Wednesday, October 8, 2014

22,577,760 Minutes

My father-in-law has often expressed that he doesn’t “feel” his age. By that, he means that even though he is well into his seventies, he doesn’t feel any different than he did when he was twenty-six. So much so that it is sometimes a surprise to see himself in the mirror and recognize that he is not, in fact, twenty-six any longer. I understand this. I am not, as a general rule, aware of my age.

But there are moments in which I feel every minute of my nearly forty-three years.

It happened yesterday afternoon as I was going to pick up my son from school. He had been suspended again. For the first time this year, but not for the first time. The back-to-school honeymoon was over. The push-back, normalcy, had begun.

As I drove through the mottled autumn sunshine, crisp, brown leaves intermittently sailing across the road, I felt, acutely, my age. My motherhood. The weight of having a child with Asperger Syndrome. The almost crushing sense of responsibility and painful now-ness of dealing with the issue at hand.

Spiritually, I am always striving to “be present in the moment.” And yet some moments, like that in which I felt the collective burden of all of my 15,679 days, I would like to have over with as quickly as possible.

My iPod was playing a track from “No Jacket Required,” which sounded as pristine through my car stereo as it did when it was released in 1985. When I was thirteen.  But all the gorgeous imperfect perfection of Phil Collins’ voice from thirty years ago couldn’t transport me out of my presence. The middle school came inexorably closer as I slid along the winding, tree-lined road, not even dreading. Just being. Heavily.

I am not someone who spends energy morbidly reflecting on my age, the passage of time, mortality, or any of the rest of it. But in that moment of awareness yesterday, I recognized that I will never again be thirteen. I will always be the mother of a special needs child. Even when he is an adult. I don’t know what will happen to him in the future. And when I start to think about his future, I am quickly choked with panic bordering on despair so I have to stop. Not out of denial. Out of practicality. I’m of no use to my son when I am operating from a place of fear.

Today, I am 42.93 years old. I don’t feel them right now. I just feel like a mom who fiercely loves her son, and is willing to do whatever it takes to help him be successful and happy in life, whatever that may look like for him.  I am enjoying the gently scudding clouds in the blue sky outside my window, the cool autumn temperatures and vibrant color, my hot coffee and warm apple slices. I am grateful to have had time and energy to talk with my son’s clinic nurse, and his strong, supportive school staff as we all collaborate to meet his needs.

I am content to be present in this moment.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?

I saw the movie Frozen the other day and quite enjoyed it.  (The title of this blog entry is the name of a song from the movie.One of the messages of the story is that a life lived in fear is a life half-lived.  In order to be free, to live the life you were meant to live, you have to be open and honest about your fears, your secrets. You have to be vulnerable. 

Vulnerability was also the topic at the last Adult Forum at my church.  The class watched a TED talk by Brene Brown in which she talked about how people who were honest about and accepting of their vulnerability were happier and healthier.

This double message has inspired me to share the truth of my own fear. I hadn’t been able to put words to it until this morning when I heard myself say to a friend, “I have been afraid I am losing my son to his Autism.”

Gavin has always been a light in my life.  He was an easy birth, an easy baby.  Even as his behavioral difficulties began to manifest and often brought me to tears of frustration, his enormous heart, infectious laugh and joy of living far outweighed the challenges.  We recognized his atypical behavior early, even though we did not get an Asperger’s diagnosis for several years, and he had amazing support from the school district from the very beginning. He had friends and was academically successful. There were good years and bad years, leaps forward and frustrating setbacks. But he always remained Gavin, at least at home. Sweet and funny and full of life.

The transition to seventh grade has been a train wreck. We had no indication from his general performance in elementary school that he would tank so completely.  We had to pull him from the school we preferred and put him back in the local district.  He is now in a Level III setting—small group, contained classroom; the least “mainstreamed.”  I have no idea how he is doing academically, and I don’t really care at this point: each day the phone doesn’t ring is a victory.  I think he is settling in nicely, at last.  I love his case manager/primary teacher, and the district has, once again, deeply impressed me with their commitment to him.  I am trying not to kick myself for trying to move him this past fall in the first place.

