Posted in musings

reading harry potter… again…

I reread the Harry Potter series these past few weeks and was reminded of how much I enjoy the books, how much I hate Umbridge, how conflicted my feelings are about Snape, James Potter, and Sirius, and how heart-wrenchingly sad the final battle of Hogwarts is. I really love how the series portrays even its heroes as flawed human beings – people with unique personalities, strengths, weaknesses, virtues, and vices; it counteracts the black-and-white thinking that I can be prone to. Also, I think my current favorite character is Luna Lovegood (it’s either her or Neville, the clumsy and insecure boy who blossoms into a leader of the revolt against Voldemort’s henchmen at Hogwarts).

Dolores Umbridge is arguably not the most evil character in the books. There is obviously Voldemort, who has no qualms about murder, injustice, and oppression. There are the Death Eaters, who agree with Voldemort’s positions on privilege and power, and who sacrifice the innocent to their cowardice (I’m thinking specifically of the Carrow’s here). There is even Barty Crouch, who sent Sirius to Azkaban without a trial, who upheld “justice” publicly by condemning his own son but undermined it privately by sneaking his son out of Azkaban and attempting to control him. But I hate Umbridge so much that I struggle reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where she plays so prominent a role. I think it is the trappings of innocence and self-righteousness hung over the inner cruelty and self-serving ambition that infuriate me most about her – that, and the complete disregard she has for truth. Everything she does is a power play, a move towards a desired end, and it doesn’t matter at all to her what the facts actually are.

Luna, on the other hand, is disarmingly, unexpectedly, even awkwardly honest. She makes comments about the way she is picked on and her lack of friends as statements of fact, not seeking pity or assistance. She believes some strange things – but she believes them trusting the father who she loves, who has been her only family since her mother died when she was nine, and I admire the love and loyalty she shows him even when the other students are mocking him. From her outward appearance and behavior to the core of her personality, she is who she is and is not ashamed or self-conscious about it. And of course she is brave – she is the only non-Gryffindor student who joins Harry in his quest to rescue Sirius – and intelligent, with a love of learning and intellectual discovery (she is a Ravenclaw, after all 🙂 ).

I could go on and on about the characters; they each make me think so much about my own life and life in general, about the power of evil ideas and fear, about the strength needed to stay true to the right and the good, about the complexity of human beings and the relationships between them. But for now I’ll just ask – if you could pick one least favorite and one favorite character from the series, who would they be and why?

Posted in musings

making accommodations for myself

Every fall and spring the women’s ministry at our church creates a Bible study and hosts a few events for all the women at the church (in addition to the regularly-meeting discipleship small groups). I’ve never attended any of the events before, or been part of the study groups, just because life has been busy, but I have been feeling the need for more structure in my spiritual life to give me direction and motivation, so I went to the first meeting of the year a few weeks ago (leaving Paul to do bedtime with all three kids 😉 )

Large group events like this can be challenging for me for a number of reasons. The first is simply the uncertainty: I had no way of knowing the schedule or plan for the event, nor did I know if anyone I knew well would be attending. The second is the number of people and the accompanying audio and visual (and potentially olfactory) stimulation. I often have significant anxiety or discomfort in church every Sunday because of this factor, and there was no reason to expect it to be different at this event. A third reason is my desire to appear normal and fit in; I really don’t like attention and so I somehow needed to find a way to handle any stress without looking like I was stressed (this is called masking).

Fortunately, as a 29 year-old, I’ve developed a few strategies for coping with these challenges.

To deal with my uncertainty, I thought back to other group events I’ve been to in the past and created a potential outline for the night: mingling, some talking from the front, maybe some music, probably some discussion questions. Other than knowing that mingling always comes first, I figured the schedule would be some modular arrangement of those four activity types, and I would just need to be prepared for all of them. I put my smile on, focused on looking at least near people’s faces when conversing, and thought of some basic questions to bring up that no one would be offended by (like asking about their previous experiences with the women’s ministry at our church – a particularly good icebreaker for the kickoff event for a new semester).

