Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Two Years and Rising

When Jude was born two years ago, I couldn't imagine NOT thinking about Down syndrome. From the moment the Dr. uttered over the phone "The fetus has Trisomy 21" my whole world seemed to stop and switch rotation. In those early months, it was always Down syndrome (don't believe me? Go look at those early posts). Don't get me wrong, I don't think it was a bad thing at all. I learned a great deal in those early days about disability rights, and I wouldn't give away that experience for anything.

I kept insisting that our world hadn't changed that much but the reality is that of course our world had changed. We were not the same people we had been even a year before. I never considered myself Abliest but I was in so many ways. The growth and the pain of that growth was hard but so important. How I saw the world went through a radical shift, and I became a better advocate for my children because the reality was simply that I already two children with a disability. I had just never acknowledged it, or rather I had acknowledged/accepted them for who they were but hadn't push that thought process to embrace a bigger arc of people. Jude's birth propelled me into that world, and for that I will be ever thankful. I've meet some amazing advocates, and count myself lucky to be an ally.

But still in the day to day aspect of our life, the change was smaller. The change was simply the way a family dynamic shifts with each new addition. Jude's integration into our family was not always smooth but it was mostly joyous. Now she is just another beastie which is quite something. I don't think any of us even think twice about the Down syndrome. It's not that we don't think about her having Down syndrome. We do. We know. It's just not a big deal anymore, or more it's just common place. She just is. She's here. She's loved. She's a part of the tapestry so smartly woven into the fabric that you'd have to flip things around to find where her thread started. Only then could you see the bumps, the missteps we made, the things we learned, the ways we changed. But from the outside, it's just this toddler. No longer a baby.

In the last year, Jude transformed from our sweet baby to a clever, mischievous sweet toddler. She's a whirlwind of energy that touches everything and everyone in the house. She is fierce and independent as she learns to do things on her own. She scorns our help, and figures out how to do things her way. She has become cautious about her smile, and doesn't offer it with the same abandon she did last year. Her smile is now a gift not to be won but to handed over at her will. But she is not afraid of the world around her. She walks as if she owns a room, shunning those who would block her or restrict her purpose. She is a queen, and it's clear in the way she holds her head.

For me these days of getting to know Jude do negate the kind of thinking about Down syndrome that soaked through the days when she was younger. Now it is simply an aspect of her. I no longer fear the future the way I used to when she a baby in my arms. Or rather I fear for her future the way I do with all my children. There is no hidden corners of wondering if she will not talk, not run, not be independent. Instead, I am leaning into the days of shaping as she grows into ever more being. The future is murky as those magic 8 balls from my childhood would tell me. No surprise there.

This everyday texture to thinking about Down syndrome--to living with Jude who has Down syndrome--has changed they way I write as well. I am not sure what I have to offer. I suspect my greatest use is to offer up the voices of those with disabilities. I am not a good blog writer, I suspect. I don't research enough nor do I have that knack for pulling information together in an interesting way. There are others who are much better than I at this kind of writing. And sometimes, I worry that I will tell too much of Jude's story. That in the end, I will have paved too much of her road. Perhaps, I think, it is best to let that murky future hidden in the inky depths of a Magic 8 ball reveal itself to who it will. 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

What Completion Feels Like

Sunday was frantic. I had been out for most of the day Saturday, picking up books for the kids' Yule gifts as well as hitting up the yarn store. I try to make sure I hit our local businesses for Small Business Saturday so they can feel the love. But in the back of my mind, a little voice was screaming 'GO HOME WOMAN AND WRITE. I only wrote about a thousand words Saturday sneaking onto the computer in the little in between moments. We went out that night, and I tried to relax. Tried to look at books. Tried to knit but that voice wouldn't shut up. I paced a lot, recording in my mind my final scene. And I did go home to type until exhaustion drove me to bed. Thus Sunday after our weekly brunch (and for a bit before) I started. I wrote for ten fucking hours. When I wrote my last sentence: "I don't know if was him peeking through that veil or the painkillers but it felt like a benediction." I was so tired that I didn't even feel celebratory. I just felt like I needed sleep; like I might never want to write again. And then I felt restless, as if there should be more feeling. After all I had just finished my first novel. I wrote almost 97, 000 words in a month. I had "won" National Novel Writing Month by the 15th but I won my own goal on the 30th around 11:00 at night.

