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Perspective – Stories Told By Trees in a Giant Forest

Published August 22, 2016 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

As the saying goes, sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees – you concentrate so hard on the details that you miss the big picture. By the same token, it’s possible to notice the whole while ignoring it’s individual parts – seeing the forest but neglecting to acknowledge the trees.

Then there are those moments when you see both at the same time. It’s all about perspective.

I remember it clearly. I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, deeply engrossed in my activity, carefully cutting pieces of cardboard and taping them together to make horses and farmers to go with the cardboard barn I had made.

I could play like this for hours in my quiet, safe cocoon, fully content to be alone with my creativity.

Carefully I drew a face and clothes on the farmer with a black magic marker then folded his legs so that he could ride his cardboard horse. My world consisted of just this activity at that moment – the farmer, the horse, the barn – a little cardboard world of my own creation.

As I began cutting out the next addition to my farm, my concentration was interrupted by music floating through the wall that separated my bedroom from my brothers’ bedroom, and with the music came a mind-altering realization: While I sat playing on the floor of my room, thinking my thoughts, doing my thing, my brothers were in the next room listening to music, thinking their thoughts, and doing whatever it was they were doing.

It was a weird, out-of-body moment, a new awareness that this was not my world with all the people around me playing a specific role in it – “brother”, “Mom”, “Dad”, “teacher”. Indeed, all those people had their own world, their own thoughts and likes and dislikes. Some had been alive and thinking thoughts and doing things before I was even born!

At that moment, my egocentric understanding of life expanded. This realization didn’t diminish my feelings of self-worth – it instead made me more open to understanding others and seeing different points of view.

I have had several of these “shifts in perspective” throughout my life, moments when I understand something on a cognitive level that on its surface seems completely obvious but for a lack of recognition – like suddenly seeing both the forest and the trees.

I remember being in elementary school, my teacher quietly asking if my parents could afford to pay for the field trip to the circus, the different colored ticket I carried to the cafeteria every day for reduced-cost lunch, the food stamps and government surplus food my family qualified for – all this fed into my perception that I must be poor. By the time I was a young adult I had built a mythology on the idea that I had worked hard to overcome humble beginnings to achieve my goals.

In my mid-twenties, I interned in an urban school in a section of the city known for socioeconomic challenges.

A moment of clarity came as I tutored a third grader who was reading at a first grade level. He was struggling more than usual this particular day, and he finally looked up at me and said, “Miss, my dad is in the hospital. He OD’d last night. The ambulance came and everything. I’m really worried about him.”

That was the moment I stopped congratulating myself for pulling myself up by my bootstraps.

Because I hadn’t.

Comparatively speaking, my upbringing had been idyllic, charmed even, with the opportunity to play, and be a kid, and create farms out of cardboard – without the burden of grown-up stresses.

Admitting this fact did not diminish the pride I had in my accomplishments – it instead made me more aware of disparity and how vastly different life experiences can be.

And here again, my son and his diagnosis of autism have pushed me out of my zone of comfort into this alternate universe and an entire community I previously never knew existed, a community familiar with struggle and need.

Autism does not discriminate. The workshops, seminars, and support groups I’ve attended are a mix of people of all races, ethnicities, religions, and social classes. We share. We listen. We empathize. Our commonality is that we are all parents of children with special needs, however each of us brings our own history, our own unique personalities, talents, and challenges.

Beyond statistics and numbers, beyond stereotypes – Each of us is a story.

A few months after our son was diagnosed with autism, my husband was laid off from his job. It was 2011 and “The Great Recession” was in full swing, so our story was not unique. But then again – our story WAS unique. The emotions, the fears, and the complications that enhanced them were very much our own.

After my husband found another job and the intense stress and uncertainty subsided, I became active in social media again, only to be confronted by a barrage of memes and comments aimed at shaming the poor, the unemployed, and anyone receiving assistance from the government, despite it being a time of great need. I pushed back, not just in defense of myself but in defense of all those nameless, faceless people comprising the statistics and stereotypes.

