Monday, October 28, 2013

Things were unraveling. Or maybe I just felt like I was coming undone. Our daughter had been diagnosed with a learning disability. Our young son with autism was struggling to simply remain in a classroom, and I was flooded with daily phone calls from his various therapists and educators, all trying to arrive at solutions. For a time, he had stopped speaking at all, choosing instead to type his every request. If anyone insisted he speak, he would hit them. He had been removed from his after school program, making it impossible for my husband and I to work past two in the afternoon…making it hard to pay all those therapists and private tutors tasked with helping him. (Never mind the bitterness from my business partner, who was tiring of the situation, as well.)  And then the worry, the burden of wondering if he would always struggle and us, too, vicariously…

My husband and I were turning on one another under the mounting stress. At first, it was simply the tired snapping of two people, lost in a sea of problems. And then, soon, the million little jabs of resentments had bloomed in to the brand of silent seething that might threaten an otherwise good marriage. Do you have to cut the bread like that and Why can’t you change the light bulb and Couldn’t you read the bedtime story were criticisms lobbed so gracefully that the other party could hardly object, though both my husband and I knew the words were pregnant with hostilities unspoken.

It was in the middle of all this that I boarded a plane to Seattle. I had a speaking engagement, and had decided to meet an old friend while I was in town. My schedule was tight, as always, and I was giving consideration to cancelling until I realized how much I needed to have some time to share the deepest parts of my life.

And that, really, is what this particular friendship has been about…it’s about that place where the soul can stand naked, sheltered from exasperation or recrimination, and know that it will be received with unconditional acceptance. Our friendship is the home where I can be my true self.

My husband, of course, is my best friend. He’s my cheering section and my partner and my source of love in the world. But marriage requires the kind of work that friendships do not and, of course, in marriage we are exposed in a different context. In marriage, we cannot strip ourselves bare and open the doors to the basements of our thoughts and fears because those things, those recesses of us, have repercussions for the partnership. Friendship requires no such negotiation.

And so, I found myself sitting outside a café with the mist of Puget Sound dampening a paper cup filled with hot coffee, at my absolute neediest, and with my dear friend at my side.

We met years earlier, having been paired for work. He was an enthusiastic talker, animated and gregarious. I liked him straight away, even after he reached over and grabbed my thigh in the middle of a discussion about racing bikes and becoming faster. His intent, however, was not the least bit subject to question as he quickly moved on without so much as a glance in my direction, saying, “You look like a Schleck brother with a bit of muscle.” And quickly, to the next topic.

He found humor the morning that I called him after I got lost on what was supposed to be a short run, and ended up being well over 13 miles of aimless jogging. To this day, he references with laughter my poor sense of direction and inability to read a map. Also a diabetic, he encouraged me to tighten my already “tight” control over my blood sugar, and then showed me how. He was forgiving on the occasion of my two in the morning rant, months earlier, when I sent him what he later called “the longest text message in the history of the cell phone” as I found myself panicked about the future and unable to sleep. He has counseled me through the hardest days of raising my children…at all hours of my life, when I have needed him most.

Despite living thousands of miles away from one another, it’s possible to transcend the limits of skin in a friendship. It’s the kind of relationship that has taken me out of the boxes I have made for myself, and burned them up. This kind of friendship is not a frivolous connection, a supplementary relationship to the ones we’re taught and told are primary – spouses, children, parents. It is bread for living.

And so, we sat together and talked. But it was less about talking, and more about being. Being as opposed to Doing. Sure, we spoke about all the things we do - in our jobs, our other relationships, our spiritual, athletic, medical, familial doings. But the experiential, life-giving juice that feeds our soul and binds us together over the years and takes us to ever deeper dimensions is the conversation we have when we are just present for one another.

