On The Need to Feel Normal When Nothing is Normal

An excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and an essay on special needs parenting (forgive the long excerpt, it’s worth the read)…

“In our society, where two-legged, two-armed strong Black men were able at best to eke out only the necessities of life, Uncle Willie, with his starched shirts, shined shoes and shelves full of food, was the whipping boy and butt of jokes of the underemployed and underpaid. Fate not only disabled him but laid a double-tiered barrier in his path. He was also proud and sensitive. Therefore he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t crippled, nor could he deceive himself that people were not repelled by his defect. Only once in all the years of trying not to watch him, I saw him pretend to himself and others that he wasn’t lame.
Coming home from school one day, I saw a dark car in our front yard. I rushed in to find a strange man and woman (Uncle Willie said later they were schoolteachers from Little Rock) drinking Dr Pepper in the cool of the Store. I sensed a wrongness around me, like an alarm clock that had gone off without being set.
I knew it couldn’t be the strangers. Not frequently, but often enough, travelers pulled off the main road to buy tobacco or soft drinks in the only Negro store in Stamps. When I looked at Uncle Willie, I knew what was pulling my mind’s coattails. He was standing erect behind the counter, not leaning forward or resting on the small shelf that had been built for him. Erect. His eyes seemed to hold me with a mixture of threats and appeal.
I dutifully greeted the strangers and roamed my eyes around for his walking stick. It was nowhere to be seen. He said, “Uh…this this…this…uh, my niece. She’s…uh…just come from school.” The to the couple – “You know…how, uh, children are…th-th-these days…they play all d-d-day at school and c-c-can’t wait to get home and pl-play some more.”
The people smiled, very friendly.
He added, “Go on out and pl-play, Sister.”
The lady laughed in a soft Arkansas voice and said, “Well, you know, Mr. Johnson, they say, you’re only a child once. Have you any children of your own?”
Uncle Willie looked at me with an impatience I hadn’t seen in his face even when he took thirty minutes to loop the laces over his high-topped shoes. “I thought I told you to go…go outside and play.”
Before I left I saw him lean back on the shelves of Garret Snuff, Prince Albert and Spark Plug chewing tobacco.
“No, ma-am…no ch-children and no wife.” He tried a laugh. “I have an old m-m-mother and my brother’s t-two children to l-look after.”
I didn’t mind his using us to make himself look good. In fact, I would have pretended to be his daughter if he wanted me to. Not only did I not feel any loyalty to my own father, I figured that if I had been Uncle Willie’s child, I would have received much better treatment.
The couple left after a few minutes, and from the back of the house I watched the red car scare chickens, raise dust and disappear toward Magnolia.
Uncle Willie was making his way down the long shadowed aisle between the shelves and the counter – hand over hand, like a man climbing out of a dream. I stayed quiet and watched him lurch from one side, bumping to the other, until he headed the coal-oil tank. He put his hand behind that dark recess and took his cane in the strong fist and shifted his weight on the wooden support. He thought he had pulled it off.
I’ll never know why it was important to him that the couple (he said later that he’d never seen them before) would take a picture of a whole Mr. Johnson back to Little Rock.
     He must have tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame. The high-topped shoes and the cane, his uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue, and the looks he suffered of either contempt or pity had simply worn him out, and for one afternoon, one part of an afternoon, he wanted no part of them.
     I understood and felt closer to him at that moment than ever before or since.”

