“Asking if I want to be healed is like asking if I want to like anchovies. I cannot imagine what liking anchovies would feel like, what taste they would have in my mouth. People who like anchovies tell me they taste good; people who are normal tell me being normal feels good. They cannot describe the taste or the feeling in a way that makes sense to me.”

– Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark

liking anchovies

Posted in family life

hiking South Mountain with littles

Winter is one of the best times of year for hiking here in the desert! The skies are deep and clear, the air is cool and crisp, and the plants are somewhat green (depending on rainfall… spring will be better for plant life if the flowers bloom, though).

When climbing a mountain, it is always logical to become animals more suited for the task; the boys decided to be ibex and spent a large portion of the trek on all fours:

IMG_8456

They also spent time as mountain lions, and we discussed what the city would do if a large predator such as a mountain lion or a bear were actually living on a mountain so closely surrounded by homes (probably – hopefully! – relocation. Rondel seemed to think it would be more exciting to have it stay on the mountain and randomly pop out to eat people.)

Aubade mostly stayed in the backpack, bopping my head and laughing, because she walks quite slowly still, but she did get down a few times to stretch her legs and enjoy the desert firsthand:

IMG_8446

IMG_8451

The most wonderful thing about a hike is that simply being outside, in the wild, is so freeing and refreshing an experience that even a complete meltdown for the entire return leg of the trip isn’t enough to prevent the boys from wanting to go again! Rondel keeps asking me when we can climb another mountain… I just think, hmm, I need to rebuild my emotional reserves here, that was rather exhausting for me. I am so glad that it didn’t give him a bad taste for hiking in general, though. I will just need to be more aware of his limitations as he often fails to notice his own fatigue until he is at the point of emotional and physical collapse (it’s a sensory processing thing – difficulty with interoception).

And it was a great reminder for me of why I have always loved hiking! There is something unbeatable about the path dropping away behind you and the sky stretching out wide above you and the mountain rising up before you and the wind lifting your wings as you walk over the dusty and rugged desert miles. They say exercise is good treatment for depression but really I believe that outdoor exercise is key – it is for me, at any rate 🙂

(If you’re wondering, we hiked part of Telegraph Pass Trail on South Mountain! The first part is paved which makes for an easy start and, more importantly, an easy finish for tired little feet. If you have more stamina than my boys did, you can make it all the way up to the top of the mountain where the signal towers are!)

Posted in quotes

what is autism?

The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness. This tends to make the autistic individual’s subjective experience more intense and chaotic than that of non-autistic individuals: on both the sensorimotor and cognitive levels, the autistic mind tends to register more information, and the impact of each bit of information tends to be both stronger and less predictable […]

The realm of social interaction is one context in which autistic individuals tend to consistently be disabled. An autistic child’s sensory experience of the world is more intense and chaotic than that of a non-autistic child, and the ongoing task of navigating and integrating that experience thus occupies more of the autistic child’s attention and energy. This means the autistic child has less attention and energy available to focus on the subtleties of social interaction. Difficulty meeting the social expectations of non-autistics often results in social rejection, which further compounds social difficulties and impedes social development. For this reason, autism has been frequently misconstrued as being essentially a set of “social and communication deficits,” by those who are unaware that the social challenges faced by autistic individuals are just by-products of the intense and chaotic nature of autistic sensory and cognitive experience.

(Please read the complete article here – it is the best brief introduction to autism that I have ever come across.)

I want to be careful about oversharing sensitive aspects of Rondel’s life, so I’m not going to list specific examples here, but I will say that this description makes so much sense in understanding him – his reactions to stimuli, his emotional swings, his physical being and course of development. What is more, it gives me that understanding without making him seem broken or deficient: he is simply different. His differences may mean that he requires extra support and accommodations in a world designed for people whose minds don’t work quite like his, but they don’t mean that he needs to be fixed or changed. He is who he is. He is beautiful the way he is. And I love him for who he is, without changing anything.

(In case anyone was wondering, we don’t have a diagnosis for Rondel right now, but in seeking to understand and support him we have found that a lot of resources aimed at autistic individuals are quite helpful for him, and descriptions like this one in particular lead me to believe that he could most likely qualify for an official diagnosis under the (very pathologizing and depressing) terms of the DSM. So while the very long diagnostic process is underway, we’re going with “suspected autism” over here, per his pediatrician.)

Posted in musings

thoughts on humanity

The single most important thing about any person is their humanity.

No matter what other characteristics define them – their race, gender, age, neurotype, health, sexual preference, career, level of education, immigration status, religion, whatever – every single person is human, and by virtue of being human they are entitled to respect and dignity.

Years ago, I stumbled across a few MRA and white supremacy outposts online; I remember reading through their blog archives in a kind of shocked daze, disbelieving that people could actually hold the opinions presented there. Authors attempted to use social and biological science to prove racist tenets, or to claim the superiority of the “alpha male” type over women and more “feminine” men (often just decent and courteous men). Careful rational examination of their source material could show where they were wrong, but the sheer volume of output would make that a full-time job – with little or no reward, given that they’ve already shown their disregard for real science or actual facts.