I'm not good for the long haul in most things. There were times honestly when I worried about being married, about being a mother because of this thing that I saw as a distinct character flaw. My teachers used to say I lacked "follow through." Indeed, I admit it honestly, it's always been hard for me to sustain interest in one thing for too long. I did two majors in college and a minor for which I suspect I had enough credits to be a major if they had offered one in Women's Studies. I managed to finish my MA but I'm convinced that was because my adviser made me do it. Last year when I decided to do NaNoWriMo, I knew there as no way I could do a novel so I did short stories and played around with the idea that I ended up taking up again this year. It was all part of my need for short projects. Even my knitting reflects this: hats, mitts, baby things. I've been whining about the sweater I've been knitting for Rowena whose is four and not big for months: "It's never going to end...."

I realized years ago that I place a lot of worth on the moment of finishing. When I lost a a shit ton of weight after being pregnant with Piper, I remember hitting my goal weight, and feeling really let down. I don't know what I expected to happen. Balloons and confetti I guess. This was the same thing that happened when I finished my MA. All this time spent towards the completion of a goal lead towards one moment that didn't live up to the imaginings I created of that moment. I always felt like a kid after opening up your Christmas presents. All that hype for maybe fifteen minutes of excitement.

When I decided to write this novel for November, I remembered both my past failures at going for the long haul, and the fact there's not always "satisfaction in a job well done." People always forget to tell you that sometimes there's a  depressing dip when things are completed as well. But I was determined to prove to myself that I could write a novel. After all I had dreamed of doing this for my most of my life. I needed to know that I could sustain a story for more than few pages. I told myself as I started that it didn't have to be good; it just had to get done.

As I wrote, I roller coasted through a variety of emotions. Days when I was in the valley looking up and knowing that the exhilarating climb was coming followed by days when the descent was wildly coming up to crash in my face. I wrote through self doubt, and frankly hate: hate for my story, hate for my talent. I pushed through my own snobbery at what counted as "good" writing including engaging in numerous debates with H (he arguing against the snobbery). I had to examine my own sense of weird self-worth: you should be writing the "good" stuff and you suck as a writer no one is going to read your bad stuff. I wrestled with the guilt that told me I should be using my writing time to blog about: racism, sexism, disability. While I wrote, I participated in a community of wonderful writers who gave menplot pointers, helped me through tangles, and shared in the delicious chaos that is NaNoWriMo.

When it was over, and I sat reading my last sentence, I realized that old feeling was coming. "You did it," this voice hissed, "and now what? Who cares? What a let down!" H decided we should do a celebratory ride through town to look at the Christmas lights, and as we drove, I struggled with the let down. I held onto the planning for the second novel. I thought about all the things I could do again: knit and read (okay and clean). But it didn't help. I sank into a kind of sadness. I bought a bag of candy and over indulged something I haven't done for a couple of months now. Luckily the nature of this season saved me from myself, and I was soon caught up in the business of things to do.

This morning as I was taking my shower, I thought about the two paragraphs to this post that I had written the night before. I had a total revelation as often happens to me when I'm showering (I'm convinced it's because there is no way to I can write anything down). The whole point isn't the end. It's the process. It's why little Ms. No Follow Through has been married for almost 15 years, and has five kids she hasn't abandoned. You see being in this family, my family, has always been about the process. There's no end to parenting or being a partner to someone. Things change, and evolve requiring multiple ways of addressing, being, and becoming. None of us are the same as we march through time, and being a parent to five very distinctive individuals has hammered this fact home. But I had never though to apply this philosophy to things like writing, or studying or reading.  When I really thought about the month, it wasn't about that one moment although it was a good feeling to meet my goals, rather it was the compilation of all those days, the doubts, the perfect sentences, falling in love with a character, having characters transform or insert themselves into your story no matter how hard you try to kick them out. It was the sprints with new friends at coffee shops, messages back and forth with problems, that one guy who saved my romance story.

