Beneath the stars, the faint, few stars that the city lights let me see.
While taking the dog out for a pre-bedtime pee, the geese spoke to me.
As they always do.
Of homecoming. Homegoing.
Of how the sky is a highway. A flyway.
This morning, I thought of sketching them, the geese.
I thought of painting them.
Embroidering them, quilting them.
Making a mark, my marks, on the world.
My own kind of arrival.
This past year, and a half, this past long, silent, heavy stretch, I haven’t been making. Not much. I’ve just been surviving.
Looking for myself. In the blur of looking after everyone else.
I’ve not been lost, exactly. I’ve always known, every step, where I am. Just unhappy, unsatisfied, uneasy with my strange surroundings.
It’s been a vague, noisy, demanding, trying, empty, closed time.
Without any signposts.
But the geese don’t need signposts.
All they need is open.
They use their senses. Their sense of place. Their past experience. They muscle their way up into the open sky, then down into open water. They can tell North and South based on how they sense the magnetic pull. They use the wind, refusing to fly when it isn’t at their backs, helping them. They use each other, drafting. They use the quiet of night. They use the water, to escape to, when they’re moulting and can’t fly, and need safety. They call to each other, pointing their beaks up to the sky, when it’s time to go. They cheer each other on when flying in formation. They pay attention to the length of the day, to tell them when it’s time to migrate. They wait for ice to disappear.
Spring Equinox. Meltwater.
The same things that help me feel more alive, that tell me there’s hope ahead – these are the clocks geese listen to.
The geese are the clock I listen to.
Last night, they told me that the world has turned.
That there is life here.
Here in the crunchy, dirty, half-melted lumps of snow.
Here in the still-frozen dirt.
Here in the overly-full drawer of quilting fabric in my basement, that I painted and collected and delighted in during happier, more productive days. That past-me bought for future-me to someday make a fabric-art piece of the geese.
I went for a long walk today. Which is a big deal, because four days ago I fell flat on my back thanks to a patch of ice in my yard, and I was pretty sure I broke something somewhere in my hindquarters. With my early-onset osteoporosis, I’m so not kidding. But, very very thankfully, it’s something more than a bruise but less than a fracture, because I was able to pick myself up off the ground on my own, and I’ve been getting better every day. I’ve broken enough bones to know that things don’t progress quite this fast when it’s a true break. So, a nice long walk today. I limped the last half of it, but I did it.
I tell you this not because of my fall, though, but because of something more important. While I was on my walk, I was able to hear the birds. Feel the sunshine. See the trees. I stopped and took a few pictures – not because the landscape was beautiful (it was scrubby, littered, meltwater slushponds with a tree here and there, that end-of-winter blech) – but because I saw some sites I might want to sketch. I found a spark of joy, though my camera. I felt like an artist again.
The thing with depression is that it covers up that capacity for joy. In layers and layers of wet blankets, so heavy that you just collapse under the weight and stop struggling. You learn how to hunker down. Wait it out. Wait for it to lift. Somehow.
The seagulls circled overhead. The sun glinted off their wings with silvery flashes. There was a lone duck in one of the ponds, looking lost. The red-winged blackbirds called to each other with their unmistakable harmonica-like trills. Or maybe an accordion? Something both harsh and lovely.
When I got home and scrolled through the pictures, looking for sketching ideas, I was astonished at the liquid gold quality of the just-before-sunset light. It was so pure, making the most mundane scenes look regal and full of promise.
And that’s what the first steps coming out of depression feel like. Full of promise. Well, maybe half-full. A quarter. But there is promise there. Hope. That each day might be just a tiny bit better, easier, lighter than the one before.
I was able to taste today. Feel hunger. I picked up some hand-sewing for the first time in a long while. I sketched.
Joy comes one step at a time. One walk at a time. One day at a time.
That was yesterday. Today is harder. I was able to do more with my limited movement – climb the stairs more easily, balance on one leg while getting out of the shower, walk over varied heights of snow. So of course, I tried catching up on all the household chores that have been put on hold for most of the week. And I got so frustrated at having to sit down halfway through the vacuuming. But as I sat, fuming, I noticed chickadees flittering up and around my new birdfeeder. The one made of a discarded milk carton and scavenged toys that my daughter and I made together, and the one that caused me to slip on the ice in the first place, trying to hang it. And my grumpiness got a little bit better, watching them. Waiting for my aching back and hip to simmer down.