But even as things have been going reasonably well the past few weeks, I have been worried.  Gavin hasn’t eaten much.  Hasn’t smiled much.  Won’t talk to me.  As it is, he spends the majority of his free time on technology: it’s calming and it’s what he enjoys.  But I have been feeling like he might be dealing with some depression, yet I can’t get any communication from him.  Don’t get me wrong: he’s never been chatty about difficult things. But he’s always been able to talk to me.

I have been afraid I am losing him to his Autism.

Then yesterday, as I was waking up from a nap, I heard the garage door open.  Gavin was home from school.  I waited to hear him come up the stairs, grab a snack and come into the bedroom to use the computer.  Nothing.  Some thumping downstairs and then a door slamming.  I waited, figuring he was stopping off in his room for something or other.  But the minutes stretched out and, still, I didn’t hear him.

At length, I pushed myself up and stumbled into the kitchen for my own afternoon snack.  I let my fears whisper in my ear.  He’s in his room, depressed, non-functional.  He’s left the house and won’t come back—nah. He’d miss the computer.  Reality kept the fears at bay.

Then another slam.  Some more thumping and rustling.  And finally Gavin came up the stairs.  His hair was a mess, his eyes bright, his cheeks red, and he was wearing a huge grin.  “Mama, guess what I did?” he asked cheerfully.


“I built a snowman!  I saw how the snow was and I said to myself, ‘it’s not gonna be this perfect again.’  So I got on my snow pants and boots and went out and built a snowman. It had to be done.”

My heart swelled with relief. My sweet, funny, joyful kid was still in there.

I recently started a support group for parents of kids with Asperger’s through a Yahoo! group called “Eden Prairie Special Kids.”  Our first meeting had eight moms in attendance, whose kids range in age from 5th grade through college. It was amazing just to sit and listen to the stories. To be authentic and vulnerable.  To know I am not alone.  We will meet monthly and hopefully, we will be able to help one another accept what is, access resources, and share in the little joys like snowmen.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Reflections on Sewing

I just got back from a three-day personal retreat, the bulk of which I spent sewing.  I love to sew, but it’s something I don’t allow myself much time to do.  As I spent hours accompanied only by beautiful fabric, good music, and the cheerful whirring of my faithful sewing machine, I had room to contemplate. And, in fact, thoughts and ideas sprang to mind without effort, illuminating the spiritual underpinnings of the very methodical, physical activities of my hands.  

Ironing and Meditation
The first project was a duvet cover I had been planning for well over a year.  The concept was simple.  Two king-sized bed sheets and a gorgeous Celtic-patterned bedspread I’d found on  I had washed all the pieces and ironed the bedspread, but had thrown the sheets into my luggage fresh out of the dryer in the interest of time.  Now, laying everything out on the floor in order to measure it, I was faced with the decision of whether or not to iron the bed sheets.  They seemed okay when stretched out.  A little wrinkly, but not bad.  I was chomping at the bit to get going and for a moment, I contemplated skipping this first step.  But I caught myself and thought, “If you want this to turn out—and you’re still not entirely sure it will anyway—you need to do it right.  Iron the sheets.”

Grumbling and eye-rolling, I set out the board and turned on the iron, dreading the prospect of having to take the time.  King-sized sheets are enormous, and it’s a bear to try to get them uniformly flat on an eighteen-inch-wide, three-foot-long board.  I set to, section by section, trying not to sigh as I lifted and readjusted the sheet every couple minutes.  But as I went, I began to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the wrinkles disappear, feeling the warmth of the cloth under my hands, knowing that this was the right decision, and that the final product would be of much higher quality.  “This is meditation,” I thought.  “What?!?” I thought back at myself.  “No, seriously,” I thought. “First of all, the simple, repetitive action is certainly meditative, and frees the mind for thought.  But it’s more than that.  It’s the basis of everything. The beginning. The foundation.  If I take the time to stop and smooth out all the wrinkles, to create the optimum raw material, the blank slate, my outcome, no matter what it is, will be that much better.  It will come from a purer place.”  “Wow,” I chuckled, as much at the fact that I was having this silent conversation as anything else, “that’s deep.”