When I thought back over my life, and the disappointment about completion, I realized that I had forgotten about the process. My MA did not just appear (sometimes I wish that was so). No, I wrote and anguished. I talked and learned. I made a good friend in my adviser. I had wonderful classes. I had wonderful conversations with H over theory. I meet some fascinating people. When I lost the weight, I learned a lot about myself and how I used food as a drug. I learned how to think about food in new ways, ways that actually enhanced my enjoyment of eating. And so it was with my novel. And so it is with all my writing. I am proud of my little book. Proud of what I accomplished. But what I will remember is the ride.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Someone's Son, My Son

A few weeks ago, my son attended a Zombie prom at the local library. He's a homeschooled kid so he looks forward to these events to make friends, reunite with already made friends, and now that he's older, to flirt with girls. When I picked him up that night, he was waiting for me inside a foyer sitting beside a pretty blond girl. You know the type: cheerleader, what people love to call "all American" because we all know America is white and blond. As I got closer, I realized they were flirting, both enjoying the attention of the other. I caught his eye and stood back to give him some privacy. But as I watched them, this white girl and my brown son, I thought "I wonder what her parents would think?" Because sadly in this world this is what I have to worry about. The perception people have about my son, and the fear that we live in a place where too often "biracial" anything is looked upon with fear and prejudice. I've noted that in our society we have a lot of cultural undercurrents about black and brown men, and with Hispanic men it's a fear that they'll rape, seduce, white women. I've read the fears too many times in the way white women talk about how Latino men area always "checking them out" or the way stories about rapists who "might" be Hispanic are written. And my son is a Latino male, and every day I am painfully reminded of the stereotypes that not just signify him but place in positions that could be dangerous.

When I first moved to the South from Maine, it was a life changing experience in many ways. You see, I didn't see myself as racist. I was married to a man of color, and I had a son of color. I was educated. I had taken the "right" classes, and I thought of myself as a liberal, open minded person who wasn't racist. And then I was in a place where white people were not the majority, a place that was frankly shaped by the blood of slaves. A place where people still dropped the "N" word as casually as saying "Good morning." For a time I allowed myself to feel superior. It was easy to do. Easier than examining my own hidden racism, a racism so insidious that it shaped my world view without me even knowing.

Then I went to teach at an inner city high school for kids who were considered high risk. I had a lot of pretty naive expectations about what kind of teacher I was going to be when I walked in that Monday morning. And those were pretty much shattered with my first class which was filled with some of the toughest, meanest, jaded tenth graders I've ever meet. But the real lesson was all about that insidious racism that laid coiled inside me. I went home everyday and cried to Horacio about how hard it was. About how I wanted to reach them. But what I didn't tell him at first was how much those kids scared me.  I had a whole list of reasons about why they scared me and they all looked good. If I listed them out right now I have no doubt that many of my readers would be "Hell yeah that's scary." But really it was because they were black, and they were not the kind of black people I had come to know. They were the kind of black people that society told me I needed to fear.

One day as I photocopying some papers, an older teacher close to retirement came and started talking to me. I expressed frustration about what was happening in my classroom, and he said "All of our students are bottom feeders." That hit me hard. I was sickened, and disgusted. I went to my class, and I looked at those faces which were drawn, leery, and...scared. Why wouldn't they feel this way? Why wouldn't they hide their fear behind aggression? After all they had likely encountered teachers who felt the same way as the teacher who just spoken to me. When I went home that night, I confessed to Horacio my fear, and he gracisously walked this pathic white girl through her own racism. It was a painful and horrible moment for me. Even more painful then when I been called out by my African-American women's literature professor over some pretty blatantly racist shit that came out of my mouth. I had thought it was gone, weeded from me, only to discover it cropping up when I least expected it.

