Posted in musings

books

Quote overlaid on image of the sides of books: “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” – Charles William Eliot

Over my lifetime I have read thousands of books (estimating from the years I’ve actually kept track). Books are easier than real life: the author filters out most of the irrelevant information from the narrative, internal perspectives provide verification for the emotions being communicated through a character’s body language or tone, and confusing sections can be reread until things make sense while the rest of the book waits. So sometimes it can be a nice escape from the complexities of life to dive into the world of a book – but on the other hand, spending so much time analyzing social interactions in written form helps me to understand them better when I encounter them in the wild, so to speak. There have been countless times when I’ve noticed something happening and thought, “oh! I’ve read about this! What was a helpful response when this happened in the book?” and based my reaction off of what I’ve read.

(The one time someone tried to bully me as a child I thought, “oh, I’ve read about bullies. They are usually sad and insecure people. Poor kid.” I was also highly amused that he though I’d be offended by the name “Four-Eyes” when it was a taunt straight out of the books! How unoriginal!)

Books also help me understand my own emotions. As the characters experience situations and as their emotions are described, I try to put myself in that situation and feel those emotions. This is anxiety: observe the triggers, observe the physical response, observe the words that are used to describe the associated emotional response. This is happiness; this is grief; this is insecurity; this is attraction; this is contentment. I feel things extremely strongly, but I struggle to understand those feelings, and books help me create a reference against which I can evaluate and by which I can name my own emotions as well as the emotions I see in others. And it does this in a safe way, allowing me to proceed at whatever pace I need to, not overwhelming me with sensory input about an unfamiliar or upsetting emotion.

(This is probably why I enjoy books with a lot of emotional content even though I am very uncomfortable with emotional expression in movies or in person. I can take a break if I need to, I can process the emotions slowly and through multiple filters, and I don’t have the intense sensory input of a strongly emoting person to deal with while I’m figuring out what’s going on and why. And I do think it gives me a foundation to work from when I encounter those emotions in the real world, whether in myself or in others.)

So I’m thankful for the gift that books are to me – that on top of the enjoyment of a good story, I have their help in deciphering the puzzle of emotion and social communication, in decoding the physical clues that reveal someone’s feelings, in learning the rules and patterns of social behavior. And that when I need them, they are always there to be my friends.

Posted in sqt

{sqt} – disability rights, epidemics, communication, love, and lemons

  1. Some good news this week – the FDA has banned the electric shock devices used by the Judge Rotenberg center to control disabled (primarily autistic) patients. From the ACLU statement in response to the ban:

