Thursday, March 28, 2013

Rambling thoughts about the cross

I've always been fond of Simon of Cyrene. He's the guy who happened to be walking along the road while Jesus was heading out to be crucified, and -- presumably because Jesus was impossibly tired, having already been whipped -- Simon was forced to carry Jesus' heavy cross for a stretch.

I like Simon because his one-line appearance in the Bible tells me that Jesus accepted help from others. Simon moves me past my pride and allows me to nod yes when people step in to ease my load.

I also like Simon because he reminds me that sometimes we're pressed into service to carry crosses other than our own. That's different than being asked to carry someone else's burden, or offering to carry it. Simon was forced, which is sometimes the only way things happen. Surely, if given a choice, he would have stayed far, far away from Roman soldiers and the shame of being associated with criminals.

The third reason I like Simon is that he wasn't a main character. The bigger story unfolds after his cameo (though one imagines that, within his family, the story of great-grandpa's 15 seconds of fame was passed down with more color).  I'm no major player, either. I do what I can (or must), and it's rather a comfort that while I'm important in some way to the story, the outcome does not rely on me.

*             *             *               *

There's something poetic about the phrase "take up your cross and follow me". It's motivating, inspirational, can-do: Yes! I will!

Of course, there's the matter of figuring out what your cross actually is. There's a tendency these days to speak of traffic jams, annoying colleagues and dirty diapers as crosses, as if Jesus said, "Endure your inconveniences, and follow me". But I rather suspect that taking up the cross involves more suffering than the 45-second delay the old lady ahead of you at the ATM causes.

Crosses are orders of magnitude more than unpleasant: they're repulsive. You do not want one, it is not easy to take up, and it's even harder to slog down the endless road to Calvary with one digging into your shoulder. Crosses put you in the position of focusing on only the next step, of living through the next moment, of doing whatever the next thing it is that you have to do. With a cross, you can't necessarily see how it will turn out; in the darkness, you do not know for certain that there is light ahead. You have to trust that it is there, even if only on the other side of death.

*             *             *               *

Each of us has inner secrets and insecurities we do not want the world to discover. I suspect there is a direct relationship between these secrets and who we aspire to be. Perhaps we are afraid we are incompetent, so we protect that secret, yearning to be someone we think we are not. Or, from the flip side, perhaps we yearn to be thought of as solid Christians, and writhe in the knowledge that we're not as faith-filled as others think.

This morning I was toying with the idea that perhaps our insecurities are directly related to our crosses. Not in the sense of looking at our insecurities as our crosses, because that could lead to saying, "Oh, I'm an anxious person and I just have to live with that". (We can, after all, pick up and carry the burden of our faults around for a lifetime, without ever being the better for it.) I'm thinking more along the lines that our insecurities point out what it is we need to die to.

Ponder that one with me, and tell me what you think.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My sleepless beauty

I mentioned that Dancer performed last weekend. Among other roles, she danced two of the fairy variations in Sleeping Beauty (on different days). When she came out with a tiara and tutu I thought immediately of the last time she'd been dressed like that, when she was four and pranced around the house in dress-up clothes, hoping and waiting for the day she'd be a real ballerina. She was beautiful then, but is more beautiful now.

Here she is during bows: second row, center. Smiling, with the big girls. She will be training with Miami City Ballet this summer.

Of course, taking 16 hours of dance class a week plus rehearsals (plus schoolwork) doesn't leave much free time for things like sleep. And after five performances this weekend she was very, very tired on Monday morning. But she got up and went to school, and to ballet. Because that's what dancers do.

Dancer, I am so impressed by your hard work, so in awe of your energy, so pleased by your attitude. You make me proud.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Priorities, the hard way

Big Guy has been doing well for some time. We have not had to even think of calling 911 for over six months. And then on Thursday we had to make a call.

Four large policemen arrived. We discussed the situation, and agreed that based on the incident that triggered the call, Big Guy needed to be evaluated by a professional. So they summoned the EMTs, and off Big Guy went to the ER. Andrew went with him.

I've BTDT so many times that the first thought in my head was, "Okay, so for now everyone is safe."

That is how parents of kids like mine think. But not at first. The last time I was at the psych ER I spoke to a mom whose daughter was being admitted and said, "I know you feel like the biggest failure in the world right now, but you are awesome. You have done the very best thing you could do for your child, because right now she is SAFE. And whatever anyone thinks or anyone says, what you need to tell yourself over and over again is, my child is safe."

Despite the positive framing, there are things that are so not okay. While Big Guy was blowing up, Snuggler curled on the sofa, tears running down her face as she moaned, "Not again! Oh, no, not again!"

Little Guy screamed and ran into the bedroom and hid himself under the blankets. "No! No'! No!" he cried, "I don't want anyone to die!"

And I couldn't help them, because I had to focus entirely on managing Big Guy. Safety. Safety. Safety. There is a point where the whole world, the whole list of priorities in life reduces to safety.

I was very proud of Snuggler, who after a few minutes pulled herself together and, of her own accord, went in to solace Little Guy. Later she said, "It helped me, too, Mama. When you have to calm someone else you need to calm yourself first." That takes a degree of courage and insight that's unusual in an 11 year old.