That moment changed my relationship with my students, and while it was never easy in that classroom things started to shift as if they could sense that I was no longer afraid of them. Slowly over time a few of them even began to trust me. I had students who had punched teachers in the face become my greatest allies and even my friends. When a young male black student threatened me with violence one afternoon, I had to make yet another examination and look at my fear in the face and tease it away from the racism. I remembered talking in a religious studies class about how our culture has worked hard to ensure that white woman fear black men, and how often that is really misplaced. It allowed me to make a choice to diffuse the situation as opposed to feeding into the fear I felt, and fear that he no doubt felt for many reasons. After all I as a white teacher had a great deal more power than he did as a black student. Being aware of how I had been indoctrinated to fear had often masked the power I actually held in my hands, and power held unaware is even more dangerous.

When I read through Darren Wilson's testimony, I couldn't help but be reminded of what I had rooted out. His testimony reads like a textbook example of what happens when you condition a culture to feel fear for a certain kind of person.

"And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like  a five-year-old onto Hulk Hogan."

"I felt that another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse. I mean it was, he's obviously bigger than I was, and stronger and the, I've already taken two to the face and I didn't think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right."

"He looked up at me and the most aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that's how angry he looked."

I'm not going to speculate about if there is truth in his assertion that he was really scared. It's a familiar enough story at this point that we know he could use it to convince a Grand Jury to let him go free and clear. George Zimmerman used the same words to justify his murder of Trayvon Martin. The myth of the scary black man is a dangerous myth. Not dangerous for white people let me be very clear but dangerous for black men. When those who have the power use powerlessness as a weapon to justify their take down of people who are systemically oppressed it's pretty hard to have a justice system that if fair. It's what I had to learn as a teacher, and I didn't get to carry a gun. The fact that  his myth is perpetuated in police forces all over the country without question scares the shit of me. It scares me because while I am white, my husband and son are not. They are the mercy all too often of those who deny their power and privilege. I am scared because as a white woman I am far more likely to be raped by a white man, and if I reported that rape, it's likely that white man would walk.

The other day I walked into our local grocery store. And as I walked through the store, I realized that who I feared were not the young men of color who were in the store. But the frat boys with their loud shouts, their way of holding their bodies as if they owned all the space around them. I found myself repulsed by their casual mocking of the women who walked by them, or their blatant check outs of the women they thought attractive. When the Latino father walked by me and smiled at Jude, I didn't wonder how many women he might have raped. No that thought was saved for the loud frat boy in the beer aisle.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Loss, and Why I Have Been Absence

Something happened last month. Something that ten years ago would not have shocked me so much. Nevertheless I have spent these last few weeks working through layers of hurt, and learning things about myself. For all those reasons, I have been quiet. I am not at a place where I feel comfortable writing about what happened in a public way. There are other people involved, and I'm also unsure of how to work that complicated negotiation between what I write and the relationships I have with others. Perhaps at some point I will tell more about this story because I think it is a common story, and the few people I've opened up to regarding this story have all identified. It is a story after all about seeking love and the problem of never being sure of that love. Years and years of insecurity and seeking shaping the person one has become today.

At this time, I was also preparing for the National Novel Writing Month. 50, 000 words in 30 days. I had many plans, and at least three fully planned out novels. But I decided to focus on the paranormal romance.mystery recognizing at some level my need for escape. But it was clear that almost immediately that I wasn't going to escape the theme of loss as my character is a widow and throughout the book is learning to negotiate her sense of grief and loss with finding someone new to be in her life. At some point, the character's mother in law says to her "You are a mother so you know this instinctively. You can love more than one person at a time. Your love is not limited but boundless. Having lost my son doesn't mean you can never love again, and loving again doesn't mean he will fade from your heart."

After I typed it out, I started to think about how much we carry with us throughout life. I am not a believer in the idea of essential self. I doubt that exists and if it did I doubt very much that we could pick out what that self might be. Rather I suspect we are like onions, layered in time and memories, reinterpreted histories, the touch of other humans, the imprint of experiences. We carry these layers with us as we move through our life. The actions of now might be the motivations of the five year old girl who was once me. It is a heavy burden at times to think about, and I think most of the time, we are capable of walking about unaware but in times of pain those moments surface up and I am made aware again of the layers.