For coping with sensory overload (during both mingling and music) and for staying focused during the presentations from the front, I brought my fidget cube and a pen and paper. I am not really a note-taker, but writing is a fairly effective stim when listening to a speaker; the fidget cube is perfect during discussion and small talk as it is small and discreet, and can even be used during music. My goal for the night was not to pick my skin at all, and thanks to near-constant use of my alternate stims I mostly succeeded! I definitely flapped a lot in the car on my way home to shake off the tense/overloaded feeling though 🙂

[Flapping connects back to the masking issue: hand-flapping has never been a major stim for me because it is just such a big obvious motion and I feel extremely anxious and self-conscious if I do it anywhere anyone can see me. Skin-picking is more typically more subtle (unless I start bleeding…), as is rubbing my fingers together back and forth, and the fidget cube and writing are almost normal. But as I’ve been learning more about the purpose of stimming, which is to help the body cope with sensory processing difficulties, I’ve been trying to give my body opportunities to stim naturally without instantly shutting it down because of my social anxiety. Right now that looks like stepping out of an overwhelming environment and letting my body work through the overload before going back or moving on to something else, and finding a more private space where I can relax in the way that works most efficiently for me. Bluntly, I’ll leave church a few minutes early (like I always have, to pick up the kids), and instead of just walking to their classrooms I’ll let myself flap on the way; it only takes a minute or so and it decreases my inner tension so much.

Also I dislike the word “flap” but that’s what the action is usually called so it’s not really up to me to rename it…]

Anyway, the event was overall a success! Was it exhausting? Yes, of course – but it was also spiritually encouraging. I got to be with other women who love God, talking about Him, reading His word, singing songs of praise and worship to Him, and I even got to have a long-ish chat (far away from the realm of small talk) at the end of the night with an incredible woman who I deeply respect for a number of reasons, leaving me better equipped to pray for her and for family.

While my definition of a challenge may be very different than yours, I think it is true for everyone that it is sometimes very worthwhile to attempt challenging things – and that it is always worthwhile to give yourself the compassion, understanding, and acceptance needed to adequately prepare for and evaluate yourself during those challenging things. These were some of the ways I accepted and made accommodations for my own struggles (instead of telling myself I should just fight through them and be normal) – what are some of your strategies for doing so?

Posted in family life, musings

getting through a bad day

Sometimes motherhood is the hardest thing I’ve ever set out to do. Sometimes I wake up already tired, already touched out from a night of nursing a sick baby, already talked out from a friend’s birthday party the day before, wanting to do nothing but bury my head in a pillow (or maybe a book) and isolate myself from the world around me until my equilibrium has sufficiently recovered. As everyone knows, of course, parenting doesn’t typically allow for such unplanned luxuries.

Sometimes every interaction is a battle not to yell or speak harshly. Sometimes the worst part of me wants to scream until everyone feels as awful as I do. Sometimes I can’t even handle the baby sitting on my lap with a book because I’m so sensorily overloaded that my skin crawls at the touch. Sometimes I pray for peace and gentleness and stumble again into anger the next minute.

Sometimes I look at my child and the tears in my own eyes – at my own imperfection, at the horrible way I’m acting – are mirrored in theirs.

Somehow we make it through the day anyway, with lots of apologies along the way. We get outside, if we can, and the calming influence of the outdoors leads to laughter and connection and positive strength. We read our bedtime books and the kids still ask for their “Pookie kisses” of Sandra Boynton inspiration. I tell them what I saw in them that made me proud, and apologize again, and we snuggle to sleep. And at last, the closeness of their bodies to mine can be felt as love by even my chaotic mental processor.