****************************************************************

     Tears, in glasslike sheets, now soak the lower half of my face, pouring down my neck, filling the concave spot at the base of my throat, running down my chest as if I were a human downspout directing a flood. This…now this I understand. Only one who has experienced judgment and rejection could write in such a way that captures this specific and underrated need…the intense need to feel normal, if only for a moment. Only one who has known the shameful embarrassment of standing out the wrong way in a crowd, could appreciate the total joy of disappearing in blissful anonymity.
As the mother of an autistic child who is prone to violence, elopement, and very demonstrative public fits, I know all too well this craving to blend in, to feel normal, even if only briefly. During painfully public displays, I too, have frequently caught the eyes of others, reflecting like mirrors, either contempt or pity. After years and years of such reflections, I can no longer remember what I actually look like. Somewhere along the line, these gazes have become my truth. I have, at times, come to believe that I am the despised beast or the pitied creature… this, and nothing more.
And so I’ve manufactured ways to convince others of my normalcy, that in turn, normalcy might be reflected back to me; and so that I might believe, albeit momentarily, that I lead a normal life. Like Uncle Willie, I stand erect, hide the cane, disguise my limp, shoot daggers at anyone who might threaten to give away my secret. Normalcy has become both my shield and my crutch. If I look put together, no one will know that I am a mess. If my house is well-decorated, no one will know that I am crumbling inside.
But somewhere along the line, “normal” began to lose its appeal. It became common and dull. I looked with fresh eyes upon my “high-topped shoes and cane, my uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue,” and I held them with the tender love and compassion of a new mother. I allowed myself the freedom to cry the tears long dammed, and in reverential silence, bore witness to the shame and embarrassment so deeply buried. I gave myself permission to grieve the looks of contempt and pity, and the years of feeling anything but normal. I looked closely at the “me” who was hiding behind the protection and shelter of attempted normalcy and extended a soft hand to ease her transition into the light.
And as this timid part of “me” stepped forth in high-topped shoes, leaning heavily on a cane, thick-tongued and muscles yet uncontrolled, I grabbed her and pulled her close in an understanding embrace, and softly whispered in her ear, “I love your cane. I love your high-topped shoes. I love your thick tongue. I love your uncontrollable muscles. Look no longer into the eyes of others for feedback; from now on, look only within. Enter the world not as you wish to be, living the life you wish to be living; but enter as you are, living proudly the life you actually lead, back into the world as it actually is. Limp as you will, but limp with your head held high. For within that limp is contained all suffering, sorrow, madness, and despair. Within that limp is contained all things wild and uncontrollable, and within that limp is contained all love, joy, beauty, and depth of soul. Our humanity is held within each fragile and broken step we take; and so, do not hang your head in shame for that which is shared between all humans. Re-enter the world, still broken, still healing, and reclaim your rightful place within.”

Sail On

imagesIt is said around the time that Christopher Columbus set sail, that the English pirate Drake was raking Spanish holdings up the west side of the Americas.  As Columbus had sailed into the unknown, his fearful crew was allegedly on the brink of mutiny – mutiny, rather than come to the edge of…whatever.  Columbus, in this perilous atmosphere, made a stark entry each day in his logbook: “Sailed on.”

More often than not, were I to keep a logbook, I think that my entries might be quite the same, as are my days.  Wake up…work, kids, clean, errands, food…sleep.  Repeat. “Sailed on.”  When I am honest, there are often times that I find myself questioning, “Is this all there is to life?”  I’m convinced that monotony must be the cause of many mid-life crises.  We get stuck in the rhythm of our days, realize that life could realistically be half over, and feel a desperate need to break free from our own restraints, explore beyond the boundaries of our own boredom.

However, we all too often live our lives looking off into the horizon for the next great thing…marriage, a baby, a promotion, vacation, retirement…we are looking to “arrive” and missing the journey.  The thing is, we don’t know what lies on the horizon.  We don’t know if tomorrow will even arrive, and if it does, we don’t know if it will carry promise or catastrophe. We might quickly find ourselves longing for the boredom and monotony of yesterday.  Obviously, the key is to live with gratitude, finding value and joy in the day-to-day.  But I would also propose, as I struggle to live this reality myself, that we should not only strive to find joyful moments in the tedium, but also learn to lean in, settle in, relax and embrace the restlessness of simply sailing.

Just as it is often impossible for a ship to perceive forward movement on a vast sea without any landmarks, we too are often unable to sense any inner growth or progress in life.  But if we can accept and trust the process, the journey, the Captain, we will at some point be able to look back and see that it was all for our good…the sun, the storms, and the endless stream of days upon days.  So for now, I prepare myself for whatever the day will hold.  I’m sure the range will be vast.  And tonight, I’ll settle in and close out the day with another mental entry, “Sailed on.”