Joy, happiness, peace is piecemeal. It comes, and goes, bits at a time. I’ve adapted to my hardships with a surpising resilience that is supported by some memory problems, making it easier for me to move on, adjust to changes both big and small, shoulder another burden or let disappointments, if not go, then recede.
I walked again today. In the woods this time, more than the fields. Joy was harder to come by, but there were some tree shapes that called to me to snap pictures of, that made my fingers itchy to sketch. I’ll keep walking. There will be more joyful moments. Those chickadees today almost made me smile. Soon smiles will come easily again.
I’ll just keep collecting joy-filled moments. One step at a time.
Yesterday, my youngest learned how to ride a two-wheeled bike. Flying free. Shrieks and giggles and crowing filling the air. “I did it, Mommy! Did you see me? Did you SEE?!? I can’t believe I did it!”
“You didn’t just do it, Lovey, you ARE doing it! Look at you go! You’re doing it!!!”
She soared on ahead, too fast for my jogging to keep up, sure and proud and wobbly-confident, as only someone who has been trying for two whole summers can be. It took her until she turned seven to be able to – her fear stopped her, before. Her cousin, only six weeks younger than her, has already been two-wheeling for two years. But, her brother, six years older, still hasn’t managed this feat.
For a long time, I feared my daughter would follow my son’s path, stubbornly refusing to even try. I don’t know how many tear-filled, yelling, frustrating bike-holding sessions I’ve had, now. I’ve been trying to convince one child or the other to give it a go for nine years now. It was only once I heard that other autistic kids, especially those with Asperger’s, also resist things like learning to ride a bike (gross motor skills not being their strong suit), that I very sadly and reluctantly gave up trying to help my son learn. To his great relief.
The thing with having a more-neuro-normative younger child, though, who naturally looks up to her older brother, is that she also emulates many of his behaviours – only very slowly catching on, from her more mainstream friends, which of these behaviours are somewhat weird. So, when she informed when she was five, and repeated more and more vociferously ever since, that biking was NOT for her, and that she was NEVER going to do it, I kept just quietly telling her that I believed in her, that we don’t give up on each other, and that when she was ready, she would know.
Yesterday was that day.
I’m also trying, these days, not to give up on myself. I’ve been in a depressive slump for several months now, and it’s not getting better. Combined with some health issues that have seen me spend a lot more hours in bed than I’m used to, and which have thrown off my exercise routine for months, and combined with Coronavirus-related self-isolation thanks to my germy kids, these days, I’m just hunkering down and surviving. Reading, and listening to, a lot of books. Getting outside for walks whenever my body lets me.
I’ve even been watching movies and shows on Netflix – a very rare thing for me. Normally I don’t have the patience for stories and jokes that most other people seem to enjoy. And my vision problems also necessitate limited screentime. But, after it being recommended to me by several people who don’t have non-neurotypical children, I’ve started watching “Atypical”. And I’ve been surprised by its kind, thoughtful accuracy. Especially from the parents’ perspectives. The dad struggles with bonding with a son who refuses physical touch, who has no common interests, who seemingly rejects him. I’ve spent years listening to endless monologues on topics of absolutely no interest to me, like tanks and bullets and fancy sportscars and videogames, trying to demonstrate interest and support with some level of authenticity. I feel for this TV dad. He gets me. The mom attends a support group for parents of children on the spectrum. How I wish I had one, too. I attended something similar, once, when my son was eight and at his most unpredictably violent. But, unlike TV fantasyland, in real life, my son is not atypical enough, and is too high-functioning to qualify for what supports do exist, and that support group was just one more place where I don’t belong. The TV show younger sister is also another disconnect for me, as she protects her strange older brother, helping out her parents, whereas in my life, I have to be the protector of the younger sibling from the older one. So, some familiarity from this TV show, some small sense of community. But as much reflection of my otherness, as I so often feel.
