Personal Growth

Never Tell Me The Odds

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My son’s prized book collection hidden behind a clay tank he created and his Pop characters

Dyslexia. For most of my life, the word conjured in me a sense of doom. Like so many people, I imagined a dyslexic person would be sentenced to a life without reading, a life without higher education, a life being thought of as a dummy. I never imagined dyslexia would touch my life. And then I tried to teach my sons to read.

Joe struggled with simple character reversals, consistently transposing b and d and 2 and 5. He couldn’t say his alphabet, always leaving letters out, skipping from p to v. His first grade teacher gave him a failing grade in reading during the first trimester that year, and I could not figure out how a child in first grade who was learning to read could be failing at it. We later discovered Joe had ADHD and mild dyslexia. Luke’s reading issues were worse than Joe’s. Luke not only transposed letters but couldn’t seem to stop confusing entire words, like what and that and the and who. When we tried to get him to read to us, he had every excuse imaginable. When he hit third grade, he began falling behind and we had him tested. Luke was diagnosed with moderate to severe dyslexia. We were told he needed to be taught to read in an entirely different way from his classmates and would either need to enter an intensive reading program for three months, which meant taking him out of school for that period, or be moved to a remedial school. I was crushed.

At that point, we made the decision to put both boys into a private school for children with learning disabilities. There they received not only reading instruction delivered in a way that allowed them to catch up to their peers, but also individualized math lessons and time with occupational and speech therapists. They began to blossom. We all began to see their strengths more than their struggles and started feeling hopeful about their prospects despite their dyslexia.

People often speak of their heroes: brave soldiers, firefighters, police officers, and selfless volunteers. I have never believed heroism belonged solely to people who save other’s lives or make immense sacrifices. I choose to find heroism in those who face adversity and rise above. My sons are my heroes. They started out behind their peers and have been working to catch up since birth. They’ve never given up. They’ve never accepted less for themselves. They’ve figured out how to embrace their strengths while working to overcome their struggles. It’s been a gift watching them develop and grow and push beyond the limitations inherent in the way their brains are set up. They inspire me.

Luke reads every day in his free time. He is not a fast reader, but he soldiers on. He challenges himself. He never quits. In seventh grade, he got 100 pages into self-chosen Mein Kampf before deciding he might not be mature enough for it yet. Last year in eighth grade Honors literature, he read White Fang, 1984, Watership Down, Of Mice and Men, as well as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and in his spare time he also read the 650-page biography of Steve Jobs and The Man in the High Castle. This summer he chose to read Homer’s The Iliad and then followed it with The Odyssey. On his Christmas list is a rare book about World War II written in 1948 by a Jewish soldier in the British armyHis teacher this year assigned Bless Me, Ultima and then said she was hoping they could compare that to Like Water for Chocolate, which she hasn’t yet assigned but he has finished reading anyway. I have no idea how this is the same kid who fought us when we asked him to read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.

A few weeks ago Luke said something I have been turning over in my mind since. He said, “Dyslexia is not a reason not to read. It is a reason to read.” And that sums up Luke. He’s Han Solo who says, “Never tell me the odds” or John Locke from television’s Lost when he exclaims, “Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” I’ve thought a lot about his attitude, about taking what is difficult and turning it to your advantage, about being told who you are and proving them all wrong. As a child, it’s easy to take what you are told about yourself and believe it. I know I did. But I think it’s time I start looking at life through Luke-colored lenses. Maybe all the things I was told I can’t do should become all the things I have to do. By my side will be the child who has shown me what it means to believe in yourself, naysayers be damned.

F.I.P.

“I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often–because I’m paying attention.’ I tell them that we can choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved. We must decide.”     ~Glennon Doyle

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Splashy, aka Foggy Foo

On Tuesday night, minutes before we were scheduled to leave for our son’s high school Cross-Country Awards Banquet, I discovered our African dwarf frog belly up on the rocks at the bottom of his aquarium home. Although he (I decided years ago he was a he without any biological proof) hadn’t been acting himself for weeks and I had suspected this was coming, the knowledge he was gone left me with a frog-shaped hole in my heart where he had escaped like a cartoon character busting through a wall and leaving only his outline.