    “Using what are essentially human cattle prods to shock people with disabilities into compliance is simply barbaric. For over 40 years, the disability rights movement has fought to ban the use of abusive ‘behavioral treatment’ methods such as these ESDs. The FDA’s decision today banning their use should be seen as a necessary and important first step to securing a broader prohibition on the use of aversive interventions.
    “People with disabilities deserve the right to be supported with dignity and respect, and there are no circumstances under which they should be subjected to pain as a means of behavior modification.”
    – Susan Mizner, director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program
  1. Some not-so-good news is that the novel coronavirus COVID-19 does seem to be of potentially greater concern than I originally thought (in line with the flu in terms of transmission rate and severity, far lower in total number of cases so far, but still concerning to researchers and health care workers because it is an unknown agent). In response to that, one of the labs we frequently work with at the university is optimizing protocols for high-throughput diagnosis and training people to run those protocols; if an emergency situation does occur where the load of potential cases is very high, they’ll be equipped to run 24/7 and process 1000-3000 tests a day. (I say “they”, but I’m hoping to run through the training myself so I can be part of the public health response if the epidemic becomes a serious issue locally. I guess I’m nerdy enough that the opportunity to be involved with a novel virus on even a small scale is just purely exciting to me ūüėõ )
  1. Coming down to a more personal scale, communication and relationships are so hard. Even when two people are trying as hard as they can, misunderstandings can happen and feelings can be hurt and it’s just all around miserable – so much so that even knowing how a good conversation about something meaningful can fill up my heart like food and drink, it’s tempting to just not even try sometimes. But isolating myself doesn’t lead to health, or happiness, or holiness; it leads to bitterness and selfishness and despair. My sister shared a quote with me today that speaks to this, and of far more than this – of the value and even necessity of pursuing relationship in a self-giving way, of staying alive and invested and connected not for your own sake but that you might in so doing pour out your life for the needs of others and open yourself to be so poured into by others (and I don’t have access to the original formatting of the quote, unfortunately, since that can be significant with poetry):
"I don't want to feel better; I want to know better.
I should have known that God is not in the meal
but in the sharing of the meal.
I should have told you that holiness resides in needing each other,
in acts of survival made generous."
- Julian K. Jarboe, "Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel"
  1. Speaking of powerful quotes from books, I came across this one and realized that far too often I am impatient with and even contemptuous of weakness – starting with myself, but sadly spreading out to those around me as well. I do not often respond to my own struggles with compassion and grace, and that attitude of harsh, high standards can carry over into my interactions with other people. Having had the issue brought to my attention, I’m trying to be extra intentional about cultivating a spirit of love and gentleness instead: to offer open arms and a listening ear instead of an eye roll or an “I told you so”; to wait calmly for someone to process and express themselves instead of letting my attention drift away from them in impatience or disrespect; to make space for struggle and failure and fear and meet people where they are instead of expecting them to succeed in a way or time that’s convenient for me.

    “No one is of the Spirit of Christ but he that has the utmost compassion for sinners. Nor is there any greater sign of your own perfection than you find yourself all love and compassion toward them that are very weak and defective. And on the other hand, you have never less reason to be pleased with yourself than when you find yourself most angry and offended at the behavior of others.”
    – William Law, cited in Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas
  1. One of the great blessings of cultivating this gentleness and patience is seeing the happiness and peace it gives to those around you. I think as a parent of small children it’s easier to see things like that – young children are both more sensitive to their parents’ attitudes and more expressive of their own feelings. For example, Rondel has been working really hard on riding his bike the past few weeks. He has training wheels, but he still feels very panicky about balancing, steering, and just generally maintaining control of the bike, especially at faster speeds. It is so easy to become frustrated when he bikes at a slow walking speed – Limerick racing ahead then having to wait for him to catch up – particularly because he doesn’t look anxious at that speed. Some part of my mimd interprets his actions as laziness or an unwillingness to try when really they stem from anxiety and poor motor skills, and my resulting impatience just makes him feel worse. But when I remember to re-evaluate in terms of gentleness and grace, I can see the anxiety and try to help him work through that root problem so that biking can be something fun and energizing for him like it is for his siblings.
  1. Another thing that I’m learning as a parent is how little control we really have in the interests our children develop. Aubade wears princess dresses as often as she can, claps with delight at the thought of going to a shoe store, revels in sparkles and stick-on earrings, and pretends every playhouse is a “princess house.” Just. What. I have no words. Aside from having to tell someone with no concept of monetary value that she can’t have all the shoes she desires, though, it’s actually pretty fun ūüôā
  1. Finally, I got a bag of lemons from my mom and need to use them up this weekend! I’m definitely going to make a jar of preserved lemons, now that I know I like them and won’t wait six months before breaking into them, as the batch from last year was beginning to get mushy (still tasted good though). I’m also contemplating making a jar of lemon marmalade, but I’m debating whether or not to add some sort of accent flavor to it. I could go a slightly savory route with rosemary (I made a rosemary and lemon shortbread last week that I loved, and this would be a similar flavor profile), or more Middle Eastern with cardamom (my favorite spice of all time). Or I could keep it straight lemon, simple and bright. Any thoughts?