Today, after her first big fall and sizeable scrape, I showed my daughter the exact spot where my son fell, off his training wheel bike, when he was three-and-a-half years old, a decade or so ago. He still remembers every detail (an excellent memory being another Asperger’s trait), and is still angry about it, and still uses it as a reason why he will never bike again. She mulled this over all the way home.
“Do you think I’m brave, Mom?” she asks, while peddaling.
“I do, Honeybun. Brave people get back up again. Brave people try getting back on their bikes.”
“But I cried when I fell.”
“Well yeah! A big fall and a big bleeding scrape is worth crying about! But you didn’t only cry, Darling. You cried, and when you were done, you decided to not walk your bike home, but to get back on and try again. That’s what’s brave. Everybody cries. But not everybody tries.”
“Brother didn’t try, did he.”
“Well, I kept trying, with him. I tried different bikes. I tried waiting until he was older. I tried a bike camp. I tried a three-wheeled recumbent bike. I tried coaching and cheering and holding and demonstrating, but the thing is, I can’t MAKE him want to bike. Your brother decided, when he was only three years old, that he wouldn’t bike, ever. And he hasn’t. He’s tried lots of other things, but he decided not to try this. And it took me a long, long time to accept that about him.”
“Mommy, why is Brother so angry all the time? He would have cried and cried about a scrape like mine, right?”
“Oh yes, boy would he ever. He would have screamed and stomped and made a scene loud enough to bring the neighbours out. In fact, he did. There’s lots of times I had to leave places with your brother, before you were born, because of the fusses he made. Like restaurants, and theatres, and libraries and soccer practice. That’s one of the things about how your brother thinks differently than you and I do. You know, though, we’re lucky. We’re not mad at the world all the time, like he is. We don’t blame each other for stuff, like he does.”
“Yeah! We’re on Team Cheerful!”
“We sure are, my Lovey. Thank goodness for that.”
At home, she took charge of cleaning her scrape while I made her a snack. There was a wince or two, but mostly just pride. It was a scrape to be proud of.
It stuns me, and saddens me, how different my two kids are. In almost every way. And it exhausts me, how different my parenting needs to be, for each of them. Including having to defend these parenting differences to each of them when things appear unfair or unbalanced. And having to defend my love-first approach to my skeptical family, who think that an old-school, unswerving, laying-down-the-law approach is just what my (what they see as miscreant) teenage son needs.
I stopped trying to educate my family about autism a long, lonely, frustrating time ago. I also stopped trying to explain depression. Not only do I not have the energy, but I no longer have the will. I’m so tired of having to explain, describe, defend my illness, my treatment choices, my limitations. Or my son’s. Most especially, how chronic Major Depressive Disorder is. Or how autism is not something you grow out of. How difficult either is to manage. “But I thought you were getting better!” is what I most often hear, when I open up about being in another depressive episode. “Don’t you think maybe you don’t need your medication?” is the second most common comment. It parallels eerily with comments I get about my love life. “But you’re dating a man! How can you be queer?”
I’ve just finished reading “We Have Always Been Here”, by Samra Habib. A memoir about being a queer Muslim in Canada. This book was full of the feeling of otherness, of being othered. Of the strange, disquieting, surreal sense of not being like anyone else in any of your communities, of not having community. While there were so many experiences she wrote about that I don’t share, still, her being seen made me feel seen too.
“Mummy, can we go for a bikeride again tomorrow?” my inexhaustible daughter asks at bedtime.
“We sure can! Lots. And the beautiful thing about learning to ride a bike, Love, is that once you know how, once you have that feeling in your body, that memory of how to balance inside of you, once you KNOW you can, you never forget.”
“Can we go on the bike path, like the big kids do?”
“My Darling, don’t you know that you’re one of the big kids now?”
“I am? Really?”
“Yup. You are. There’s no going back. Bike paths forever, now.”
She smiles proudly, shyly, and giggles into her pillow.
For me, there is sadness in seeing how much she feels she doesn’t belong, and in seeing her elation when she realizes she does fit in. And in knowing that my son feels that alienation too, and that his opportunities for belonging are so much fewer.
One thing I can give them is my own strength, and belief in myself, in living life solo, beautifully. I can choose not to give up on myself. I can choose to keep believing that tomorrow will be better than today.