Nine years ago, as a heart bandaid after a life-scarring debacle in which my son and I unsuccessfully attempted to raise a tadpole into frogdom, I purchased from Brookstone (don’t ask) four fully grown aquatic frogs in small habitats. Each of my young sons would have two critters to care for. That was the plan, anyway. Although the boys named them, Padme and Anakin and Swimmy and Splashy, we all know how the story goes. I fed them. I cleaned their watery homes, bought their food, and looked for new plants for their decor. They were mine in all their froggy glory from the beginning because I had killed their tadpole and these were my mea culpa. Still, I told the boys that these frogs were temporary, short-lived pets and they needed to prepare themselves for that.

Padme, like her Star Wars character, was the first to perish that first year she moved in. About a year later, Swimmy and Anakin died within a few weeks of each other. I figured the last holdout wouldn’t last much longer on his own and I would be free of the stigma of the tadpole catastrophe and the work of the frog experiment. Splashy, who was now referred to by the unfortunate sobriquet Foggy Foo, however, continued to thrive. Research told me most most aquatic dwarf frogs lived less than five years in captivity. After six years, I began to suspect Foggy Foo was an anomaly.

Foggy and I worked out a marvelous relationship over the years. He recognized my voice and would emerge from his house when I called him. He did not do this for anyone else. He would swim to the top to eat when I fed him and had on occasion eaten from my hand. I would often pause during my day to check on him. I enjoyed watching him and listened for his muffled songs. We had a bond. He was my little guy. I loved him as much as any human can love an amphibian, although definitely not in the same way Sally Hawkins loves her amphibian in The Shape of Water.

My heart broke a little the night he left us. Although I compartmentalized the loss until after the awards banquet, when we got home I carefully lifted him via fish net from the bottom of the tank and brought him upstairs to the main floor commode. I gathered my men, gently deposited Foggy’s lifeless form into the bowl, and we said a few words about our deceased friend. Float in peace, we told him as I depressed the high-flow option on the toilet and flushed him with great flourish to his final resting place.

I won’t lie. I shed a few tears Tuesday night. And, since then, I’ve shed a few more. I am verklempt thinking about him now. The space on the counter he occupied for years is desolate, and I suspect the frog-shaped hole in my heart is there to stay. Perhaps it seems silly to mourn a tiny frog who existed on the periphery of our lives, but the smallest things can hold within them the deepest of life’s lessons. That frog was a link to the days when my boys were young, noisy whirlwinds who made our house reverberate with life. With Foggy’s passing, I can see that my little guys are also gone, replaced by hirsute young men with booming voices and earbuds that render me silent. Letting go of Foggy is an acknowledgment that soon my sons will leave Joe- and Luke-shaped holes in my heart as they also escape my world. It sucks and it’s worth a few tears.

I am working on the Buddhist notion of patient acceptance, knowing that the most important thing I can do for myself in this life is to welcome what is without wanting to change it. This is much easier said than done. Joe and I will begin touring colleges next week, and I have no idea how we got here. But life is messy and emotional and difficult, full of reasons to laugh and cry. So, I will float on and be in what is and cry when I need to and laugh when I can because I am paying attention. I will practice my patient acceptance so I too can float in peace someday.

 

Lessons in Epic Smackdowns

“I crashed down on the crossbar, and the pain was enough to make a shy, bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder.”  ~The Smiths

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Slimy Steps of Despair in Connecticut

A little over a month ago, my youngest sister called to let me know life had dealt her an epic smackdown. She was reeling. I was reeling along with her. And so I packed a bag just barely under the 50-pound limit, said goodbye to my husband and teenage sons, boarded a flight to Hartford, and settled into her home for an extended 5-week stay, presumably to offer comfort and make her life a smidgen easier.