Head over to This Ain’t the Lyceum for the rest of the Seven Quick Takes link up! For fellow homeschoolers, there were some helpful/thought-provoking posts on that topic this week that I found encouraging ūüôā

Posted in musings, sqt

{sqt} – spring will come again

As the seasons fall toward winter, my emotional center falls with them. Even in the midst of good, happy things; even when I feel genuine gratitude for the blessings in my life and joy for the beauty around me; even when I have hope for the future and time spent in prayer – even in all those things, guilt, insecurity, anxiety, and sadness well up within me in this season.

a single stalk of grass fluffy with seeds about to fly

I’m not sure why this is – it could be the drop in temperature, the slowly shortening days, or the impending holidays (which for me really start on Halloween – we don’t have a week without something extra from then through Epiphany, since four of our birthdays are added to the mix).

But at least this year I am aware. I remember the way the wave of depression carried me away last fall, how it caught me unawares and vulnerable, how much I struggled through the next few months as a result, and was unable to lift my head up to see the beauty and feel the wonder and share the joy of Christmas. (I’m really much more of an Advent person – the waiting, the longing, the expectation, the melancholy and sorrow at the brokenness of the world tempered only by the hope of the coming Savior – but I think Heaven is going to be more like Christmas, the fulfillment of hope, the fullness of joy, and I ought to be preparing my heart for that eternal home – )

Looking towards the sky through the changing leaves of the maples

And now – I am being intentional. I am taking time to pray (more than before, but still far short of what I ought, what I need.) I am making time to exercise. I am pacing my efforts with the kids, letting good be good enough instead of demanding perfection from any of us. I am growing green in my garden, the rich riot of life a balm for my soul (yes, our seasons are all different here). I am resting in the beauty and freedom of nature, bringing the kids where they can explore away from the structure and restraints of the city, where we can learn to love the earth we live on, where we can find the secret treasures of the untamed spaces.

Limerick walking along a mountainside trail with a walking stick, like a hobbit journeying through the Shire

These things do not make the struggle go away. They do not lessen the pull of the undertow. But they help give me the strength that I need to keep my head above the water. It is an interesting strength, that I find in these times, through this intentionality, not a strength of fire and sparks, of passion and heat, of bold courage and drawn swords. It is more the strength of the tree, that bends in the face of the wind so that it will not break, that learns to grow sideways to endure the forces against it.

Wild grass, golden in the autumn sunlight, seed heads full and ripe over green stalks

It is even, I hope, more the strength of the grass, that sends down its roots deep into the soil, and its runners far-spread around it, and its seeds to every corner on the wings of the wind: by every means ensuring that when the fire blackens the land it will rise again from the ashes, that when the snow cuts off the sun it can wait for spring to come again.

I’m joining the SQT linkup today even though I don’t actually have seven things, but hey, Kelly is bending the rules too and it’s her blog party so I think it’s ok ūüôā Head over to This Ain’t the Lyceum to join in!

Posted in autism acceptance month

seven challenges of autism

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

Yesterday I shared seven highlights of being autistic; today I’m sharing seven challenges. It would be dishonest to imply that autism is without struggle – that it is a purely neutral neurological difference – and it would make advocating for necessary supports far more difficult. We have to acknowledge what our problems and needs are before we can ask for help or expect others to recognize our challenges, after all.