And I remind myself that these bad days are few, and that tomorrow is another opportunity to be compassionate, gentle, self-controlled, loving, present, and joyful with my children – to put in again the hard work of cultivating the fruit of the Spirit, and hopefully do a better job of it. I will fail, and the kids will fail, and I pray that we will in our failures learn both to be humble and to forgive, both to self-advocate when we are overwhelmed and to serve unthanked when we see others overwhelmed, both to grow closer to God who is alone perfect and who gives unending grace and to grow closer to each other even as our sin threatens to tear us apart.

Posted in musings

rereading 1984

I first read Orwell’s 1984 when I was 12 or 13, in 8th grade, around the 9/11 terrorist attack, and I read it again, in high school, but I hadn’t read it since until this year because of the intense emotional memories I have associated with it. As a young teenager reading the novel, I missed a lot of the subtlety and was simply struck with the horror of a system that was so completely in control of people that it could torture and brainwash them into not just obedience to, but complete assent with and even love of that system. Having grown up in a privileged and comfortable environment, it was difficult for me to comprehend that there could be a society so completely without hope, or that there could be people and governments in the world who inflicted suffering intentionally for their own twisted pleasure – I don’t think the possibility had ever occurred to me before.

Reading the book again now, however, it came to me that the book is (in a backwards, dystopian way, of course) about the nature of humanity and the priceless value of human dignity. Even in the most absolutely totalitarian state fathomable, in a society where all the biological and spiritual impulses of the person are quelled or redirected into emotional and political reactions, humanity bubbles up in quiet wondering, solitary dissatisfaction, fearful reconsiderations. One of the most hopeful moments of the book, to me, was one in which Winston simply observes another human being, noticing all the things that are most beautiful and universal about her, drawing to the forefront her dignity and unique humanity:

“Tirelessly the woman marched to and fro, corking and uncorking herself, singing and falling silent, and pegging out more diapers, and more and yet more. He wondered whether she took in washing for a living or was merely the slave of twenty or thirty grandchildren. […] As he looked at the woman in her characteristic attitude, her thick arms reaching up for the line, her powerful mare like buttocks protruded, it struck him for the first time that she was beautiful. It had never before occurred to him that the body of a woman of fifty, blown up to monstrous dimensions by childbearing, then hardened, roughened by work till it was coarse in the grain like an overripe turnip, could be beautiful. But it was so, and after all, he thought, why not? The solid, contourless body, like a block of granite, and the rasping red skin, bore the same relation to the body of a girl as the rose-hip to the rose. Why should the fruit be held inferior to the flower?

“[…] He wondered how many children she had given birth to. It might easily be fifteen. She had had her momentary flowering, a year, perhaps, of wild rose beauty and then she had suddenly swollen like a fertilized fruit and grown hard and red and coarse, and then her life had been laundering, scrubbing, darning, cooking, sweeping, polishing, mending, scrubbing, laundering, first for children, then for grandchildren, over thirty unbroken years. At the end of it she was still singing.”

Of course for Winston it is all just a temporary interlude, this quest for truth, beauty, and individuality. When every action is observed, it is difficult to step out of line and escape for long – and Winston has no idea of where to look for help, or what actions to take, except to follow the confused and tangled pathway of his beaten-down heart and neglected spirit. It is inevitable that he should be caught, and broken, and converted, no matter how he tries to resist. And while they are torturing him, they share with him one of their secrets – the truth, to be honest, of the opposite aspect of humanity from what Winston saw in the poor washer woman. For humanity has ever been a two-sided coin: created in perfection, fallen into all kinds of cruelties and apathies.

“‘Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

“‘[…] How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’

“Winston though. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.

“‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.'”

It isn’t hard, these days, to think of all kinds of situations in which those words ring true. It is the expression of our worst impulses as parents, teachers, or employers. It is present every time innocent or ignorant people are tortured for information, or held without trial, by countries that claim to be just. It runs insidiously through the background of every attempt to rationalize policies that are needlessly harsh, or that sacrifice human dignity to efficiency and social order.