Since then, the hidden (and not-so-hidden) biases against the old and sick (e.g., assisted suicide), the LGBTQA community, the homeless (e.g., park bench design), illegal (and often legal) immigrants, and Muslims have risen and fallen through the headlines of the news cycle. Every time there is a group of people who try to make themselves appear and feel superior and, more malevolently, entitled by virtue of that superiority to demean, belittle, and discriminate against groups they deem inferior. We, the employed, do not wish to see or even think about the unemployed; we can provide for ourselves, they cannot so they must be lazy and shiftless, and thus do not even deserve to sleep on a bench where we might see them. We, the citizens, obviously deserved to be born in this nation with all the opportunities we have; those immigrants who were so stupid as to have been born elsewhere shouldn’t be allowed to come here and steal our opportunities. We, the heterosexual, are so uncomfortable with trans and homosexual individuals that we must clearly be the only natural and moral beings here – never mind our promiscuity and infidelity, we are the ones following God’s sexual plan for humanity, and those who disagree should be silenced and kept apart from each other.

And recently, as I’ve been reading through the online communities dedicated to respectful parenting and disability advocacy, I’ve begun to encounter childism and ableism in all their ugliness.

This week, when the horrible story of the Turpin family came to light, the comments I read on the New York Times were straightforward and predictable: this is why homeschooling should be prohibited, or, at least, more strictly regulated. My own coworkers have made the same comments in response to the simple fact that Arizona requires no academic testing of homeschooled students. Similarly, in the past, when horrible stories of bullying or sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers have surfaced, or when poor curriculum choices are exposed, the comments in the homeschooling community are equally predictable: this is why you should never send your children to public school! The issue at the heart of many of these comments is: who is entitled to control children. Does the state get to control children’s activities, in an attempt to create productive future citizens? Or does the family get to control their children, as the creators of and providers for those children during their development? In other words, both sides are coming from a position of childism, even as they claim to have children’s best interests at heart.

The whole philosophy of unschooling, in contrast, rests on the premise that children are not partial persons, or potential persons, but full persons deserving of the same respect and autonomy as adult persons (recognizing of course their individual needs and limitations). As fellow humans, they should have freedom to pursue their own interests and develop their own talents, instead of being forced into a one-size-fits-all standardized education or into the molds envisioned by their parents. They should have the liberty to use their time as they choose, to eat the foods they like when they are hungry, to sleep when they are tired, to play outside learning to control their own words and actions instead of sitting inside following adult directions all day.

(If you instantly picture children running wild, gorging on junk food, playing violent video games, watching stupid cartoons, and staying up all night, you may have some internalized childism or an incomplete understanding of unschooling. Children who are exposed to beauty and goodness, and given the opportunity to develop maturity and moral character, will resonate with those things just like adults will, since they are equally made in the image of the God of beauty, righteousness, and truth.)

But even in the unschooling community, there is uncertainty when it comes to children with special needs. Since my son most likely has autism or another developmental disorder, I noticed the number of parents commenting that they were unsure of how to maintain that level of freedom and respect while making sure that their children accessed all of the “services” and therapies needed to help them fit in and appear neurotypical. I noticed it even more in the public school setting, where an extremely strong emphasis was placed on accessing services now so that my son would be “caught up” to his peers in time for kindergarten. I picked up on it in the special needs ministry at my church, when the parents’ support group had a meeting about “grieving” over your child’s autism diagnosis as if there was some loss to you in not having a neurotypical child. And I discovered it for myself when I found a thousand support groups for parents of autistic children but hardly any communities for autistic adults. Their voices went unheard.

And in some dark corners of the Internet, some people made it even worse by painting adults with Asperger’s/autism as narcissists and psychopaths, incapable of parenting without emotionally neglecting or abusing their children, and inherently capable of committing the next mass shooting. Maybe they vented some frustration or boosted their own sense of self-worth by saying these horrible and untrue things about others, I don’t know. But I don’t really care. I think of Morenike, the autistic mother of autistic children who loves and advocates for them fearlessly and tirelessly, and who almost had her children removed several years ago, and I wonder what role this type of ableist stigma played in her situation.

And I am thankful beyond words for Ally Grace, another autistic mother of autistic children, who is an unschooler on top of that, and whose stories have helped give me the courage to let my children develop at their own pace and in their own way, with the pressure of needing to conform to some external, arbitrary, socially-defined metric – as well as the courage to be an unschooling parent despite my own social limitations.

I think as all the different “-isms” of discrimination come to light, society will slowly be forced into being more respectful and more accepting of those who are different, of those who may need more help or accommodation given the way the world is set up, but in the meantime there is a fairly vicious backlash of those who seem to think accepting the other somehow diminishes their own status or worth. They are the ones who create the websites in the dark underbelly of the Internet, and they are wrong. To receive another human being with dignity and respect, with courtesy and kindness, regardless of the differences between you and them, allows your own humanity – the image of God within you – to shine forth in beauty and power, even as it elevates their humanity. We can ascend together; we do not need to climb to the heavens on the downtrodden backs of the other.