  1. Social communication deficits
    • This is part of the diagnostic criteria for autism, actually. This is all the awkwardness and unusual behavior and missed cues – the differences in posture or gesture or volume that make a person stand out, or the more subtle tells of anxious fidgets and poorly timed laughter. This is being 13 and hurting a family member’s feelings because you didn’t appear grateful for their Christmas present, and being totally confused about it because you thought you had done everything right. This is being in high school and having a peer tell you that you really ought to look someone in the eye when having a conversation – and then learning to focus on people’s noses instead, so well that your psychologist doesn’t realize that’s what you’re doing (this may be part of why I like large and distinctive noses ūüėõ ). This is laughing with everyone else even though you didn’t understand the joke, or laughing at statements that no one else finds amusing. This is forgetting social scripts because you’re just so excited about something, and jumping right into the topic without the formalities of the greeting first. This is mistiming the breaks in the conversation and either cutting people off before they’ve finished or pausing too long and making them think you’re tuning out. It looks different for everyone, but it is always present and it takes a toll; even if you can play the part most of the time, it can be extremely draining, and when you can’t act that role you risk stares and stigma.
  2. Sensory sensitivities
    • This can also be a major struggle for many (most, probably) autistic people. Noises (even at normal volumes) can be physically painful or excruciatingly uncomfortable, as can certain smells. Textures – as relates to both touch and taste – can be incredibly important. Rondel cannot tolerate the texture of foods like banana, avocado, and sweet potato, for instance, and craves very cold or very dry foods instead. Touch can be very overstimulating; for example, we were releasing ladybugs and while the kids were letting them walk all over their hands, the feel of their feet on my hand made my whole body tense up and lingered for hours after the fact. While every autistic person is going to have different sensitivities, it is fair to assume that all of us will “overreact” to some sensory input in potentially unexpected ways – and it’s just the way our minds and bodies work together.
  3. Language development
    • Many autistic people struggle with some sort of language impairment; autistic speech ranges the full spectrum from non-verbal to completely fluent, but even the most verbal individuals tend to show certain idiosyncrasies. Some autistic individuals use assisted communication devices to help express their thoughts and feelings in words when they can’t do so verbally. My friend’s son can speak a limited number of words and phrases (always increasing!) that he uses to express a large range of questions and comments. Rondel began speaking rather earlier than normal, but his speech was very difficult to understand and his grasp of pronouns is still shaky (he refers to himself in second person, especially in emotionally charged environments). I used to have fairly significant echolalia, and would repeat whole sentences or the final few words of a sentence after speaking (I remember doing it quietly for a while, and then just in my head eventually. At one point my mom told me that she had considered taking me to a professional about it when I was little, but it tapered off on its own). Language abilities are not an accurate indication of an autistic individual’s intelligence or communicative desire, however. Amy Sequenzia is an excellent example of a person who, despite not being able to speak, has intelligent and powerful thoughts and ideas to share – she just uses the written word instead of the spoken word to do so.
  4. Rigidity (discomfort with uncertainty and change)
    • An autistic person doesn’t necessarily have a rigid schedule for each day which must be followed down to the time at which they use the bathroom – that’s a bit of a stereotype. But routines are most certainly a source of stability and thus of comfort, and it takes some time for the autistic mind to recalibrate when those routines are changed. Just today, for instance, I had to do bedtime with all three kids on my own, so I brought Aubade’s bed into the boys’ room and talked all afternoon about how we were going to have a sleepover and I would be snuggling with Aubade so I’d still be in the same room as the boys. When bedtime actually came, however, and the normal routine was altered by the fact that I was on Aubade’s bed rather than one of theirs, Rondel couldn’t handle it. He became angry, defiant, argumentative, and so keyed up that he couldn’t stay still or quiet, until he left the room for a bit to rage away his discomfort and adjust to the changed circumstances. I have found that for both myself and Rondel it is best to have a clear idea the night before (or at least first thing in the morning) what the general plan will be for the day, so that I’m not setting up expectations to be unmet, and to be honest and patient when plans do have to change.
  5. Anxiety
    • When I spoke with my psychologist on Thursday, she mentioned in passing that anxiety is such an assumed aspect of autism that not all clinicians even bother to mention it separately on a diagnosis. I always, always thought anxiety was normal. I didn’t realize until adulthood that most people don’t feel sharp pain in their chest after every significant social event (like an evening spent with a date), or have to do breathing exercises before making a phone call, or go through life with a generalized fear that they’re going to make a mistake and ruin everything, or scratch their skin until it bleeds to keep the nervous tension manageable. I didn’t even know that all of that was called anxiety until my youngest sister was diagnosed and I found myself trying to explain it to our middle sister… it was just how life was, for me. And apparently that’s how it is for most autistic people; according to Chris Bonnello’s 2018 autism survey (with over 11,000 responses), about 60% of autistic people struggle with anxiety disorders – it was at the top of the list of co-occuring mental health conditions.
  6. Intellectual impairment
    • This isn’t a side of autism I’ve personally experienced, except potentially secondhand though my friend’s son (although it is hard to tell because of his language delays). But according to the scientific literature at least half of all autistic individuals are also intellectually impaired, and in clinical terms this is the dividing line between “low-functioning” and “high-functioning” autism (I’m aware some people dislike these terms for their over-simplification and potentially demeaning tone, but as they’re used in the scientific literature it’s helpful to know the definition of the terms in that context). Autism advocacy that ignores this half of the autistic population is thus woefully incomplete! And this is definitely a challenge, given the unreliable quality of special education in the schools and residential support for adults. These people are at the highest risk of being abused, neglected, or taken advantage of, and it is important for society as a whole to realize that having less intelligence – just like having poorer social skills! – does not make a person less deserving of dignity and as much autonomy as is feasible.
  7. Emotional expression
    • Emotions can be terrifyingly treacherous for autistic people. They can be devilishly difficult to decipher, acutely uncomfortable to witness, and extremely explosive to experience. I find myself trying to share with Rondel the same lessons I had to learn about the anger that tries to take over, and empathizing with the overwhelming strength of those volatile emotions (I still have them after all – I’ve just learned more coping strategies by now). Some of the scenes in movies that are most moving to my husband are intensely horrible for me because of the raw and visible emotion involved; I can engage more fully with the character’s emotion if it is diluted or filtered somehow, like through the written words of a book or animation and scripting aimed at a younger audience. Otherwise it is too overwhelming. Similarly, I struggle to talk verbally about things that are important to me (or things that have a lot of anxiety wrapped around them). Both my mom and my husband have at different times in my life maintained a joint journal where I could write down things I needed to express and communicate and receive written responses without the anxiety-ridden emotional tension of a face-to-face conversation.