A little over a week into my stay, however, the Universe decided one epic smackdown was not enough. On an unusually rainy day in the midst of an unusually rainy week, I grabbed Julie’s jumbo umbrella and headed out to collect a package UPS had left in the wet driveway. I walked out the back door and was descending the wooden steps from the back patio when my flip-flops betrayed me. With unbelievable flourish and zero panache, I caught serious air in a feels-like-slow-motion wipeout that would have won the day on America’s Funniest Home Videos if I had been unfortunate enough to be caught on camera. I landed butt-side down on the unforgiving edge of a step, one arm wrenching backwards and loosening the umbrella from my grasp, the other slamming onto the step beside me. From there, I proceeded to slide down three more stairs on my already tender tush because, well, I’m just that good.

I gave birth to two sons through induced labor. I suffered through seven years with gallstone pain before finally acquiescing to surgery. I had an emergency appendectomy. I am familiar with pain. When I at last came to a halt on those wicked stairs, the pain was exquisite enough to take my breath away. I began to sob a pathetic whimpering cry reminiscent of The Man in Black after Count Rugen ratchets his torture device up in The Princess Bride. I sat for a couple minutes while my tears disappeared in the soaking rain and tried to determine if I dared to move. I wasn’t sure if I had broken anything. I was afraid if I shifted in any way I would feel worse.

A couple hours afterward, already sporting impressive swelling and dark bruising, I found myself lightheaded, nauseous, and experiencing cold sweats. I had my sister drive me to Urgent Care. After examining me, the PA told me I had only a severe bruise and significant hematoma. The fainting spells were likely vasovagal syncope responses to the trauma. The numbness I felt in my hands was due to swelling and the whiplash I sustained in the fall. All of this was good news. I simply had a severe minor injury, which was still nothing more than a minor injury. Sure, I blacked out again during the car ride home, sending my sister into a near panic, and later I had to crawl up the stairs to bed after another fainting episode, but it could have been much worse. I lucked out.

I’ve had a plethora of time resting my backside on ice and heat since then to reflect on my mishap. I keep coming back to the first Buddhist Noble Truth. In each life, sickness, loss, and death occur. They are inevitable. The Universe, God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, insert your higher power here, doesn’t play favorites. The human condition is the great equalizer. No matter who you are, no matter what type of life you lead, you will suffer. I arrived in Connecticut on my high horse, prepared to sweep in, full of sunshine and light, to help my sister deal with the unwelcome unexpected. I ended up on my sorry ass at Urgent Care with my own unwelcome unexpected.

It’s not what happens to us but how we handle what happens to us that matters. I can’t avoid suffering, but I can reframe it and refuse to let it define me. Two weeks have passed since my digger on the stairs. I am still bruised. I have what appears to be a permanent dent in my hindquarters. It doesn’t matter. It’s part of my experience. It’s not what I envisioned, but any time I spend railing against what is wastes my time here.

Epic smackdowns are growth opportunities. They are an elbowing nudge from the Universe imploring us to open our eyes. I’m awake now.

 

My Wandering Heart

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India photo op 

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”   ~Elizabeth Stone

Right now, if the above saying is true, my heart is walking around India. On Saturday, we drove our oldest to the airport at 7:30 a.m. so he could board a flight to Asia with fifteen classmates and three of their high school teachers. We had spent the better part of two weeks making sure he was geared up for this trip, both mentally, physically, and personally. We bought him the requisite power adapter and made sure he had adequate, quick drying clothing along with several sticks of deodorant we knew he would need in the 100 degree summer-in-India weather. Oddly, both my husband and I were calm and collected as we said our goodbyes to Joe and left him at the airport to embark on a 24-hour travel day, including a 15 hour flight from Newark to Mumbai, without us. There were no tears or histrionics, not even in the car on the ride home. I’m not sure how we pulled it off.