Posted in musings

how does the soul survive?

Modern fiction brings out the evil in domestic lives, ordinary relations, people like you and me […]

Once evil is individualized, becoming part of everyday life, the way of resisting it also becomes individual. How does the soul survive? is the essential question. And the response is: through love and imagination.

– Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

It’s easy to see evil as something distant, or something belonging to people “not like me;” it’s been especially easy, I think, in a politically polarized era to attempt to push our perception of evil off onto politicians or political enemies, the political and cultural “others”, instead of recognizing the sin that cuts through each and every individual heart. We ignore accusations of immorality against those whose ideology aligns with ours, or who benefit us in some way, while jumping at every hint of wrongdoing in those who disagree with us.

But a good novel will show us the hidden depths of goodness and humanity in even the people we dislike and disagree with, while exposing the foolishness and flaws within the people we most admire and who are most like us. By drawing us in emotionally through the story, it relaxes our defenses and allows new, unpleasant, or inconvenient truths to seep in. Our empathy for the characters can engender empathy for real people whom we may have overlooked, avoided, or misunderstood – and the realities that we see more deeply and completely by the light of imagination can spur us to resist the daily evil and pour out the daily labor of love in our own mundane lives.

In other words: let us go read great books so that our hearts and minds can grow in love and understanding – and maybe, as a result, evil need not win each hourly battle in our thoughts and interactions.

Posted in musings

freedom in learning

What is the goal of education? Or, for that matter, what is the goal of parenthood? Is our aim to shape the children in our care into a certain type of person, to give them specific skills, to qualify them for certain careers, to prepare them for expected circumstances? Do we envision their future selves as the complete products toward which we are currently laboring, and the ends which justify all the unpleasant activities we must force upon them in their childhoods?

IMG_8272

Or do we see our role as parents and educators to be one of providing opportunities to explore and grow, while allowing our children to choose the direction, rate, and nature of that growth? Are they like plants which we tend with loving care – providing soil, water, and space to flourish – but over which, ultimately, we have no true control? I remember one year planting peas, all in a row in a single garden bed; I watered them and fertilized them synchronously, and yet some sprouted days before their neighbors, and some grew to twice the height of others, lanky stems reaching up to the sky much farther in between each set of leaves and tiny tendrils. Nothing I did caused or could have eliminated the differences between those plants (though I certainly could have affected their development negatively by forgetting to water them, in which case the height difference may not have been so noticeable…).

IMG_8265

Perhaps it is the same way with children. Some will shoot out intellectually, reaching with insatiable desire towards the skies of knowledge and academic learning, constant thirst for the sunlight of information driving them onward. We could stunt that growth by neglect or empower it by attention, but we cannot create (and can only with great difficulty destroy) the passion that motivates it. Others may grow in more embodied ways, developing craftsmanship and skill in professions such as music, art, or manual trades, and pursuing the creation of tangible beauty rather than the acquisition of knowledge. While we can offer the opportunity to learn those skills to all children, not all will desire to hone them to mastery, and it is most likely counterproductive to attempt to force it.

The knowledge and skills that align with a child’s natural talents and inclinations will be the easiest for them to develop, as well as the ones most likely to bring them joy and success throughout their lives – regardless of how “one-sided” it may make them appear now.

IMG_8242

We may fear that, if children are allowed to choose the direction of their learning, they may choose incorrectly.

Does a tree choose the wrong place to grow a branch?

Does the blackberry bush extend its vines the wrong way?

Hardly.

To paraphrase C. S. Lewis (I believe from Mere Christianity), the tree and the bush are following the rules of their nature and are not wrong or incorrect in doing so, although they may be quite inconvenient indeed for us!

And while it is quite fine to trim back a plant for the sake of our comfort and convenience, it is not at all fine to trim back the growth of another person for the sake of our own convenience. Providing a trellis to support their growth is one thing; stunting or restricting that growth simply because it doesn’t fit our idea of what their growth should look like is quite another.

Children are human too, after all. And humans, we believe, in fundamental democratic terms, are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (always being aware of how our actions infringe upon the rights of others, of course).

Coercive education – forcing a child to learn something in which he has no interest, for no purpose at all except the nebulous expectations of adult society, at the expense of time and energy that could have been devoted to the unique and explorative learning that his heart desires – seems to me to be quite far from those exalted human rights.

IMG_8240

We can attempt to control, and set ourselves and our children up for disappointment, failure, and bitterness – or we can let our children provide the directing and motivating force while we provide the rich and nourishing environment in which they can flourish in beauty and individuality. We can give them the gifts of freedom, acceptance, and support, and marvel at the different ways they blossom before our wondering eyes.

“In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life.”

– Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

insubordination