Because the people posting these memes were my friends, they responded apologetically – of course they didn’t mean me. But I understood – they didn’t mean me only because they knew me.

To anyone who didn’t know me I was part of those statistics, recently but also when I was a child.  So, too, was the father suffering from addiction and his son who loved him, the struggling parents in my support groups, and even my son with his special needs – all trees in this giant forest.

It seemed on the surface to be so obvious but for the lack of recognition: To have the complexities of each human life reduced to a number or assigned a stereotype, was to deny each unique history, each individual story.

Understanding this on a more global level does not solve the problems of the world nor deny their existence – but it has given me the perspective to view social issues through compassionate eyes, to dig deeper even when my first reaction is anger or judgment.

I’ll admit, I sometimes find this level of awareness overwhelming. So much suffering and need; so much inequity and injustice. It would be easier to retreat to a place of safety, ignoring the complexities of problems by dismissing them with sweeping statements of condemnation.

In an increasingly cynical age, when compassion is seen as naivety and pithy clichés seem to have lost their pith, it takes a surprising amount of courage to listen to the stories told by trees in a giant forest.

But I will listen, and I will continue to challenge perceptions with those stories in the hope that others might catch a glimpse of the world from another perspective… and maybe even be convinced to stay and share some stories of their own.

 

photo courtesy of Pixabay

photo courtesy of Pixabay

 

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Clocks – The Comforting Forward Motion of Time

Published September 17, 2015 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

When my 6-year-old son and I visit the local library, we aren’t going to read books together, attend a “story time” group, or even pick out an Elmo DVD to watch later. When we visit the library, we are there to see the giant grandfather clock in the lobby.

The library is an old building, and the heavy, wooden doors in the front leading into the lobby are rarely used. The official library entrance is now on the side of the building. Every time we enter, instead of taking a right toward the stairwell leading to the Children’s Section, my boy takes a left, making a beeline for the lobby to see “his clock”.

It’s a small lobby with two reading rooms opening from it on either side. Above is a beautifully painted dome ceiling, lit from within by lights hidden from sight by a ledge. The floor below is an intricate mosaic tile design arranged in a circular pattern. My son can’t help but see this pattern as a racetrack, albeit a tight one, so compact as to force him to run at a constant slant, angled toward the middle of the design. I allow him a few laps before redirecting his attention to the clock, standing proud and aloof in the corner of the lobby against a gray column.

He first examines its pendulum swinging behind the glass door. The clock’s dependable “tick-tock” sound is not annoying like that of smaller clocks. The hollow, dark wood cabinet in which the pendulum swings provides a chamber for the sounds to mature into rich, full, well-rounded “tick-tocks” – sounds of character, depth, and wisdom. The sounds of age.

The clock is tall, the face of it starting just above my head and the number 12 well out of reach of my outstretched hand. I pick up my son so he can get a closer look at the face, reading the numbers from one to twelve, pointing to each as I go. I match the rhythm of my counting to the rhythm of the second hand. Sometimes my son watches the clock face as I count; sometimes he watches my mouth.

Not too long ago, my son discovered small windows on each side of the clock cabinet that allow you to view the moving gears inside. Now, after I finish counting, I lift him a little higher in my arms, closer to the windows so he can get a better peek. He peers in, fascinated by the metal and movement.

After a few moments the spell is broken, and he wriggles down and takes off running, arms pumping, body tilting as he races around the mosaic tile racetrack. The steady pit-pat-pit-pat of his sneakers in forward momentum, round and around – circles, loops, laps – drawing often amused, occasionally disapproving looks from nearby library patrons.