The decision to let your child travel without you is a leap of faith. Like a child learning to ride a bicycle, we began with training wheels. First, we sent Joe to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to do some service work for five days during his freshman year. Last summer, we left him for a week at summer camp at the foot of Long’s Peak. This past March, Joe went to Grand Cayman to earn his scuba certification. Each time we let him go, he returned a little braver, stronger, and more self-possessed. Each time he left, we grew a little more resigned to the reality that he really is growing up.

Each time Joe has gone away, he has done so without a phone. For the trip to India, we were given the option to get him a cellular plan or let him take his iPad and use hotel Wifi to reach out when he could. For us, it was a no brainer. We weren’t sending him halfway around the world so he could ride in a van creating bunny-eared Snapchat photos as India teemed with life around him. He was traveling with responsible people who would be updating us and who had cell phones. He didn’t need his. He would experience more without it.

It never occurred to me that not letting him take his phone might seem foolish. It wasn’t until I was met with incredulity from other parents regarding my son’s phone-less status that it even crossed my mind that our actions might be beyond the pale. How could I let my son go halfway around the world without a way for me to check in on him? What if he needed me and was unable to get a Wifi signal? What if there was an emergency? I don’t let my son walk 1.5 miles to Target without his cell phone. What the hell was I thinking sending him to ASIA without one? I questioned my sanity.

Then while talking to another mom with a child on the trip, she showed me the app she uses to track her son’s whereabouts. She showed me exactly where our kids were at that moment, in their hotel, near a hospital in Mumbai. That was when I remembered why we sent him without a phone. As uncomfortable as it may be for a mother’s heart, this is Joe’s experience. He deserves the room to have it his own way without constant input and monitoring. If something comes up, he can be trusted to to figure it out. What he needs is the freedom to experience India and Sri Lanka without my two-cents.

Right now, it’s 1:35 a.m. in Mumbai, and my second heart is probably sleeping, exhausted after a day touring the slums of Dharavi and viewing that world through its first-world, teenage boy filter. My second heart, the one I grew over nine months and delivered into the world seventeen years ago, is having an 18-day adventure in life in southern Asia. It’s feeling and stretching and evolving. It’s not simply going through the motions and it’s not staring at its phone. It’s living in the moment unencumbered by its usual reality. That is worth a little sacrifice and emotional malaise on my part, being out of instant touch with my boy, one of my favorite people on this planet.

I won’t feel whole again until my heart is back with me. When it gets here, though, it’s going to be fuller than it has ever been. And the experience it has had will be a gift to me, not only because Joe will have grown in ways he never could have without this solo journey but because this time apart has given me an appreciation for what an open, curious, resilient person we’ve raised. He’s a rockstar, far braver than I was when I was his age.

Someday maybe Joe will give life to his own second heart and let it wander the world, adventuring without him, and he too will stretch and grow in ways he never imagined possible when he had only one heart.

Run Your Race

“I am better than I was yesterday but not as good as I’ll be tomorrow.”  ~Anonymous

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This kid 

Our oldest is coming to the end of his second track season. When he chose this sport last year (after I convinced him that coed track would allow him to spend more time with girls in shorts than boy’s baseball would), we were track virgins. We knew nothing about the sport save that the kids ran in circles and some jumped hurdles and some leapt into sand pits. As the season progressed, we began to understand the events, the lingo, and the skills necessary to be competitive in the sport. We learned that track is a race against yourself even as you race with others. The whole thing fascinated me. By the time this spring rolled around, we were honestly excited to drive an hour to sit for five hours to watch Joe run for no more than 7 minutes total. It’s official. We’re veteran track parents now.

Joe is a daddy long legs. The kid is 5’8″ tall with a 34″ inseam. His coach usually puts him in relays, as well as the 400 meter (once around the track) and the 800 meter. The 800 meter is considered the most difficult race because, unlike longer races, you don’t have time to pace yourself. You need to give it your all for both laps. It looks miserable. I don’t know how he does it, but he does.