Now that all these layers are bad. I realized this as I wrote my novel. Those layers hold everything. Even the good. I realized as I worked my pain, hurt and frankly resentment from the past that I had been looking for something that I already had.  I am loved for who I am and how I look. There is no effort to change me, to make me better. While I doubt if all my foibles are appreciated, I've never once worried that I wouldn't be loved. I used to worry but over the years, I've slowly learned to trust that my actions might not lead to hate. That I can be imperfect. That I can screw things up, and that I can be forgiven. That I can do the same in return.

As my children grow up, I realize they move with a confidence I did not have, and this makes me proud. I am not a perfect parent but I am glad that my children do not feel like they need to earn my love. I am glad that they move in the world with the assumption that they are worthy human beings who deserve respect and love and care. The world is not likely to always hand them these things but I suspect that starting the journey with such confidence is vital in a lifetime of demanding those things for everyone.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Love Letter To Canopy

When we first come in, Jude is sleeping in my arms. She has had a long day of therapies, and she's beat. R dances in as she always does, her shoes coming off with a quick swipe as she rushes to the floor. She loves her teacher, and eagerly gets on the mat for a quick warm up before the extra fun begins. Myself? Well I love the studio as well. It pleases my aesthetic eye. The way the fabrics in the back drape down from the ceiling to the floor, or the cross of ropes sweeping beneath the black steel beams on the ceiling. More importantly I feel safe in this place, or perhaps I should say I feel like my children are safe in this place. This is an important thing when you are the mother of "biracial" children most who have a disability. In this place, my girls soar and fly and not just because they are dancing on trapeze bars. They are accepted for who they are in this space.

Jude wakes up the moment the bars are lowed from ceiling to floor. She yells out happily as R's teacher begins to help R through a series of moves. R is a bit timid on the ropes, and her teacher knows just the right amount of pressure to use to push R out of her comfort zone but never too far. It's amazing watching R going from tearfully afraid to smiling with pleasure at an accomplishment. Jude claps for her every time, a big smile on her face, usually laughing. No longer content to be in my arms, she squirms down, and thus begins our dance. She keeps moving towards the mats, and I keep sweeping her away. 

Towards the end of the class, one of our favorite people, Ann, comes to work. She sees Jude walking and she is immediately setting her things down, and squatting to get Jude to come to her. She's been waiting for Jude to walk for a while now. Jude has been an added passenger to trapeze classes since she was an infant. We have sat through many sessions watching the big girls learn to fly. And along the way she's acquired a few admirers. Ann picks up Jude, and brings her over to an empty bar. Jude's face is marked with incredulity. Finally she's allowed onto the forbidden mats. Ann sits down with Jude facing out, and pushes them into a gentle swing. She gently places Jude's hands on the rope, and Jude? Jude is smiling, her face is glowing as she too begins her first lesson in what it is like to fly.

When I think about leaving Athens, I am sad in ways that I didn't imagine I'd feel even last year. While I love our new adventures, and know that we're a tight enough family unit to be happy almost anywhere, I love this town. And I love Canopy. I know it sounds a bit silly to be sad to leave one studio but this place has come to mean so much to us. The respect shown to Camille, the careful patience in working with her not against her, and then the joy when Jude takes her first step (this means she can now do the toddler's classes) has made this place much more than just a place to take lessons. It has made it a place with people we can call friends. A place where I can entrust my children. 

Last Sunday, the big girls and I  finally got to see a show done by the repertoire company. I am not sure if I can begin to describe the beauty. A beauty combined of grace and strength. A beauty made stronger for the fact that everyone was so different and perfect in their difference. This was not a dance with bodies that all looked alike but a dance with bodies of many sizes and shapes. As the women (and one man) , twisted their bodies into what seemed like impossible positions, I teared up a little at the wonder of it all. I was taken back to when I was a child and magic was so very real, just outside of my small grasp. Vampires and monsters abound but they danced and seduced us into feeling safe inside a studio magically metaphorized into a dark forest. And the look on my girls' faces was even more magical. They were carried away not just with the power of the show but with the power that someday they would be the ones dancing with fire, dancing with others high above the ground. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Taking Happiness Seriously

When I was about nineteen, fresh from a conservative Christian high school, I began to slowly transform the way I looked to match the way I felt. For three years, I had tried Jesus as a fix to a deep abyss that sat heavily in my stomach.  After reading, Frank Peretti, I even entertained the idea that maybe I was oppressed with demons. Real demons. Not metaphorical demons of depression. When I left school, I also left my faith on the stage, and walked out into a world no longer enchanted. Over a period of months, my clothes got darker, my hair shorter, and I added some holes to various parts of my body. Sure it was an act but it was also a telling moment where I began to accept that the feeling inside. I can mark this as the beginning of a time when I went beyond naming my depression and turn into an intricate part of my identity.