“Clock” was my son’s first word at 11 months old. It was, indeed, an odd first word. It’s not exactly an easy word for a toddler to say, what with that tricky “L”. It came out “cyock”, but one can imagine it could have been worse. I remember his chubby fist reaching for the clock hanging on the wall in his playroom, the cheap plastic pendulum swinging rhythmically back and forth in its faux wooden frame. My husband would take the clock down and lay it on the floor so that my son could examine it closely, watching the second hand tick, tick, tick around the face.

The irony of my son’s obsession with clocks is that time moves steadily forward, yet my son’s development often seems to be in a state of limbo – no changes, no growth, no milestones to mark time’s passage.

Don’t get me wrong, my son is growing and changing every day like any other child. He is of average height and weight, and his fine and gross motor skills are exceptional for his age. The anachronism lies in how my son’s autism has affected his social and communication skills. Months, even years may pass with little progress to show for it. It’s frustrating and mysterious.

Not long after his first word, “cyock”, his words disappeared. The clock measuring my boy’s social and communication skills slowed seemingly to a stop, the second hand hiccupping in the same spot on the clock face – stuck at that moment in time while the gears continued moving in his head.

There were so many things getting in the way of his learning, including obsessive compulsive and self-stimulatory behaviors – like pouring sand from his hand slowly in front of his eyes over and over, and sensory integration behaviors – like his constant need to run and jump and crash.

Time was measured in the sand slipping through his fingers and the continuous pit-pat-pit-pat of his moving feet. But there was no eye contact, no pointing, no imitating, no interest in pleasing the adults around him – none of the social skills necessary for a young child to learn to communicate.

Yet amazingly, time was working its magic, only on a very, very delayed schedule. In his 4th year, my son showed consistent signs of attention and eye contact. At 5 years old, he showed joint attention and the ability to follow where someone pointed. And finally at 6, he began showing an interest in pleasing others, imitating some actions and sounds, and understanding basic receptive language. It’s a bit like a fog lifting, the way he has suddenly become aware of the world. Maybe that’s the way all children become aware, only he’s on a much slower time scale – like I’m watching his development in slow motion.

There is a cadence, a rhythm we come to expect in life. It’s distressing when things are out of sync. Sometimes I feel as though I can see the gears moving in his head, like peering in through the windows on the side of that grandfather clock. My son is learning in his own way, in his own time.

I just need to be patient and take comfort in the forward movement of time, in the hope it offers, and in the character, depth, and wisdom it may bring – both for my son and for me.

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Luck – The Humbling Unpredictability of the Dinosaur-Filled Island of Life

Published August 4, 2015 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

I’ve written about fate and destiny and cosmic conspiracies, but luck? Luck was something to which I hadn’t given much consideration.

In fact, I used to bristle if someone said I was lucky. Saying “you’re lucky” makes it sound like you’re undeserving, like good things had come your way by chance rather than through hard work and perseverance.

Of course, when “bad luck” struck and things didn’t go as planned, I used to comfort myself with the belief that everything happens for a reason, and there was a significance I might not understand for years or even a lifetime. The comfort was in the knowledge of a larger purpose – everything would work out in the end.

But I understand now that some things just…happen. There is no reason.

Whether you want to call it luck or chance or happenstance, some things in life are random and unpredictable. The very thought of this makes a wild-eyed, breathless, hand-wringing control freak like me break out in a cold sweat.

Honestly, in the grand scheme of life I still believe in a higher purpose – the gifts we were born with that, with hard work and perseverance, lead to what could be considered our “destiny”. But I’m struck by the reality of just how many things in life are determined by mere chance:

At birth: your genetics, innate talents and intelligence, who your parents are, and where you are born – all beyond your control. As a child: your health and nutrition, socio-economic status, and the opportunities available to you to learn and develop skills – again, beyond your control.

It is not until we reach adolescence and young adulthood that we begin to realize some semblance of control. At that point in our lives it’s easy to attribute our achievements only to things that are within our power (like good-old hard work and perseverance). Although luck is all around us in different forms – from fabulous blessings to miserable misfortunes, it’s easy for this fact to be lost in a youthful sense of destiny.