He had made reservations at a nice vegan restaurant on the other side of Seattle, but I found myself in love with Pike Street. I needed to be in a place where things seemed alive, where there was the movement of feet and the salt off the water, the smell of flowers in the market and the glassy eyes of fresh fish laid out for sale. The vibrancy of the marketplace seemed to lighten the burdens I had carried with me down the bricked streets and to the edge of the water.

You won’t find a lot of vegan fare here, he said. And then, smiling, I replied that I knew…that maybe I would order a giant plate of fish, instead. We both began laughing, as he took me by the arm to a restaurant where we ordered a huge plate of mussels, drowned in a seafood broth, and then salmon and whitefish. We ate and talked for a long time with the ease and openness of old friends. For as much as he talks, he is always fully present. He is acutely open to my true self, and he is with me always in the moment. And as we left, as we walked through the busy streets, as he handed me a tart Washington apple and as we stared at freshly baked bread, I found myself grinning so hard that it hurt.  In the oasis of our friendship, I found myself renewed. For the first time in months, my heart and mind felt light.

Support, salvation, transformation, life. In the worst moments of my mind, my friendships have moved me from the surface of this life to the meaning of it. We help one another live. Standing naked before another, knowing that acceptance will trump exasperation. As we hugged goodbye, I was reminded of how lucky I am to own this life. I walked through the door of my house a happier, more generous version of myself.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why didn’t you sign me up? Why didn’t I get to go to gymnastics like Midori?
Deep breath.

I had enrolled my five year old daughter in a Thursday night tumbling class because she really wanted to own a leotard - a sparkly red and black leotard with a giant gold star on it, to be specific. I figured it would be a good opportunity for her to wear tight and tacky clothes and roll around gracelessly. Turns out, I was right. What I had not foreseen was that her older brother, Henry, would think it looked like a boatload of fun. Or maybe it looked more fun precisely because he was excluded. Either way, as we sat in the viewing room above the gymnastics studio with a group of parents observing their children somersault and swing and jump and kick, Henry became increasingly upset.