Of course depression was not just a fashion accessory for me. Depression was something that I had experienced for many years but not something I really understood. I didn't see a psychologist until I was 22 but I first remember being depressed around twelve. There was this feeling inside me that told me I'd never be happy. Days when I could barely get myself out of bed. Days when I wished I'd just never wake up. Days so filled with pain and sadness that I couldn't even cry. But I didn't really have an understanding even if I had the word. The understanding would come much later when I was older.

At the point, I started to retell my story depression became the fuel for my creativity. It was not difficult to reach this conclusion in the artist biographies I read, and in the people with whom I had friends in my early twenties. Among this group, depression was romanticized and idealized. Instead of being the thing that kept me bed for hours upon hours, that made it difficult to even shower, depression was made me special. For a young woman longing to feel special this was heady stuff.  I refused treatment. My rejection of antidepressants became a badge of honor. I accepted my suffering, wore it proudly, marched about as if I was a martyr.

And I also began to see happy as a shallow emotion something upon which to look with disdain. It was easy to re script my past by carefully editing out all the happy moments. My childhood was a gray sea of sadness in this new story. I struggled with the moments I was happy, and self-sabotaged any joy I felt. I ruined relationships, destroyed happy scenes, and stomped out any laughter that wasn't underlined with a bit of sarcasm and cynicism. In the end, I didn't really understand my depression anymore than I understood how I could be happy when the world was burning around me.

Over the years, I've softened my attitude about antidepressants. I no longer see meds as an easy way out, and I've even put myself on them. Depression doesn't do much for creativity when you can barely get out of bed. I reshaped my ideas about depression and along the way discovered that antidepressants, therapy, all the tools out there, were not escapes that erased my personality. But with this important shift, I still was disdainful of happy.  Happy people were shallow, simple, and lacking in creativity. The pursuit of happiness in a world that was screwed up was selfish. And this made embracing the joy in my life incredibly difficult. I knew that I was holding back but I came up with a lot reasons for why I was holding myself back: fear being the biggest excuse. I suppose it was fear. Fear that being happy, enjoying happiness would somehow make me less complicated, less interesting. I remember experiencing moments when I was so happy I felt that the lightness would carry me away, and I would stuff that feeling deep down away from the light. I got to a point where I couldn't imagine how I could experience happiness with depression.

Thus you can imagine my horror when I told people that Jude had Down syndrome and the first thing so many people said to me was "Oh everyone I've meet with Down syndrome is just sooo happy." And what ran through my mind was that old playground taunt "Happy and dumb." I thought about how many ways we have of saying this very thing: "I was happier not knowing." Ignorance is bliss." Christianity's very origin story revolves around the idea of ignorance being paradise.  For someone who spent a great chunk of her life looking down on happiness as a personality trait, I was horrified even as I knew it was a stereotype. Obviously no one is always happy, and it's absurd to paint an entire population of people with any one characteristic. Of course I knew this. But what I didn't even pause to question was my attitude towards happiness.

A few weeks ago, I took a photo of Jude crawling towards me with a huge smile on her face. Her hair is up in pigtails; her eyes are shining. The whole picture screams "Happy." As I added the picture to a group on Facebook, I wrote a small justification about how Jude wasn't always happy, and I ended with how I almost didn't want to put the picture up because I knew people were going to harp on how happy people with Ds are.This has happened often over the last two years. I find myself seeking photos of Jude's rare moment of having a fit. I joked to H that I wish I could snap a shot of Jude having a fit in the middle of the night because I'm not latching her on fast enough. The thing is that Jude is happy most of the time. She loves life with a joy that is intense in and of itself. She is almost always smiling with her eyes bright as she explores the world. Whenever we go out people comment on it "What a happy baby!" "She's loving that lollipop?" "What a smile!" "I wish I enjoyed life like that!" And while sometimes I feel like I have to argue because not all people with Ds are happy, I do have to also acknowledge that Jude is pretty damn happy (and no not all babies are happy. I've had four besides Jude and only one was a happy baby).