Through experience, I’ve lost a bit of that self-assuredness. There are times when life is less like a box of chocolates and more like a dinosaur-filled island after a tropical storm has knocked out the electricity to the T-Rex and velociraptor paddocks with the supply ship having already departed for the mainland leaving you at the mercy of genetically engineered, carnivorous beasts.

It is, indeed, humbling when there’s a humungous T-Rex eyeball staring in through your window in the form of a pink slip or medical diagnosis or any of a million unforeseen challenges life may throw at you.

It might be mental and emotional fortitude, a soaring intellect, an amazing talent, athletic ability, or quick-wittedness that saves you from being devoured by life’s monsters…if you were indeed lucky enough to be born with such attributes and lucky enough to have had the opportunity to hone such skills.

But even then, you might need help.

I’ve written about my son being on the autism spectrum. The truth is we’re all on a spectrum of sorts, with different levels of abilities and assets to utilize and disadvantages and deficits to overcome.   It’s how we take advantage of the good luck and how we adapt to the bad that sets the course of our lives. It helps shape our character – a character that is ultimately defined by our words, our actions, and how we treat our fellow human beings.

Looking back I realize there have been times in my life when victories came from battles long fought. And, yes, there were times when good things happened seemingly by chance. But it strikes me that, especially in my most anxiety-provoking, dinosaur-filled moments, my good luck came from the kindness of others.

You can’t always be airlifted off your island, but a much-needed supply-drop, the guidance and advice of experts, or even just some words of support and encouragement can make a world of difference.

So I guess you could say I’ve been lucky. I’m grateful for the talents I possess and for the opportunities that have presented themselves along the way, but mostly I’m grateful for family and friends and people in my community I’ve never even met who have helped and supported me when I needed it most.

I truly have an amazing village helping to raise my son.

Whether life is a Whitman Sampler or Jurassic Park, the significance of our struggles and sorrows is their ability to connect us to others, to build understanding and empathy.

And the beauty in this colorful spectrum of humanity is our ability to use our gifts as a positive force in the lives of others – to be a source of someone else’s good luck.

 

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Beauty – How My Son Speaks Without Words

Published September 12, 2014 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower.
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
-William Blake

In our side yard, there is a giant maple tree. Two things make this tree special: 1. It has dark crimson leaves that stand out from the green of the surrounding trees. And 2. My boy loves this tree and thinks it is beautiful.

Truth be told, this tree isn’t in OUR side yard. It’s actually in the neighbor’s yard, but its lower branches reach out over the fence into our yard. And, truth be told, I really have no idea if my boy loves this tree or thinks it is beautiful.

My son has autism and is non-verbal. He cannot express himself through words or language at this point, and it was only a little before his fifth birthday that he showed signs of understanding what others were saying to him. Something as simple as following a request to “pick up the ball” or answering “yes” or “no” to a question are skills he has not mastered yet.

To know that my son loves the crimson maple tree in the neighbor’s yard, I need to interpret the clues he gives me…like the fact that he sometimes stops running and stands staring at the tree as its branches sway in the wind…or the way he sprints through the yard with his head tilted up towards it shouting, “I-yeee!” with a huge smile on his face…and how upset he got when he found one of its leaves on the ground and handed it to me, indicating that he wanted me to put it back on the branch from which it had fallen.

Yup, I’m pretty sure he loves that tree.

One wish I have always had is for the ability to climb inside his head – to see what he’s thinking and understand how he sees the world. Ever since he was first able to pick up and observe objects, sprinkle sand, and pour water, my son has, at times, become fixated in these activities, performing them over and over. I find myself wondering what he sees, what he’s thinking.