In the end, of course, Winston dies loving Big Brother. Thirteen year old me was shell-shocked by that for a long time. I have an inkling of an understanding, now, how hopelessness can finally drive a person so far down that they sabotage their own being to escape its torment. But when we live in a society that still claims to value justice and mercy, it is our crucial purpose to hold fast to Winston’s initial realization that there is beauty in everyday family ties, in the resilience of the human person enduring in love. It falls to us to close our eyes and ears to the seduction of power, and (as much as lies in our power) to prevent our society and government from falling prey to those sirens. For us, in the real world, where hope still lives, the loss of all that is good and true and beautiful about humanity is not yet inevitable.

Posted in musings

accepting autism when I want to be normal

I remember the first time I revealed my depression to another person, and the first time I admitted that I had wanted to commit suicide. It’s not an easy thing to be open about; it’s shameful, and dark, and has the potential to hurt the person you’re talking to quite a bit (especially if they knew you when you were going through it and didn’t open up to them until years later). I’ve found a way to accept it as a part of my story and talk about it now, though, and I hope when I talk about it that I can encourage others who experience it. I have a mental illness, I can say, without being ashamed or guilty. I have been in these dark valleys, and heard these poisoned voices, and felt the dank stagnant breath of despair on my face. If you are there, I can say, where hope seems entirely absent and all light is lost, where you are lost in a pathless wilderness and the very thought of finding a way out seems pointless, I have been there too, and I am a witness that it is possible to return to the land of the living.

Autism has been a more difficult name to claim for myself. While I don’t have a medical diagnosis, it’s not doubt about the validity of the label that stops me; I can see every symptom in my autistic son mirrored in myself, I score well above the cutoff for every ASD questionnaire I’ve ever taken, and it’s evident to others to the point that my husband laughed at me when I told him I wasn’t sure if I could be autistic myself.

Instead, I think what makes it difficult for me is the admission, in accepting this diagnosis, that I may struggle with certain things for the rest of my life without a “fix.” That some of the aspects of myself I’ve always hated, some of the traits I’ve never accepted, are part of my neurology that will never go away. I can take a pill to shut out the blackness of my depression; there is no pill that will help me fit in with a group, or know how to move my face the right way when I listening to someone talk, or recognize when a friend is being sarcastic and when they’re being serious. I can go to a therapist to talk through unhelpful thought patterns and try to replace them with healthy and positive ones so that a depressive trigger won’t need to set off a ruminative episode of self-hatred; I can’t go to a therapist to talk away the irritability caused by spending all day with three kids whose normal play and conversation feels like an assault of noise, or the emotional breakdown induced by a last-minute schedule change, or the heights of anxiety scaled every time a new event or social appointment is upcoming. I mean, a therapist could potentially help me find ways to cope with those physical and emotional reactions – but they are still always going to be there.

As we’ve gone through the process of Rondel’s diagnosis and my accompanying self-discovery, I’ve read and read blogs and articles from the #actuallyautistic community – I’ve sought to have my understanding shaped by the words of autistic adults and self-advocates. So I know that autism is just a different wiring, a different way of perceiving the world and being in the world. I know that very often it is social norms and expectations that make autism difficult, not autism itself – that is, the difficulties do not exist because autism is bad, but because it is different in a world not designed to accommodate differences. I love that autism has given me a mind like a database and an unfailing eye for patterns. I think I can give autism some credit for saving me from the girl drama of middle school and high school, for giving me dedicated and focused attention on things of interest and importance to me, for helping me to be an honest and trustworthy person, for developing my (often repetitive) love of books and reading.