No Jude is not always happy. Just like I am not always depressed or moody or gloomy. She is like me a multifaceted person. She's not happy when R is stealing a toy from her. She's not happy when we don't let her dump the hamper. She doesn't enjoy all things. She's not overly fond of our cats. She's a little eh about her physical therapy. She despises her car seat. She's shy as well, and like most toddlers hides behind my legs when she first meets grown ups. She has days where's a little cranky but overall Jude is very content. She likes to play. She likes going to the library and to the park. She adores dogs. She has a huge smile on her face most of the time. She lives life with a breathtaking kind of intensity that has made me question my own ideas about intensity.

And that's where I am this evening as I finally type out this jumble that has been rolling around in my head. I don't want my child to be limited by a stereotype. But I also don't want her to be limited by an unquestioning definition of happy either. Our society has a complicated relationship with happy. There is a drive to be happy. The Declaration of Independence tells us we should pursue it. There are  a million and one zenish quotes that tell us how to achieve it and why we should. But yet there is all the cultural baggage I mentioned earlier that tells us that happiness is simple, uncomplicated, not really smart, not really creative. One hand we long to be simple and on the other hand we look askance on simple. Is happiness even connected to "simple?" What does it mean to pursue happiness? Does feeling happiness really prevent one from seeing the ills of the world? Is it really selfish to be happy? I have no answers to these questions. I am not even sure if I could give a decent definition of happiness. What I do know is that in order to fully appreciate Jude I am going to have explore these questions, seriously. Jude  and other people with Down syndrome do not deserve to be corralled into one emotion. The absurdity, and danger, of labeling a group of people with any one thing is something we must speak out against. But an equally important objective for me, as a parent, as a guide, is to fully explore along with my child, the dimensions and richness of her personality including the part that is happy.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Always Another Turn

We began our homeschooling path as unschoolers. Radical unschoolers. But as with most things I start with great passion time tempered my initial feelings and we moved into spaces that were not so easily labeled. We've never been schooly. There were never lesson plan books or school at home desks. There were suggestions and plans along with math curriculum. On a sunny crisp fall day schoolwork was eschewed for long walks through the woods or sometimes a surprise trip downtown to whatever city we were living in at the time. Things on a list can always get always get done is what I learned, and if they don't, the world is not going to come crashing down. This might seem obvious to you but for me it was a lesson.

I am a woman who lives on lists. I used to think I was "scatterbrained" but I now suspect I might have a different brain that just functions divergently. But lists...well lists kept me focused. I wouldn't have finished my degrees (and both of those took an incredibly long time to complete) if it weren't for the lists I made up every morning along with my coffee. These lists littered my life, to do marked clearly on top with lines through what had been done although sometimes I forgot to do the lines.

To Do:
clean up kitchen
feed cats
write journal for Alice
go to class
library for research and books
takes notes for Jennifer's paper

H and I did our Masters with three small children. They were five and under when we began. We also started our homeschooling road at the same time. Our house was a happy chaos in those days. Papers everywhere. Books piled high on end tables. Our kids were more comfortable on college campuses then they were in classrooms. We read picture books in between our daily does of Foucault and Butler. Camille learned to untie shoes by hiding under the table in a conference room as my favorite professor and adviser lectured on theories of religion. They articulated complex thoughts about God and nature because they overheard H and I talking about these things. I still look back over those times with a fond eye...and oh the lists. They were there, coming and going as I moved through the complexities of thesis writing and through doubt about unschooling. They had become computer files at this point, and they still haunt me as I go to open documents.