Last week he told us that his goal for this season is to run the 400 meter in under a minute. He’s finished a few seconds off that mark a couple times now. This past weekend, I watched anxiously as he tried to break that minute goal. He almost always starts at the back of the pack and, bit by bit, as the other kids run out of steam Joe turns it on. He’s very incremental about it. He looks at the guy ahead of him and challenges himself to get ahead of just that one. Once that is done, he sets his sights on the next kid and so on. As he started down the last straightaway in the 400 last weekend, I noticed he kept looking around him, making sure no one was coming from behind. He finished well, with his new personal best time in the event, but still off his mark by .84. Less than one second now separates him from his season goal.

That night Steve and I told him that his goal is completely achievable at this next meet. Steve suggested wearing his cleats instead of traditional running shoes to shave off that final second. I told him to stop checking out the runners behind him, focus on his own lane, and keep his eyes on the finish line. That bad habit is slowing him down. There is no time for paying attention to others. Stop doing it and you will reach your goal. As the words rolled off my tongue, it occurred to me I should take my own damn advice.

The phrase you hear around the track is “Run your race” with the emphasis on your. And this is what I told Joe after he missed his goal by that fraction of a second. I have been repeating it to myself for days now. We all do what Joe does. We look around and make comparisons. We slow ourselves down by worrying about what someone else is doing or thinking or saying. And all it does is ruin our momentum and peace of mind.

Life is basically a giant track meet. What we have in common is that we’re all signed up to run. That is it. We come to the race with our different skills and baggage and attitudes and strengths. How we handle ourselves, how far, how focused, and how efficiently we go is up to us. We sabotage our own progress when we spend too much time worrying about what others are doing or looking back rather than focusing on the road ahead of us. Oh, the amount of time I have squandered perseverating over what others were doing or had done in comparison with my own efforts before I recently realized none of that matters. I could not have run anyone else’s race just as no one else is as uniquely qualified to run mine as I am.

Run your race, people. I wish you luck. Just stay out of my lane. I’ve got a personal record to beat tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that.

 

 

Roll With It

Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.  ~Pema Chodron

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Sunrise on Haleakala with a couple hundred of strangers

Yesterday, I dropped my wedding band on the wood floor in our bedroom and I did something out of character. I stood there while it rolled away. In the past I would have gasped and dove for it like a bridesmaid lunging for the coveted tossed bridal bouquet. Don’t get me wrong. The impulse to drop to all fours and chase it was there. I simply didn’t act on it. There was reason to dive for it. There are formidable dust rabbits under our bed, which might have swallowed the ring whole. It could have rolled all the way to the back wall, and I would have had to face claustrophobia to extract it. It might even have traveled to a place out of sight from whence I might not be able find it for a while. Still, I stood there peacefully and did nothing. It was refreshingly bizarre.

I love that ring. Steve and I bought new wedding bands a couple years back when we were in Maui with the kids. We didn’t exchange matching bands at our wedding 22 years ago because I was young and thought I needed diamond rings. (Turns out I was wrong as my diamonds now live in boxes in drawers.) We first saw the Koa wood rings in Kauai years before. We fell in love with their sleek, earthy look and with the notion of perpetually having a piece of Hawaii with us, but we weren’t ready to commit the cash. While walking through a shopping area in Wailea in search of an iced, macadamia nut latte, though, Luke dragged us inside a fancy jewelry store to gaze at a model of an 18th century schooner. As we were on our way out of the store, we walked past a case holding the rings. This time we took them home.

I listened as the ring hit the floor and began its travels, but I didn’t turn around to watch it slip away. I heard it careen under the bed and keep rolling. Then something crazy happened. Instead of following the straight course I expected, it took a different trajectory and circled around and landed right next to where I was standing. It had gone under the bed but returned. When I heard the rolling cease, I found it two inches from my shoe. I hadn’t had to do a thing to save it. I just had to trust that it would work out fine.

