in. At home, he often has trouble meaningfully playing with toys; he pulls toys off the shelf, perseverating and cycling through the objects themselves but not always engaging with them in a way that demonstrates genuine affection for them.

The things he does lock on to are often household items and electronic gadgets – keys, the kitchen laptop, the holy iP trinity (iPad, iPod and iPhone) – but nothing he can figure out how to use without tremendous amounts of help and frequent re-booting. He spends an hour begging for me to turn on Thomas the Tank Engine, repeating dozens of times that I’ll put it on when the timer buzzes at 5:00, only to watch for two minutes before abandoning the episode in order to aimlessly wander around the house. He can sit for long stretches of time in his Cozy Coupe on our deck, but it often seems like more of a soothing environment for his nervous system than genuine pretend play.

This realization — that I didn’t know where his perseverations ended and where his interests began — saddened me, stirring up all kinds of emotions about the ways I do and don’t connect with him. It was with some sense of guilt that I also realized that we spend much of our family time doing things that were primarily interesting to everyone else in the family but him, because I simply don’t know what he wants to do. Content to simply be with us, he gladly comes along, though it is not always clear that he would have picked these activities if he could express himself.

It was at another seminar (yes, I do have other hobbies, I swear) by brilliant blogger and author Susan Senator later in the month that I got some great advice. I can’t remember what she said verbatim, but the gist of what she said was basically this: a child’s perseverations ARE their interests, and sometimes it’s better to cultivate them rather than try to eliminate them through therapy. (Susan, if that’s not what you said, I apologize, but as you’ll see, it was what I needed to hear.)

So yesterday our family spent the day with several hundred grey-haired gentlemen at a model train expo. I saw a kid-sized Thomas umbrella, and rather than talk myself out of buying it, knowing it would likely be broken within the hour, I watched as my son’s eyes lit up when I told him the umbrella was his. We stood for a long time at the Thomas model train exhibit, and I carefully pointed out not only Thomas but Percy, Anna and Clarabelle, Trevor, Cranky and Sir Topham Hat, all lovingly assembled in a scaled down version of the island of Sodor by some older man who was so happy to connect with folks who shared his passion.

Reflecting on it now I realize that I have, after all, been pulled into his world. How else am I able to engage in a conversation about the disappointing new CGI Thomas and lament the loss of the old stop-action shows? I can be so hard on myself. Of course I know my child. He may not articulate what he loves as clearly as other kids, but if I take the time to listen, it’s not impossible to figure it out.