Every autistic individual struggles with different challenges, and these are just a few of many. I didn’t touch on the existential loneliness of feeling disconnected and different and left-out; the low employment rates of autistic adults; the common physical co-morbidities associated with autism; or the ever-present mask and concomitant imposter syndrome. But I think it is important to share another finding from Chris Bonnello’s survey: that of all his autistic respondents, less than 15% would take a cure for autism if it existed.

cureforautismsurveygraph

Challenges and all, autism is a part of our identity and to remove it would be to fundamentally change who we are. Instead of trying to do that, let’s acknowledge our differences and struggles and design (or improve, or strengthen) the societal supports that will allow autistic individuals to flourish and thrive in their own unique way.

Posted in sqt

{sqt} – emotional self-regulation

In our house, we have big emotions.

It’s not too surprising, all things considered. Paul likes to attribute my temper to my “Cuban spice” (which is always highly embarrassing), and I tend to believe it is related to my autism (see an amazing article here which could have been written by me if only I were that insightful and eloquent), but wherever it originates from it comes on quickly and lasts indefinitely (forever really, unless I put in a lot of mental and emotional effort). Rondel is similar – flaring up like a match at an unexpected change or a trivial argument or finding out he was wrong about something he thought was a fact – although I’m not yet sure if he will be a grudge-holder like I was as a child. Limerick is constantly pushing himself, and will break down in frustration if he can’t accomplish something he feels he should be able to do. Aubade still uses shrieks and screams to communicate most of her (very strong) opinions and feelings, since she’s only just starting to take off verbally.

So right now, while academics are important and interesting and fun, I feel that emotional intelligence and self-regulation are also a very important area of emphasis for us. It may not come naturally for most of us in this household, but as I have learned over the years it is very helpful in life overall, so it’s something we’re consciously working on together: and these are some of the ways we’re doing that.