How am I going to explain this to him? How can I tell him that this would never work? That he can’t participate?
Henry’s done a lot of organized sports, and with a good deal of success. He is an accomplished runner and has enjoyed soccer and basketball, too. But gymnastics is different. It’s pretty much incompatible with everything autism. In fact, when Henry was a toddler, we tried to take him to a parent-child gymnastics class, only to find him unwilling to participate, seated in a corner with his hands over his ears, rocking and screaming to himself. Not a resounding success.
The room is loud and echoes. The fluorescent lights flicker incessantly. There is a large group of children with only one adult to supervise. The tots have to hear instructions and follow directions. Things are often done one at a time, so there can be a lot of waiting around, patiently. It’s all about imitating the actions of another person.  The activities require fine motor skills. And, most importantly, I would be seated in the viewing room since parents are not allowed on the floor. Henry wouldn’t have the benefit of intervention from someone who knows and understands autism, someone who can provide the sort of gentle direction and redirection he often requires.
I had a million reservations. I was going over the list in my head: All the reasons Henry would find this frustrating, all the reasons it would fail. I imagined the instructor pulling me aside after the first class, and telling me that she would issue me a refund for the rest of the term. And then, I looked at Henry who had tears welling up in his eyes as he emphatically stated that he wanted to be with the other kids and do what they do.
Love is not tied to performance or accomplishment. I love my son not in spite of his incessant, repetitive questions or his tics and tantrums…I love him just because. Just because I choose to fill my heart with an ineffable, unstoppable and totally undeniable love that persists and sustains no matter what he does. That’s not to say that I don’t celebrate when he is successful. When he does something generous or wonderful, my heart swells with pride. When he struggles to write his name or screams uncontrollably for an hour, I can feel depressed and overwhelmed. But I am learning about a love that is bigger than all that.  
So, setting aside all my reservations and every expectation, I registered him for the next session.
Yesterday, after school, he ran home, dropped his book bag at the door and got dressed. His gym shorts were on backwards, his t-shirt inside out. Henry is ready for gymnastics!
Walking to the studio, with Henry’s hand clasped tightly around my own fingers and the sound of his familiar humming surrounding my ears, my previous reservations faded away. I learned long ago that Henry’s behaviors were not pathological, but purposeful. He hums to recalibrate and feel a sense of safety in himself. It’s actually kind of peaceful.
And that, really, has been my lesson to learn as Henry’s mother. When people do things that I find odd, I often judge or distance from them. But what if I were to consider that there might be reasons behind their behavior? How would my relationship to the world change if I spent less time judging what I don't understand, and more time building connection?
And so, in the spirit of suspending expectation, I dropped off my son at the door, and went to watch from the seats in the observation room. The instructor examined Henry’s attire, watched him spin a few times in the line of children, and nodded politely in my direction.
For the next hour, my son tried his best. When the other children crab-walked across the floor, he crawled in an attempt to emulate them as best he could. When they did a series of high kicks, he jumped up and down, with gleeful, erratic motions. When they bent down to touch their toes, he fell over, got back up, and tried again.
He sometimes ran about when he was not supposed to be moving. He preferred to simply hop on the trampoline than to attempt any of the tricks. Once, he ran out of the room to examine the brickwork on the wall outside. He often spun and flapped his arms and, through the sound proof walls of the observation room, I could see his lips purse in a constant, low hum. The other parents in the observation deck had their eyes trained on me, clearly wondering what was different about my son. Some had a look of obvious annoyance, others were merely inquisitive. I long ago shed my inhibitions, and I was proud of him for trying, proud when I watched him boldly walk the length of the thin balance beam, proud that he persisted. Henry was smiling. He was having fun.
When the class ended, I went to collect Henry from the waiting area.
How’d he do?
The teacher grinned. She looked at my son, smiling and clapping his hands over and over again.
He was brilliant. No one had more fun today than Henry. I hope he will be back next week!
Every day, I am participating in the miracle of my son. Lucky me.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I spend a lot of my life looking at pavement. Even when I’m in the car, I am staring at the asphalt ahead of me, the rises and descents, and I am thinking about riding that stretch of road. I can feel my wheels on the tarmac, the air around me and the beat of my heart competing with gasps and exhales as I am carried over steep pitches and along flat, smooth stretches. The feeling of weightlessness that accompanies speed holds me in a relentless grip, even when I know that the ride will be hard or painful.
The bike is an intoxicating blend of liberty and doom. The paved road is the closest we will ever come to flying. Dust and mud kick up around us, covering our tongue and teeth. I’ve taken more than a few sips from the lip of a water bottle, only to be left with the grittiness of earth mingled alongside a gulp of liquid. It’s as if we taste the road on which we are traveling.
This week represents my transition to what is sometimes known as the “off-season,” but is really more about the collision between shorter days and cooler temperatures.  In Colorado, it means the hypnotic dripping of rain, the warmth of early afternoon rides giving way to arms and legs dotted with goosebumps and flesh cold to the touch by dusk, the smell of dried pine needles and the end of ambition. It’s when I ride my bike for the simple sake of sensations, and not to be better or faster or stronger. This is the time of year when I grateful to simply ride at all as opposed to being resentful and disappointed if I failed to sneak in an effort.  

This is the time I remind myself of the simple pleasure of riding a bike.

Before long, I will be back to worrying about the pains of intense efforts, the strength in my legs, the weight I carry uphill. I actually look forward to that shift toward fitness, too, with the palpable rewards of progress, measurable improvements, and the momentum of incremental advances toward my goals. That process is as much about attaining objectives as it is about the evolution of the rider.  But in the science of cycling and the work of getting ready to race, there is the opportunity cost of true hedonism.
So, for the next couple of months, I will take a break from clawing my way forward. Instead, I’ll plan mid-day rides with good friends, take a few moments to smell damp earth and feel the flushes of wind and sun alternating through time, and enjoy the ride.