 

 

 

 

Living Seasonally

live-in-each-season-1024x1024I’ve spent the last few months with blinders on…not the blindfold type of blinders that prevent you from seeing, but more like the type they put on horses to keep them focused on what is ahead of them.  Life all of a sudden got really hard, and really good, and really busy, all at the same time.  Kind of like a whirlwind introduction to teenagers, owning your own business, husband starting a business kind of boot camp.  I laugh/cringe because this is just the way I operate…when things get hard, I get small and go inward.  When I was delivering my first son, I basically kicked everyone out (and down the hall so I couldn’t even hear their voices), and my poor husband who took all those crazy classes with me didn’t even have a chance to put his newfound knowledge to work from his chair in the corner.  I had to be fully alone and present with myself to focus and complete the task at hand.  So I’ve spent the last few months in my “internal cocoon…” possibly socially isolated and emotionally withdrawn, although I don’t know how I appear to others.  I haven’t been upset, I’ve just had to focus on getting through a challenging time and I do my best work alone.

I planned and pushed with fervency to wrap up as many jobs as possible so that I could be home with my kids for the summer.  And then…it was summer.  But to my complete surprise (and delight), the summer that normally devours me like a consuming tornado, has meandered in peacefully and silently, observed by the wonderful cessation of marking time and checking off to-do lists.  I did reverse psychology on myself by getting so busy, that summer now seems slow in comparison (I must be smarter than I thought to be able to trick myself)!  My oldest boys literally fish from sun-up to sun-down and my daughter is in Florida helping family.  I have gone from having 5 seemingly co-dependent children to feeling like I only have 2!  My days have transitioned from non-stop movement, to coffee (with refills!) on the patio in the company of a good book.

Throughout the course of the last few months, I am reminded that the struggles and busy-ness of life can function as a splinter.  They can cause irritation and sometimes outright pain, but the second they are removed, the relief gives way to a newfound joy and appreciation.  Although I am a regrettably slow learner, I am beginning to posses with certainty the belief that every stage of life is good (even the hard ones) and can offer new opportunities for gratitude.  I have loved being busy and creative and working, but I also love letting my brain rest and “just” being a mom.  We can go through life, constantly looking anxiously ahead to the next phase, or we can learn to suck the marrow out of the here and now.  I have done plenty of looking ahead.  I long to improve upon cherishing the present.

I am also (finally) beginning the grasp the importance of living seasonally.  Earlier in life, I strived and worked incessantly.  I felt lazy if I stopped to rest.  Yet when we frantically press on and on (even in positive, fun times) without diversity or change in pace, we quickly run out of steam and live a dreary life of monotony.  There must be times of ebb and flow, work and rest, tears and laughter, suffering and joy.  I am learning to heed and embrace the literal seasons of nature for life cues…the long, slow spread of summer days, the solitude and silence of winter, the invigoration of spring and the calming crispness of fall.  I’m even attempting to eat seasonal foods to provide for varying physical needs throughout the year.  I’m trying to fight less against life, and instead receive with open hands of gratitude each twist of events that life presents.  In doing so, I am learning to trust more deeply and authentically.  Hindsight is always 20/20 and the longer I live, the more I can look back over the threads of time to see how my life is being expertly woven.  I am seeing with greater clarity that I can breathe and lean fully into a life of trusting God, nature, and myself.

Living seasonally is nothing new.  It is, in fact, ancient and old and wise.  I, however am not.  But perhaps through the symbiotic relationship of internal intuition and nature’s external prompting, I can settle in to a rhythmic sort of journey that will lead to a full, healthy and long existence.  Life is hard.  But it’s also really, really beautiful.  I want to make the CHOICE to savor the sweetness of life, instead of dwelling on it’s bitter moments.  Cheers to summer…My new art purchase...