  1. Affectionate Physical Touch (e.g., hugs, snuggles, and read-alouds): Little kids are very physical creatures, and so making sure we have lots of time snuggled up together reading books, or letting them lounge on top of me while we’re playing with toys, or making a comforting hug the priority in a meltdown situation, is helpful in a number of ways. It acts as a preventative, helping keep emotional systems running smoothly so that crises are less likely to occur; and it acts as a balm, soothing and quieting the overwhelmed nervous system so that the rational brain can regain control and come up with a solution to the triggering problem. All three kids will come to me throughout the day for a hug when they are feeling sad, overwhelmed, or disconnected.
  2. Physical Play¬†(e.g., running, wrestling, jumping on the trampoline): Going back to the physicality of children – but also appealing to research on the value of exercise for emotional health – wild, active physical play is also very helpful for learning to handle big emotions. Especially on days when everyone is struggling with irritability, and small triggers are escalating into large events, running and wrestling together seems to help us all shake off the mood fog and reconnect with each other in a positive way. So far this has been something I’ve had to initiate, as the kids seem to forget how good it feels to be active when they are grumpy and quarrelsome, but I’m hoping that as they grow they’ll be able to choose it on their own more often, as their bodies let them know they need it.
  3. Bodily Needs (sleep, food, water, sensory peace): This is kind of a broad one, but basically it is hard for a brain, especially a young developing one, to focus on managing emotional responses when a more urgent physical need is unmet. So meltdowns tend to happen more frequently when people are tired or hungry, or in overstimulating environments (crowds, loud noises, unpredictability, flashing lights, information overload, uncomfortable clothes, etc.). There are some easy physical ways to reduce the burden on your brain in these situations, such as never leaving home without snacks and water bottles, and never forcing yourself or your children to stay in an environment that is stressful and uncomfortable. For example, I let Rondel wear T-shirts and athletic shorts to church and take off his shoes in class, and the church has noise-reducing headphones that he can wear if the noise is bothering him. These accommodations reduce the amount of negative input his brain is dealing with, which in turn enables him to use more energy on social and emotional functions.
  4. Mindfulness: Ok, but sometimes you can’t prevent the emotions or avoid the triggering situation, and you still have to learn how to control your own reaction to the event. This can be¬†so hard when your emotional reactions tend to hit you like a punch in the stomach with no prior warning… but what I have found to be very helpful for me is simple mindfulness practice. When I am present in the current moment and aware of my body, I can begin to detect clues that my negative emotions are building up, and try to take steps to defuse them before they explode. I can choose to close my eyes, breath deeply, and focus on the breathing for a few seconds, letting my diaphragm trigger my vagus nerve to calm my body, mentally stepping away from the situation I can’t truly leave in the moment, giving myself a space to think and decide how I want to react before the words leave my mouth. I don’t think my kids have quite figured out how to take deep breaths yet, but we’ve worked on taking that space before reacting (in real time with conflict situations) and it was helpful for them as well.
  5. Mediation and Modeling: Since my kids are still so young, I find myself stepping in when arguments begin to escalate into more emotional conflicts. My goal in these moments is not to solve their conflict but to walk them through the process of resolving it themselves. I hug them, I listen to each one of them tell me what is going on from their perspective, and I attempt to rephrase the situation so that they can both agree that I understand (my initial understanding is often incomplete, and they will correct my phrasing until they are satisfied I understand). Then I will ask each of them in turn what idea they might have for moving on from the conflict, and help them come up with ideas if necessary until they can both agree on one. Sometimes they are able to go through this process independently, and I am so, so proud of them when they do!
  6. Peacemakers Cards/Time-in Toolkit from Generation Mindful: This tool for emotional development has been more than worth the cost for us. Currently, we primarily use the peacemakers cards and the accompanying poster and stickers. I will hold out the deck of cards and let the boys take turns choosing ones, and we’ll spend time talking together about what the cards say: phrases such as “I am kind,” or “I stick with things and get things done,” or “I am adaptable – let’s move and dance!”

    peacemakers_dolphin_cards_amazon_photo_2017_1024x1024
    The “Peace Dolphin” overview card, with the five individual cards from the poster. We recently did Peacemakers after a big fight and randomly pulled three dolphin cards in a row… they were extremely helpful in processing the event, handling the emotions, and planning for the future.