Why does he bring toys close to his face, moving them from the middle to the very periphery of his vision field?
What does he see when he scoops a handful of sand, lifts it to his eyes, and allows it to slowly trickle back into the sandbox?
What observations does he make as he watches a handful of pebbles bounce off the plastic table, the rubber ball, the metal railing?
What questions fill his mind as he drives himself crazy trying to catch a drop of water between his thumb and forefinger has it falls from the end of the hose?

Without language, without the ability to communicate, the workings of his mind remain inaccessible to me.

I’ve been told that he focuses on tiny grains of sand, water drops, toys, and other small objects to block out a world that is overwhelming to his senses. I have no doubt that this is true. But autistic people who have found language, like Temple Grandin and Naoki Higashida, lead me to believe there might be more to it.

Maybe it’s not just blocking out the world, maybe it’s also appreciating the world in its most minute detail.

Children his age are usually full of imagination and questions. I would think he is just as creative and curious, but without language he must make sense of his world through observation alone. His brain must find a different way to think thoughts, organize them, and learn from them. I’m guessing his imagination and the stories he invents must be quite unique, indeed!

At a recent play date, I watched three children the same age as my son running from the sandbox to the porch where they sat with their feet dangling from the edge as they sprinkled handfuls of sand onto the cement sidewalk below. Chatting happily with each other, they repeated this over and over, until I finally asked what they were doing. “Feeding the sharks!” they said.

Huh! Well, of course! The clues were there, weren’t they? After all, the route they took from the sandbox to the porch always avoided the cement walkway. And they were being very careful not to dangle their feet too close (although apparently the sharks were of a friendly variety). And how else would you feed sharks but to sprinkle food from above?

See, a child’s mind works differently from an adult’s mind…an autistic child’s mind, even more so. I was able to put the clues to the shark story together only after they had explained with words what they were imagining. With my son, however, there are no words for him to explain his thoughts. And the clues he gives to the inner workings of his mind can be as frustratingly elusive as that water drop that he just can’t capture.

But sometimes, when I’m really lucky, I feel like clues ARE there.

Like when my boy scooped up a handful of sand and ran across the yard, opening his hand and releasing a sand trail into the air as he went, I saw the joy on his face and tried to imagine what he was seeing. Perhaps he imagined something far more beautiful than just sand. Maybe to him it glittered and sparkled as it fell back to the ground, a tail for my little “comet boy” as he flew toward the sun.

I’m a writer, a lover of words and language. But I’m learning that thoughts can be conveyed in much simpler and subtler ways. It’s a form of communication that requires me to pay close attention, to act as an interpreter, to give words and meaning to the clues my son is sharing from his inner world.

On a sunny afternoon not too long ago, my son ran around the corner of the house and came to a stop. He was staring at his tree. I walked up beside him, and he looked up at me, his eyes shining. I sat down next to him in the grass, and he climbed onto my lap, and there we sat, gazing at the crimson maple tree, listening to the sounds of the birds and insects. His little body, usually bursting with movement and energy, was quiet and relaxed, watching.

He was smiling.

He was communicating.

He was sharing with me, the same way another child might point and say, “Look, Mommy! That tree is beautiful!”

He was telling me to stop, to pay attention, to not just acknowledge the tree’s existence, but to experience its beauty.

And it really IS a beautiful tree.

You know? Maybe my son CAN see heaven in a wildflower.

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Birth – Alternate Universe via C-Section

Published March 5, 2014 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

As I stated in my first post, I’m pretty sure this universe where we are right now is actually a parallel universe to the one I once inhabited.  I don’t know much about Quantum Physics, String Theory, or Hugh Everett’s “Many-Worlds” Theory, but I’ve read enough to know that this is a totally plausible explanation for where I find myself today.  What’s more, the “old me”, my alter ego back in my original universe, is right now, I’m sure, enjoying all the benefits of my hard work and careful planning.