After the police arrived and we were on safe ground again I packed up my two youngest and took them off to Dancer's dress rehearsal. I'm sure that sounds weird, but after a crisis my #1 priority shifts from safety to security, security, security. Oh how, oh how, oh how do you give a sense of security to children who have to live in an erratic and sometimes dangerous situation? How can kids grow up healthy when things can shift from safe to scary in a moment? One gives snuggles and hugs and love, and tries to keep life feeling as normal as possible. We make time and space in which to remember that this one event doesn't constitute the whole of our lives.

A delayed stress reaction hit Snuggler as we arrived at the theater. We had a bit of waiting time, so we hung out in a corner as she whimpered that she was scared. We played hangman, talked about school, waited in line. We watched -- and greatly enjoyed -- the performance. Dancer was stunning. When we got home at about 10pm, I emailed Snuggler's teachers to say they shouldn't expect to see any homework the next day.

Then Andrew called to say Big Guy had been deemed safe and was being sent home. Getting the others to bed, and more importantly to sleep, shot to the top of my priority list. Because, you see, it's hard to get to get a scared kid to sleep. Now my mantra was calm, calm, calm.

I washed dishes, talked to kids, got them to bed. Little Guy slept in the girls' room on the top bunk, "Because my brother won't find me up there." Snuggler opted to drift off in the living room, listening to an audio book.

Big Guy and Andrew arrived at midnight. Big Guy was exhausted and went straight to bed. The day was over. The next day (and perhaps for the next week or month) we'd most certainly see fallout, but it would be a new day. That wasn't today. I said my prayers, and went to sleep.

One of my favorite quotes is from Winston Churchill, who said, "When you're going through hell... keep going."

It's easier to keep going if I have my priorities in order. Be safe. Stay calm. Find the things that help you feel secure. Remember not to let the bad things become everything. Pray. And keep moving forward, at whatever tiny pace you can muster.  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Identifying problems, part II

Part one of this post is here.

If I had to make a Top 10 list of parenting skills, the ability to step back and shut up would rank somewhere near the top. Not that I've perfected the skill, of course. But when I do remember to practice it, it does tend to promote sanity, peace, the ability to retain some semblance of self control, and better relationships with my kids.

Learning to shut up is hard. It's hard because we want to be right, we want to have the last word, and on top of that our inner 8-year old imagines we're engaged in a long-ago argument with a sibling.

Another reason it hard to bite our tongues is because we've spent years instructing and correcting and being a frontal-lobe enhancement for our kids: we're in the habit of teaching them. And although we continue to instruct as kids get older, we need to do it in a different way. I think this is because two things happen around the time they are nine or ten.

The first is that -- for most things -- kids already know right from wrong. So when they do wrong we're not dealing with ignorance any more, but with something else. Like what, you ask? Oh, insecurity. Impulsivity. Immaturity. An emerging desire for independence. Self indulgence. Memory blips. Failure to apply a general concept to a specific situation. Hormones. And, of course, rationalization. (Even we adults are good at that. For a fun and interesting read, try Dan Ariely's The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.)

I don't know about you, but I get annoyed when someone tells me something obvious, especially when they imply I ought to know it but was too stupid to remember. Kids feel the same way. They  especially feel this way once they're old enough to realize they know everything and you know nothing. And this is true even when they've just demonstrated, clearly and completely, that they have not integrated the information they know into their behavior.

The second thing that happens when kids get toward tweenage is that we need to shift toward getting them to think through problems on their own. One of the best skills we can give our kids is the ability to analyze a situation and think before they act. But it's a learned skill, not one that they grow into automatically.

How do you teach without lectures? By asking more questions and making fewer statements. We don't need to ask the obvious question ("What were you thinking?") but to give kids prompts that will get them thinking. What will happen if you...? How do you think she felt? Is there a difference between what you want to do and what you should do? Why does what he says matter to you?

You may recall that the first item on my list of 15 Things I Know about Parenting a Difficult Child is this:  You can't always make it better, but you can always make it worse. I'm able to make things worse pretty quickly if I let myself misdiagnose the cause of conflicts with my kids as their inability to listen, rather than my inability to hold my tongue. Both are contributing causes, of course. But I'm the one responsible for what comes out of my mouth. It makes sense to start there.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Resources for parents of kids with "issues"

One of the wonders in my life is an email list for parents of kids who are bright but have "issues". I've been on that list for years, and believe me: it helps to have a group of BTDT people to turn to when you're baffled, frustrated, worried or need advice about something you don't want to tell your neighbor. They're the ones who taught me to put on my own oxygen mask first, who have recommended helpful books on learning disabilities and how to deal with an emotionally inflexible child, and who know a lot about how to advocate for services.

The other day two things came through. The first was Kveller's post on Ten Things I Wish Someone had Told Me About Parenting a Special Needs Child. The second was a link to the Centre for Clinical Intervention site, which has free workbooks online. The topics covered include panic attacks, perfectionism, procrastination, social anxiety, excessive worrying, distress intolerance, and more. It's not the same as getting actual help, but not a bad place to start if you're trying to figure out what kind of help your child (or you!) need with a particular issue.