But it’s true.  Is it a coincidence that I’m working through Step Eleven in my recovery program at the moment? “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God.” I hate meditating.  Well, hate is an awfully strong word.  Let’s say I’m resistant to it.  The same way I’m resistant to exercise.  I know it’s good for me, but I don’t want to take the time.  My mind is too busy.  I can’t even iron a sheet without philosophizing, for crying out loud.  How am I going to sit still for minutes (or, realistically, seconds) without mentally running off in all kinds of directions?  The prospect causes me anxiety.  But here I was, ironing for a long time, and after a while, I was enjoying it.  And the results were entirely worth it.  Is the duvet cover perfect? Well, more on perfection later. But it turned out as well, if not better than I’d hoped.  Isn’t that what I want for my life?  For each new day?  Why wouldn’t I want to start it with the spiritual discipline of meditation?

Stupid bed sheets.

Taking Risks
There comes a point in every project when you have to just shove down your fear of failure and go for it.  With the duvet cover, it was the moment it was actually time to sew.  I had laid out the Celtic bedspread on the top sheet, making sure it was centered, allowing for how it was going to lie on the bed, etc.  The bedspread is a hand-woven thing, cotton but with a linen look, and with a fair amount of stretch to it.  On the floor, I smoothed it as best I could in order to get the pattern straight.  The edges weren’t perfectly squared, so it pointed a bit at the corners.  I was terrified that the minute I picked the whole thing up to carry it to the sewing machine it would go all wonky (that’s a technical seamstress term) and turn out with all kinds of wrinkles and folds and bubbles in it.  I pinned it to death, but I still had a feeling that this fabric wasn’t going to cooperate.  I looked at it for a long time, lying perfectly on the floor, wondering if it would still look like that when it was done.

And then I sighed.  “At some point, you just have to be fearless,” I thought.  I didn’t answer myself this time. It was pointless to argue.  I was never going to have this duvet cover on my bed at home if I didn’t pick up the stupid thing and start sewing.  I might risk damaging the bedspread or having it not come out well. But was it an acceptable alternative to leave it unfinished in a box at home?  Just to avoid the risk of failure?  Duh!

There was nothing left for it but to grab the edges and—carefully!—whip the whole thing over to the machine.  At that point, it was out of my hands.  Well, technically it was in my hands. But you get the point.  I was pleased to note, as inches of cloth sped under my fingers through the flying needle, the bedspread behaved itself like a total gentleman, and the only wrinkle was at the final corner where my last stitch met my first, and it wasn’t nearly the massive bubble I'd feared.  In fact, with the comforter stuffed into the cover and the whole thing draped over my bed, you don’t see it at all!

So how many things in my life are just as perfectly laid out in front of me? Brilliant ideas and plans waiting to be executed, which just sit there because I'm afraid? It's time to whip the whole thing over to the machine, people.  I might just be surprised and thrilled with the outcome.

The Right Tools for the Job
My second project of the weekend was a shift.  That’s a loose-fitting dress, slip or chemise, for those of you dwelling solely in the 21st century.  I wanted something comfortable to wear under some of my previous dress projects that were scratchy or not warm enough.  Something out of a crazy-soft (“yummy” is the term I think best describes it) fabric that flows and hugs.  But something pretty enough to be seen.  I chose an off white crushed panne velour.  For those of you who do haunt the occasional Renaissance Festival, that’s the shimmery stuff they use to make the skirts and cloaks you see for sale at every clothier in the place.  Cheap stuff, actually, but pretty and soft.  And knit.  Waaaaay stretchy. 