    We talk about ways the boys have recently lived out those phrases, or times when we saw examples of it in a book we love, or situations where it might be challenging to embody them. For card with an action, like the last one in the list above, we’ll get up and act it out (it’s always fun to start silly dancing around the bedroom, after all!). I realize this may sound dull but the boys ask me if we can do Peacemakers cards on a regular basis, and it has led to some great conversations.¬†he other poster in the toolkit has a lot of suggested strategies for calming down in emotional crisis, as well as a few charts representing different feelings in comparison to each other, and those have been helpful as well. Sometimes it’s hard to think of a coping strategy in the moment, so having the visualization on hand can be useful.

  7. Prayer: Of course prayer. Always prayer. Prayer for the fruits of the Spirit in my life each day. Prayers for peace, almost as a mantra, over and over again in the worst times. I remember when Limerick was little and I’d be hit by a wave of anxiety or stress that I would pray “Father, give me peace. Jesus, give me peace. Holy Spirit, give me peace.” Simple enough to repeat when I had no head space for words or complex thoughts, powerful in its reminder to me of the Trinity in all His love and presence. Prayer for connection with my Father, just as important for me emotionally and spiritually as is my young children’s connection to me and Paul is for them. Prayer to the saints,to have their community and support with me when things are too overwhelming for me on my own. Prayer to Mary, the mother of the church, who loves me and my children and helps me to be a better mother to them. Scripted prayers when I’m feeling disconnected and my own words won’t flow; spontaneous prayers when my heart is crying or rejoicing. Emotional regulation is¬†hard for me, and probably always will be – I can never seem to find the middle ground between keeping everything in and letting everything out! But as in every other area of life, God in His grace is sufficient in my weakness: loving me as I am and helping me to grow.

This doesn’t even go into things like self-care and quiet time and community, which are all so helpful for lowering one’s negative emotional baseline and raising one’s trigger threshold – there are so many ways to help develop these skills and create a protective buffer around areas of weakness to keep them from causing damage and regrets. But these seven are some that I found particularly valuable for our family in this season of life, and I hope that they are helpful for you as well!

I’m linking up with¬†This Ain’t the Lyceum today, so head over and read some of the other Quick Takes!

What are some strategies you use for keeping your emotions from getting out of control? What helps you the most in moments of overload or anger?

Posted in family life, musings

holding Limerick through a meltdown

Tonight Limerick had a meltdown. He doesn’t have them as often as Rondel, but when he’s tired his big emotions can overwhelm him, and little things will push him over the edge. It’s par for the course when one is almost three years old!

When the meltdowns occur, there are two ways I can respond. First, I can try to reason with him in an attempt to make him feel better and stop crying. I have to admit that this is my default reaction, especially if other kids are awake, because I tend to be a logical problem-solver rather than a savvy emotional guru. However, it almost never accomplishes anything, especially with Limerick. He isn’t the most reasonable person at the best of times, and when he’s tired the sheer strength of his emotions renders his logical mind inaccessible.

The second response, which I’ve learned from parenting experts and cannot take credit for, but which I’ve found through experience to be far more effective, is to simply be present and available. With Rondel that typically looks like pulling him to me and hugging him until he calms down, because physical touch is one of his main ways of communicating love, but (as I’m discovering) with Limerick I usually need to sit a few feet away from him – say, on the floor beside his bed if he is in bed – and let him know that I’m there for him and that he can come sit with me if he wants. Slowly, as the emotional storm passes, he’ll scoot closer and closer until at last he is ensconced on my lap, rocking in my arms, restoring peace in his heart.

It’s becoming more instinctual to respond the second way, instead of remembering it only after I’ve reached the point of frustration and anger myself (I think the Zoloft helps me take that moment to stop and remember who I want to be as a parent, for which I am quite grateful!), and it is so rewarding.