But sometimes it is just hard. I don’t want to be a different person, but sometimes I’d love to be part of a conversation without constantly having to evaluate and compare my responses with the responses of the other people involved, without having to laugh at a joke even if I don’t get it at all, without having to guess whether a statement was meant to be funny or sarcastic or not. Sometimes I’d like to be invited when church friends or coworkers have a BBQ or a game night – and sometimes I’d like to receive an invitation with casual nonchalance instead of panicked uncertainty. Sometimes? – I wish I could actually be normal instead of just pretending to try to fit in.

violet_incredibles
“Normal? What does anyone in this family know about normal? […] We act normal, Mom, I want to be normal!” – Violet Parr, Incredibles
But maybe it is harder to try to be someone I’m not, and waste my life wishing I were that other, neurotypical, person, than learning to accept and embrace who I am, struggles and all. Maybe it is harder, in the long run, to wear a disguise every day of my life and pretend that I never need help or support. I just know that right now I’m still too scared to take off that mask.

Posted in musings

because prejudice ends up hurting everyone

Recently, when I mentioned I wasn’t yet part of any homeschooling support groups, a (non-homeschooling) friend mentioned a local co-op called Branches, so I looked it up. It is far more structured and school-like than I am interested in, and also has several concerning (to me) points in its code of conduct and statement of faith. When choosing a homeschool group, as when selecting a private school, it is important to read through to that level of detail because no matter where the co-op or school falls academically, it will be detrimental to your child if its culture differs dramatically from your home culture or endorses cultish or prejudiced beliefs.

Some of those concerning aspects were (unfortunately) fairly familiar to me – the parent must sign a strict statement of faith, and must cede to the group’s board the final word on the interpretation of that faith. Considering they are not my pastors, nor theologians, nor even members of my church, I don’t think they can legitimately claim to have that level of authority. I did appreciate their honesty, however, in stating that while they believe the Bible is the final authority it is their interpretation of that authority that will have the ultimate say… it reveals a weak point in Protestant understandings of religious authority in general.

However, one point that I had not run across before was as follows. In a list of forbidden behaviors, along with things like cheating and bullying, the group prohibits “personal appearance and behavior contrary to one’s biological sex.”

Interesting.

That is so broad and vague. While it was most likely intended in a transphobic manner, it is so loosely worded that it essentially prohibits all display of non-gender-stereotypical behavior. So… apparently in this group, math is only for boys, and the girls can’t be competitive in STEM topics or hope for a career as a scientist. Apparently, it’s inappropriate here for little boys to wear pink and purple shirts, or play house, or take care of baby dolls (because heaven forbid they grow up to be engaged and involved fathers when they have babies of their own). Apparently, girls need to wear makeup, do their hair neatly, wear skirts, and make sure they stay clean when they play; boys on the other hand should probably get muddy every so often to avoid an appearance of girliness. According to the words in this code of conduct, it is ok for girls to giggle and cry with each other, but boys should stick to anger and aggression if they have strong emotions. If a girl does just happen to be athletic, she should definitely stick with acceptable sports like gymnastics and volleyball, and avoid playing pick-up basketball or touch football with the boys. And just to be on the safe side, boys should play with boys, and girls should play with girls, to ensure that all the play is happily gender-conforming.

How can a child feel free to explore the fullness of the world around them if they have to be worried about stepping over a (socially-constructed, averages-based, generally-applicable, ambiguous) line all the time? Even a feminine, female-identifying, biologically female individual is going to have some aspects of their personality and behavior that fall outside female gender-stereotypical lines (for example, I am a cis-gendered female who likes my hair cut very short, does not wear makeup or heels, and has a career in the hard sciences). In this group, would that behavior be censored in a (transphobic) attempt to force all people into one or other of two black-and-white categories? I’m guessing it wouldn’t be – but the exceptions would be tolerated in an unpredictable, social-norms-based way (kind of negating the whole emphasis on biological differences) instead of by any sort of reliable and consistent rubric, which creates confusion and has the potential to lead to shame or stigma.

And finally, because this is what this kind of discriminatory rule is really intended to address, what happens to the child who actually struggles with gender dysphoria? Here, they would not be met with support and help, but with shame and rejection. Here, they would be told that because their brains and their bodies aren’t in sync, they are unfit to be part of an educational activity with other children (a mixed-gender educational activity, no less). Here, they would be told that the shape of their body is more important than their identity, their natural inclinations, their talents and giftings, and their mental health and emotional well-being.