In the past whenever I’ve worked with knits, the results have been subpar.  My seams pucker, my hems snap when overstretched.  I know there are ways to compensate for this. I don’t really know what they are.  But my mom had advised me to get a ballpoint needle for this kind of fabric.  So I did.  It made a huge difference.  With the exception of the hem (more on that later), the seams were straight, flat and lovely.  Now, I know I could have taken the time to research the best way to sew knit fabrics. I could even have read through my sewing machine manual, since I know there’s a stretch stitch setting on it somewhere.  This advice might have fallen under the whole ironing-as-meditation-take-time-for-the-foundation-steps part of this writing.  And there is truth to that.  Some day I will take a class on sewing knits, as much because it would be fun to take a class as to actually learn this particular skill. But you can’t deny that the right tool is essential, and that’s true spiritually as well as practically.  

What I am realizing in my life right now is that time and space to think and reflect, to meditate even, are essential tools.  They’re not just optional.  Not if I want sanity and serenity.  It’s so easy for me to get overwhelmed by all the stuff I have to do that I forget to set aside time for necessary self-care.  Unstructured time.  Uncluttered space. This retreat was a perfect example, but it doesn’t have to be quite so formal.  That’s like taking the class and using the right stitch setting and the right kind of thread and the ballpoint needle.  That might not be practical in the immediate moment.  But now I have that needle and I can pull it out and use it any time I need to.  And when I make my “to do” list each morning, I can put in the time I’m going to take to write for myself, as I’m doing right now.  Sometimes I even make a “not to do” list, on which I put any and all tasks that are stressing me out that I know I’m not going to get to that day.  That way they’re on paper and out of my head and I can get on with what I have to do, like taking a little time for myself while wearing my new yummy-soft, crushed panne shift.

The Inevitable Imperfections of the Creative Free Spirit
I learned to sew because I hate clothes shopping.  Hate is not too strong a word here.  I have simple needs.  I like simple things.  You can’t buy simple things in stores.  I like pretty things—colors, patterns, textures—and my tastes don’t change much from year to year.  Stores change their clothing offerings constantly and 99% of the time, the options are ugly.  I like wild and crazy things.  Renaissance Festival things.  Stevie Nicks things.  Stores don’t carry these things unless you want to pay through the nose for them.  And even then, they’re never exactly what I envision.  Going shopping for one clothing item is inevitably an exercise in frustration, discouragement and depression for me.  So I’ve learned to make my own clothes.

Except finding patterns can be frustrating, too.  A lot of them are close, but not quite it.  So I’ve had to learn to adapt.  I’m no professional seamstress, believe me.  What I lack in practiced skill I make up for in completely making things up as I go along.

I have this one dress pattern that I adore.  It’s one of the first patterns I ever bought.  The dress I originally made from it didn’t survive my 70-pound post-marriage weight gain. Plus it required ironing. In any case, I kept the pattern for years and after my 60-pound weight loss, I pulled it out of retirement.  But this time I wanted it different.  I didn’t want buttons down the front.  I wanted a pullover with contrasting front and side panels in a sort of Ren Fest style.  I didn’t want sleeves.  I didn’t want to line it.  It came out beautiful.  A bit big (I overcompensated for the pullover feature, since it wasn’t a stretch fabric) but I put in a back tie and called it good.  I used it again a couple years later with a simple navy waffle-weave. It was a more of a jumper this time, with a scoop neck instead of a square neck, and I left out the pleats. 

This past weekend, I had new plans for the pattern.  Another Ren Fest-inspired work in a gorgeous cotton batik, dyed in rich greens and browns and golds, like a deep, quiet forest.  I don’t exaggerate when I say the fabric called out to my soul when I saw it.  A sleeveless scoop-neck, open in the front with a laced closure, to be worn over the simple shift described above.

Pulling out the pattern pieces was like seeing an old friend.  I couldn’t wait to get reacquainted!  But I was wise enough to pace myself, knowing I would be making some pretty serious changes—again—to what was laid out on the brown tissue paper in front of me, some of which I hadn’t even decided upon.  Not exactly.