This is a sublime metaphor for my life right now. Trust is not something I’ve been particularly strong at. I’ve been working to change that, to head away from being overwrought, reactionary, and high-strung. I grew up in constant fear of letting things get out of control and roll into the unknown. I was guarded and hyper vigilant and afraid of my own shadow. I couldn’t bear the uncertain, so I built walls to protect myself from it. That behavior served me when I needed it, but it also came at a cost as I passed on opportunities that might have led to adventure, fun, and potential future success and happiness. By remaining so paralyzed with the fear that I couldn’t handle the outcome of whatever might occur, I never allowed myself the opportunity to discover that perhaps the universe might, in its own inimitable way, lead me somewhere better that I had no idea existed.

I’ve grown since then. I have more faith in myself and others now. I have more faith in life and its process. I’m learning that by relaxing a little sometimes marvelous surprises arise. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything. You can ride it out and see where you land. The times I’ve escaped my comfort zone and given in to the unpredictable are some of the most precious memories I have. I’m happier and more powerful because of those experiences.

Koa wood, which is particularly strong and resilient, represents courage, boldness, and fearlessness. Literally translated, koa means warrior. I didn’t know that when we bought the rings, but it makes sense now that this is the ring I was meant to wear. I may not have been brave enough to go against the grain and choose something like it in my 20s, but I am not the same person now.  I am slowly leaving my past behind and becoming the warrior I was meant to be. And, like my ring when it hit the floor, I’m going to keep on rolling fearlessly and see where I land. I suspect it will be right where I need to be.

 

The Great Reframe

The truth is that you already are what you are seeking.  ~Adyashanti

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My husband took this photo because he liked the shadow of one building on another. He was, however, vexed by the reflection of the lights from his office in the photo until I told him those reflections form artificial clouds. I think they’re perfect. It’s all about shifting your perspective. 

People are prodigious purveyors of the best advice, which they themselves never follow. I have a gift for envisioning paths and solutions for others. When it comes to my own life, however, I have difficulty zooming out far enough to formulate a plan. I am so hyper focused on the micro that I don’t even recognize there is a macro point from which to view the entire dilemma. My successes have been achieved through a series of fits and starts over years of time spent haphazardly careening in the general direction of something in which I had interest. Then, when I finally reach a goal in this meandering and sloppy way, I complain about how much time I wasted getting there. Eye roll.

Negative thought is the constant rabbit in my garden, nibbling the buds of potential while I struggle to pull up weeds. And the curse of negativity is that it works the same way as positivity. What you focus on expands. So if I focus on the rabbit (as I’ve been trained to do) as it wends its way through the sprouts I’ve been striving to cultivate, more rabbits materialize. Cute, furry, reproductive little bastards they are. And when I become obsessed with their presence, they take over completely and I am left standing there on barren ground, wondering what the hell happened. There have been periods of my life when I’ve battled against negativity akin to the Rabbit of Caerbannog.

It has gone this way for me for a long time. Only recently have I gained enough ground to make progress against the rabbits. I’ve learned to notice them increasing in number and then plant some marigolds and install chicken-wire screens to dissuade them. I recently added a border collie to shoo the most stalwart rabbits away. Sometimes the border collie snoozes and a couple sneak in, but when she finally gets after them she pursues them with a renewed fervor that makes them far more cautious and less attracted to the garden. And, in this way, the potential that was always there for me is beginning to flourish. It’s Secret Garden-level brilliant too.

I spent a lot of time cursing the rabbits in my garden. It never helped. The more I railed against them, the more damage they inflicted. But when I shifted my frame of reference away from them and onto the potential I wanted to nurture and protect, I began to make headway where it most mattered to me. Instead of wasting time complaining and being fearful of stunted growth, I moved the frame away and onto protecting what mattered. I began to find solutions. When I stopped fighting against the negativity and started fighting for my growth and my dreams, my life changed. Fighting for wields more power than fighting against ever will.

There will always be rabbits. They will creep back into the yard. It’s inevitable. But I’m learning look at them differently, to take my large portrait frame, step back and shift it in a way that I see how a long-eared, fluffy bunny hopping around a safely protected, well-tended garden is not a problem at all. It’s a representation of life in balance.

Where can you move your frame so it holds the most positive, life-affirming tableau you can imagine, the one that will feed your soul?