That isn’t ok with me.

Trying to discriminate against one group of people usually ends up this way, with the implementation of vague social rules that constrain and restrict all sorts of unintended behaviors while adding to the stigma and isolation faced by the target group. I would rather be with people who may not always act as I would, but who accept and love each other anyway, around whom I can be my authentic self and know their authentic selves. While this co-op may have good things to offer, they don’t outweigh the negatives of prejudice and social control. After all, we are homeschooling in part so that our children can be free to explore, learn, and grow in their own time and in their own way; we don’t need a group of self-appointed parental “experts” trying to shape us into their acceptable mold anymore than we need the public school system doing so. And I am sure that in the right time, we will find the right group and homeschool community for our family.

Posted in family life, musings

overcoming the fear of differences

Difference doesn’t need to be a reason for separation, distrust, or conflict.

This morning I watched as kids from 18 months to 10 years old played together. Everyone waited patiently without pushing or complaining when one of the toddlers wanted to climb up the ladder to the water slide, and the big girls helped her slide down when she was scared at the top. Four year olds and 8 year olds batted balloons across the house together; 3 year olds and 9 year olds danced to music videos together. The difference in their ages – a very significant difference, honestly, in both physical and mental development – was not an impediment to enjoying their time together.

This morning I watched as children with multiple developmental disorders and disabilities played together. A girl with Down syndrome held hands with two “normal” girls as they careened down the water slide together laughing. Four boys with varying levels of autism and speech and language delays and two neurotypical boys took turns on the slide, crashing into each other, trying new ways of going down, splashing themselves and each other, without any comments on the different abilities or behaviors represented. The point was to enjoy the water, and they all enjoyed it in each other’s presence without being held back by the very noticeable differences between them.

This morning I watched as people gathered together to celebrate the life of a boy who is different in multiple ways, who faces unique challenges, and who is very much loved. I am sure that it was this love, spilling over from everyone present, that smoothed out all the potential conflict that could have been caused by the myriad of differences there this morning. By learning to love at least one other person unconditionally, with complete acceptance, with eyes to see them for who they are, with ears ready to hear them however they are able to communicate, we begin to learn how to extend that love to others as well. We look for the bright shining highlights in each other, instead of the behavioral challenges or the confusing differences. We strive for connection and communication even in the most difficult moments, instead of letting those difficulties drive us away. We begin to learn to say, and think, and live, with this perspective: that I am made in the image and likeness of God, and so are you, no matter how different we are from one another; let us meet in the heart and center of that image; let it bind us together in love.

This morning I watched a small microcosm of the kingdom of God play out before me, and my heart was filled to see it.

Differences are so often a cause of fear and suspicion. This person acts and looks and speaks differently than me, so I don’t know how to predict their actions, so I am afraid and want to stay away from them, or I speak more harshly to them because of my unease and discomfort. These people are not like me, so maybe they don’t deserve the same freedoms that I have. An older couple may ask their neighbors why they don’t just keep their children inside, as if because of their age the children have less of a right to access public outdoor space. A concerned citizen may call the police if they see a developmentally delayed adult acting strangely and defend their actions by protesting that the individual should just stay inside their group home if they can’t behave “normally” in public. A group of fairly enlightened founding fathers may preserve slavery and oppress native people because they see them as less capable or even less human. White southerners may institute separate facilities for themselves and legislate others out because they are afraid of being “contaminated” by people of other races. And normally compassionate Americans may applaud strict and trauma-inducing policies of family separation because they are afraid that these immigrants may be lawless criminals and traffickers.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And we who are parents have the chance to shape the future world into a more understanding and loving place by giving our children the chance, here and now, to experience difference and to see how little it really matter when it comes to living and enjoying life together.