When we moved to Athens, things shifted every so slightly in that I became a full time stay at home mom instead of a part time one. I spent a couple of years in a fog trying to figure out what this meant. My too do lists mocked me as I tried to organize my day around things that brought me little joy. Washing dishes does not answer the meaning of life. I focused my meaning on the children's schooling, and my to do list for them became complex diagrams that looked an awful lot like the pages of a lesson plan book. And then I had Jude, and when I decided to homeschool her, I told myself "Now you're going to have get it with it missy." I didn't think I could unschool Jude. The old fears that I'd ruin her crept in as I held her tiny body close to mine while I worried away at those future stones.

A couple of weeks ago, I went out to dinner with some of H's friends, and they started to ask me why we homeschooled, and as I tried to articulate why, I realized with a jolt how far I had drifted from those idyllic days from the past. I told H's friends that we hate how the system shapes children and that we wanted to shape our children with a different kind of ideology. I told them how confident our children had become, how sure of themselves. That what people had kept calling sheltering was actually a safe place to become who they were so that when they left our arms, they were proud of who they were instead of ashamed or beaten down. And as I talked I remembered Camille's only year of school and how shattered she had become and the years it took to heal those wounds left by a few awful people. As I talked I also thought about the books that were cluttering up my shelves, the binders, the lesson plans that were taking over the creamy smooth pages of my Moleskin journals. But the kids need this, I thought to myself confidently. I am just doing what they want.

We started "school" on Monday. I got up reasonably early (for me). I had a to do list for each child. Oh how the list had evolved. Things went smoothly until Camille woke up. I handed her the list and she looked at me askance. I knew resistance was coming and I steeled myself. Things went relatively well until I asked her to write a journal entry on the book she was reading. At first, she resisted silently. Sitting in the corner of the couch curled up around herself. I gave her space and did some things with R. Every once in awhile I'd remind her that she needed to do a journal entry. The tears came next. I looked over to see her silently crying over the journal and book. I sat with her and tried to talk to her about what to write. Finally frustrated I snapped "Do what ever you want. I give up. You're not going to get into college if you don't write." She quietly gathered her things and went to her room. H shoot me a look.

Maybe you should back off. he said quietly.

I sulked. And then thought back to how Umberto didn't really do anything until last year and really didn't blossom until this summer. I thought about my friend's son who was taking college classes at 16 after years of being unschooled. I took a deep breath and then another...Camille wrote for hours everyday. Her fan fiction covered our house in comics and filled screens upon screens on the computer.

Well she does write all the time. I said.

The raging came later as she lashed out against R. H looked over at me and said "We've seen this before."  I went in to talk to her and she was lying on her bed with pages of writing before her and the book. She was trying to make a journal entry. For me. I felt the tears prick on the back of my eyes.

I hate this. she told me.

I rubbed her arm, and said "Then don't do it. Why don't we just talk about it once you're done reading." She nodded and gave me a small hug. I wasn't going to be one of those awful people. Later Camille will remember how light years are described in A Wrinkle in Time. Later we will watch the best of time warp scenes from Star Trek, and laugh over Shatner's hair and debate who was a better captain (Picard of course). And I will sit surrounded by these beings and remember why we began this journey in the first place.

Around this new turn, I find myself staring face to face with the past. We are taking a risk raising our children this way. A leap of faith was what I called way back when Umberto was five. And we have encountered doubts that blocked our way. Umberto wasn't reading at nine and voices were telling us to quick put him in school before we ruined him. There was something wrong. And there was a block but school didn't loosen it up. Epilepsy medicine did the job. A couple of years ago it seemed like all Umberto did was play Xbox, and I was worried. This summer he had to get a second summer reading program list as he had read too many books to list on his first sheet. I am not sure what the future holds for us, and I am sure that in many ways my children will see what we have done as a failure. But I also hope that they will be able to pause and say "Wow my life was pretty interesting and it showed me other ways of seeing the world."

I end this with remembering that time does not march straight ahead. As I rounded that sharp curve on Monday, I came face to face with a wounded six year old who hid from us for a long time. And I was able to hold that child now grown and turn around to see another image. Where we will go this year, I do not know but I do know that what I have created was a way to make meaning for myself. We have to sit down again and find ways that will sustain us all.