The inevitable by-products of making things up as you go along are imperfections.  There are some sloppy seams in the sleeve linings since I wasn’t following a pattern.  I topstitched in the front with an assumption of how I was going to do the laces and then changed my mind, which left the seam allowance by the topstitching loose, instead of finished. It would have been too labor intensive to fix it, and might have damaged the fabric in the process.  So. Not perfect.

Once again, as I stood at the ironing board, this time trying to figure out how best to make loops to hold the front lacings, I had an insight.  “This is what life is like,” I thought.  “Now you’re just being pretentious,” I thought back.  “No, really.  Aren’t we all just making it up as we go along?  We have a general idea of what we want.  We have a basic pattern that we’ve gotten from our parents, our education, our society.  But beyond that, we’re just winging it.  So it can’t possibly be perfect.  Why waste so much energy being a perfectionist?  Honestly, if I had just stuck to patterns, I wouldn’t have any of my favorite clothes.”  “Some of your favorite clothes you’ve bought.”  “Don’t be cheeky.  You get my point.”

Yes. I’m in therapy.

Seam Ripping
Sometimes you have to rip seams.  I’ve often said that a sewing project isn’t truly a Rebekah Moir original until I’ve had to rip at least one seam.  Mistakes are inevitable.  Some imperfections can just be left to give the project personality, but sometimes you have to make it right, or the integrity of the entire piece is compromised.  I put one of the sleeve linings on the wrong side of the dress.  No way around that.  Had to rip it and put it in the right place.  I’ve made mistakes like that in my life.  Screaming at my daughter.  Micromanaging my husband.  Failing someone in some way.  Ignoring those things will make them fester and ooze, and the infection will poison the relationship.  Best to re-open the wound—carefully!—and treat it properly. Make restitution. Commit to working toward change.  Then it can heal.  Rip the seam and re-do it correctly.  Words to live by.

Down the Mountain
The second evening, I started working on a sort of lace cardigan thing with big bell sleeves.  I cut it out and set it aside. I was a little concerned about the sheerness and stretch of the fabric and wanted to get through my shift and dress first, before dealing with what might turn out to be an exercise in futility.  After the dress came off so well, I was itching to get going on the cardigan that last morning.  But, alas, when I looked at the clock after the dress was complete, it was already eleven-ten and I needed to hit the road at noon.

I scrambled to get everything into the car except my sewing machine and the actual fabric I was working with.  I had been packing as I went that morning, and most things were ready.  Then I stopped to eat my lunch.  It was beef vegetable stew; nothing you could eat while sewing.  When all was squared away and I was free to sew once more, it was 11:45.  Fifteen minutes for me to determine whether working with this stretch lace was even viable.  But I had to know before I headed south.

I was delighted when the first seam went off almost without a hitch.  With a few adjustments to the way I was handling the cloth, I was able to get solid, straight stitching and became convinced that, with a commitment to topstitching all my seams, this could work! And then it was noon.


Sometimes you have to come back down the mountain.  A retreat is a glorious thing.  But the whole point was to rest and recharge so I could be more present in my often-challenging reality.  All the reflecting and insight would be pointless if there was no opportunity to apply it.  I often think about running off and becoming a monk somewhere.  Spending all my time in quiet contemplation, prayer and meditation, spiritual writing, singing, steady work like sewing.  It would be lovely at first. But I think my nature is a little too wild, too exuberant.  I’d wind up like Maria in Sound of Music, with the other monks singing songs about how to get rid of me.

Not that my day-to-day life is all that wild or exuberant. There are days I’m just slogging along. But I can take these opportunities for rest and reflection and do my best to employ them to find the peace and the balance within the stresses of raising highly challenging children, financial uncertainty, and trying to figure out what I want to be when (if?) I grow up.  It’s about finding Joy in the Longing.

And lastly, a word about Hems
I suck at hems.  They never turn out.  Luckily most of my dresses are floor length and no one gets down to examine the hems.  I have nothing deeply spiritual to say about this.  I just wanted you to know.