Few things in parenting feel worse than going to bed having yelled at your exhausted and irrational toddler for acting out his exhaustion and developmental state, knowing that you’ve fallen so far short of your parenting ideals that it’s as if you ended up in a pigsty when you had intended to aim for the stars. But few things feel better than holding that toddler in your arms as he sniffles and hiccups away his final tears, gazing up at you as if you were their only solid ground in the middle of a buffeting ocean. No one enjoys a meltdown, but through it one can build deeper trust and connection than play and happy moments can provide on their own.

Posted in book lists

Kristin and Antonia: learning from my literary sisters

Over the past month I read both¬†Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, and¬†My Antonia, by Willa Cather, for the first time. I couldn’t help but mentally compare the¬†two eponymous protagonists as I was reading, as both are Catholic women written by female authors, but are in temperament and circumstance very different.

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Kristin Lavransdatter, despite being raised in a noble and loving family, enters adult life unprepared and unwilling to battle her passions and bosom sins, pursuing her own whims regardless of the shame and inconvenience it causes the people who love her and sacrifice for her. It is not until near the end of her life that she is sufficiently humbled and matured to look back with repentance rather than mere regret, and to make the hard changes in her own life that following God and living rightly demand of her. I often found it difficult to read Kristin’s¬†story compassionately or even patiently, because her struggles and misfortunes were so frequently caused by her own headstrong will and lack of self-control, when she should have known better than to act that way! But in that judgmental stance I was often rebuked by the gentleness and guiding love of her old village priest and a monk from a neighboring city, who lamented her sin, prayed for her peace, and offered their comfort and wisdom (and sometimes their correction) in her doubt. Love her, they seemed to say to me, protect and pray for her, do not judge her. Judgment will not help to restore her soul and heal her brokenness. And they were right; the scorn and shame of her neighbors stung, but she could ignore it, and it wasn’t that weight that in the end brought her back to God and taught her how to truly love another person selflessly and¬†without resentment.

The book is¬†written with a tempestuousness that matches that of the protagonist’s character – in the medieval Norway of the book (accurately depicted from what I can tell – the author did a lot of research), successions are contested, old folk beliefs fight with Christianity, famines strike, arranged marriages are disputed, childbirth is incredibly dangerous, miscarriages and depression and poverty hover beneath the surface, and epidemics sweep through society. Kristin is most definitely not the only fierce and passionate individual here! Her story and its setting draw the reader in from the beginning, and hold one’s interest captive¬†through towering heights and plummeting¬†lows.

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My Antonia, on the other hand, is one of the gentlest and most peaceful books I’ve ever read. Antonia’s character and life are sketched out through the eyes of a man who met her when they were both children in Nebraska (she from Bohemia, he from Virginia) and watched her grow up to full beauty and maturity with the affectionate¬†eyes of an old friend. Where Kristin is¬†blessed with beauty, love, and wisdom in the parents who raised her but squandered it in her own impulsive and passionate way, Antonia is¬†struck with the incredible tragedy of her father’s suicide coupled with the small-mindedness and paranoia¬†of her mother, and yet still manages to blossom.

And yet, Antonia is¬†a passionate woman just as Kristin is, full of strong and rich emotions that carry¬†her with them. She is¬†by no means a weak or mild individual; she is¬†strong enough to work the fields with the men, beautiful enough (in action as well as appearance) to turn every head, fun-loving and spirited, brave and opinionated. What makes her different is the direction in which her passions led her. Kristin’s passions were bent, misguided, uncontrolled, turned away from the good and praiseworthy; Antonia’s were, while not perfect, aimed in general towards truth and beauty. As Jim, Cather’s narrator, puts it near the end of the book:

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true […] she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

Reading both books in close succession made me realize how the choices we make and the emotions we obey shape our lives and even our children’s lives, by painting two very different possible paths down which a woman of passion, beauty, intelligence, and potential could walk. Goodness does not remove all difficulties, as Antonia found through her suffering, but neither does repentance restore what all that is¬†lost or heal all that is wounded, as Kristin found through her suffering. And the suffering endured with passionate love for the good, for truth, and for beauty will leave a much different mark on the people around us than suffering we bring¬†down upon our own heads through our sin and poor choices.