When did my reality shift to this new universe, you ask?  Well, my adventure begins with a birth.  Not MY birth…the birth of my son.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You think I’m going to write about how, after months of anticipation and many hours of intense, painful labor, my newborn boy was placed upon me (skin-to-skin, of course, for proper bonding), and we gazed in each other’s eyes, and the heavens opened with the sound of trumpets, and we heard a chorus of angels and the sighs of thousands of small, woodland creatures, and my husband and I locked tear-filled eyes, and that moment…that was when my universe changed forever.

You’re thinking of my alter ego’s blog.  Perfectly understandable.

Because, you see, that is EXACTLY how I pictured it would be.  I can’t really be blamed for this image because all you have to do is read a few pregnancy books and talk to a few people and this is the story you are told.  Time and time again I heard, “Oh, it hurts like hell!  But as soon as you see that baby, you feel no pain.  You just fall in love and nothing else matters in the world.”

My hormone-addled, anxiety-ridden brain just ate this stuff up.  But somehow the logic side of my brain got a message through the haze and told me to prepare.  I attended birth classes, read several books on childbirth, took copious notes on color-coded index cards (in three colors – one for each stage of labor), and made a list of preferences about labor and birth to review with my doctor.  #1 preference:  Water-birth (Laboring in a big bathtub; relaxing right?  I imagined my baby swimming around like the baby on the cover of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album).  #2 preference:  Natural Childbirth (Like women through the ages, right back to cavewoman days).  #3 preference:  Epidural (Just in case, if I absolutely have to).  Things I wanted to avoid:  episiotomy (I’ll just let you Google this one) and c-section.

I read about c-sections and saw the movie about it in my childbirth class.  No one in my family had ever needed one, and since my pregnancy had been normal so far, there was no reason to believe I would need one either.  As I watched the c-section movie in class, I saw that they still put the newborn in the mom’s arms right after he was born.  I was thinking it looked like the easy way out – no pushing or sweating or crying.  They just hand you the baby.

OK, remember that the subtitle of my blog is “Life Lessons from a Cosmic Kick in the Pants”?

Cue Kick in the Pants. 

So my day of delivery arrives (ten days late), and here is a brief synopsis:  Water-birth – not possible. Natural labor – for a while until Pitocin is given.  Then, holy crap, all bets are off – just give me the damn epidural.  Complications.  Emergency c-section.

The complications had to do with my son, and the nurses worked on him for several minutes before holding him up for us to see, saying, “Here’s your baby boy!” and rushing him out the door to the NICU.

No trumpets or choirs of angels.  No sighs of small, woodland creatures.  My husband and I did look into each other’s eyes, but any tears were not tears of joy but tears of “What the hell just happened?”  Even if my son had not needed immediate care, holding him for “skin-to-skin bonding” would not have been possible like that movie had shown.  Both my arms were completely numb, and I was having difficulty breathing.

This was not beautiful.  This was traumatic.  And it definitely was not an easy way out.

Some of you might be thinking – it turned out fine.  You ended up with a wonderful little boy, so why does it matter how he was born?  It could have been worse, after all.  Indeed, it is shame that kept me from expressing my shock and sadness out loud.  After all, some women can’t have children, or have miscarried, or have lost a child.  I would not even suggest measuring my sadness with the same measuring stick used to measure their grief.

But this fact did not lessen the gnawing, hollow feeling I had for days after the birth.  I couldn’t quite identify it until a friend said something that finally brought it into focus.  “Hey!  It’s almost like you never gave birth!” she said.  I know she probably meant that all my “lady parts” were undamaged (and I had avoided the episiotomy after all).  But now my feeling had a name.

Failure.

Did I really not give birth?  Can I not claim a connection to my foremothers through the ages who sweated and cried and pushed their babies into the world?

Of course time has healed this wound, and I can honestly say that no, it does not matter how my son came into this world.  And yes, I did give birth to him, and it was not “easy”.  Maybe the scariest thing, the thing that set my universe on a different course, was that no amount of preparation could have prevented or changed these events.  They were completely out of my control.

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