Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Life is really just a collection of disjointed moments. They leave us as quickly as they arrive. Sometimes, those moments depart as fast as we can blink. Other moments seem to stretch into eternity. 

My son is without inhibitions. He has never understood embarrassment or shame. Because he has autism, he simply acts and reacts to the moments of this life in a manner that is both authentic and fearless. I have often admired the way he can so generously embrace each instant without the limitations of the world above and below and all around. 

The rest of us are here, tangled in this earth. It can be a hard place to live.

I went to the store this morning. I needed only a few things…a quick trip. So, I took Henry and Midori along. 

Both love the market. They love the rows of exotic fruits, the shiny fish laid out on icy slabs, the smell of bread as it is pulled from the caverns of the ovens. They love the way their shoes clack on the tile floors and they love the tiny carts for children, with the wheels spinning as they graze the concrete sidewalks. 

Recently, however, the market has become a minefield for Henry. Autism comes with heightened anxiety, and the most recent source of distress for our son is the empty bins in the bulk section of the store.

On some level, I understand his discomfort with emptiness: Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to and takes nothing away from the raw data of physical and mental events. It’s senselessness. It’s without a story, a place, a presence. Nothing.

It’s hard to understand the extent to which a vacant barrel that once held tiny grains of amaranth or brown rice can incite panic in my son. His distress is so extreme that my husband has simply refused to take Henry to the market. Henry will, upon seeing the emptiness, fling himself to the floor. He will kick and shriek, tears streaming down his face and his hands balled in angry fists. He will beg and implore anyone around him to fill the bin. Fill it with anything.

And so, this morning, I did everything I could do to distract Henry from the large oak barrels. I held his soft, small hands and guided him through the aisles. I talked to him and laughed with him and asked him about his plans for the day. I was no longer navigating the store, but the labyrinth of Henry’s fears. It would, of course, be easier to simply leave him at home with his father, but I understand that Henry has to be in the world, even if it is not fully in him.

And then, he tore away from me. He spotted a container that once held little beads of barley, and now contained nothing more than the fine dust of grain.

Immediately, Henry dissolved in tears. And then to rage. He was banging his hands on the floor, screaming, “It’s empty, Mom! It’s EMPTY!” 

I bent down gently, holding his head in my hands. “Yes. It is empty. I see that, too. It has to be empty, Henry, so that it might be filled again. That’s how it works.” 

His eyes met mine for an instant. He considered the idea that emptiness might not be futile and pointless. It might, in fact, be the center to which we all return. He wanted to find a way out of the moment. 

So did I. I sat there on the cold cement, with my son in terror and the world staring at me…baffled. In moments like this, with judgment all around, I come back to myself. I am reminded of how strong women are in order to do the work of raising children. I am reminded that love is a store full of strangers looking at you with absolute disdain as you cradle the fears of your boy because, in that moment, my only obligation is to him. I can endure the world if it means making meaning of emptiness. 

For Henry? The world doesn’t really exist at all. Emptiness is the great undifferentiated ground of being from which we all came to which someday we'll all return. It’s the space where we let go of our assumptions and our suffering, our views and our stories and all the things we suppose. And when you come right down to it, that's the emptiness that really counts.

Raising Henry has often meant erasing my own expectations and inhibitions. It has taught me how little I need of the world around me, how firmly planted I am in the hearts of my children. It has made me a stronger, more graceful woman. 

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