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Once Again December Breaks My Brain

The first half of December breaks my brain. I know this. It happens every year. I blame it on the holiday shipping, and it is true that I ship out ten times more packages per day than at other times of the year. However it is also that I’m holding in my head all the holiday gift planning. I’m deciding whether or not to do Christmas cards or neighbor gifts. If I do them, I have to select recipients since I know and care about more people than I have the time or resources to give individual attention to.

This year I’m responding to some of the stress by doing a culling of belongings. Every thing I give away is a thing that I will never have to track, clean, or pay attention to again. And we really do need to pare back in advance of our hoped-for remodeling next year. (We desperately want to do the remodel, we don’t know if we’ll be able to fund it.) I’m working on carload #4 that is bound for thrift stores.

And then there is the emotional sorting. My oldest is moving home to stay. My second oldest is moving out and says he doesn’t think he’ll ever move back, which may be true. As part of his moving out, he’s doing some of the emotional push-pull on his parents that many kids do when they’re preparing to launch. It throws me off balance. And then off balance again when I realize that my third child is sinking into depression again, the kind that gently seeps the joy and interest out of everything. So she and I have to do something about that, but neither of us knows what yet. My youngest has one week to do enough work to prevent failing in one of his classes. His home school needs do not slack off even with holiday shipping. Though we’ve made a decision to take a break from all school things when on campus classes cease. We need a space free from tracking.

There are half a dozen blog entries I’ve partially written about the things summarized in that last paragraph. I can’t seem to clear enough head space to find the words. Instead I’m left with a day like today where I don’t want to waste the day, but I don’t have enough energy to dive into a project. I wish I did have that energy. There are so many projects that need done.

By the Numbers

Number of days ago that the assignment was due: 27
Number of times I sat down with my son to attempt to do the assignment: 4
Number of times son attempted to communicate with the teacher: 5
Number of answers we got from the teacher: 2
Number of times that the teacher’s answers provided the necessary clarification: 0
Number of frustrated conversations with my son where we try to figure out why his brain locks up and literally won’t allow him to write any words: 3
Number of words written as of this morning: 0
Reasons why I’m worn out: all of the above + 1 teen girl whose depression is intruding again + son who moves out in three weeks and is having emotions about it. Also see holiday preparations and financial stress.

Organizing My Plan to Organize

My day started out well, but around noon I started to feel muddled and unfocused. I had trouble concentrating and I couldn’t find my notebook. Several years back I adopted a one notebook approach to journaling. Any type of notes I need to write down all go into the same book. So scribbled notes about merchandise for Schlock mystery boxes sit right across from an extended journal entry where I’m sorting my brain. It is a system that has worked fairly well for me. Of course there is one significant drawback, as evidenced when I couldn’t find the book today. I’ve never truly lost one of my notebooks before. I might be uncertain where exactly I placed it, but I can usually lay my hands on it in five minutes or less. My brain knows the book is important and does a good job of indexing when and where I set it down. Today I couldn’t find it. I did my usual finding steps, and it didn’t turn up. I even drove over to the warehouse, but it wasn’t there either. I had a clear memory of using it on the day I took my daughter back to school, but not since then. I’d forgotten that I spent a portion of Tuesday sitting with Howard in his office and apparently left the notebook there.

Even with notebook in hand, I still felt a bit muddled so I went and took a shower. That was when I realized why. My head was full of a dozen sorting and organization projects. Trying to hold all of them and prioritize them and their steps was breaking my brain. So I flipped open my (thankfully located) notebook and began to write. Two pages of closely written notes later, I feel much more clear. The amount of organizing I’ve outlined is enough for several months. But now that it is all on the page, I can see which projects need to come before other projects. Hopefully that will be enough to let me get started. Unfortunately many of them are out in my unheated garage, and it is December. But I need to get at least some of them done because I need to re-locate the Christmas decoration storage to the garage instead of taking up space in my daughter’s closet.

It isn’t convenient that my brain picked now to mentally reorganize all of the things. We’ve just hit the big shipping season. As people are purchasing for the holidays I end up shipping out 10-20 packages per day. I’m grateful for every package I send out. They pay for January and February bills. Sending them takes time. I also have layout and design work for publishing projects. Those things have to come first, no matter how much my brain wants to just dive into organizing all the things. I may be able to sneak in both, but it means I need to be motivated and get moving first thing Monday morning. And I need to not allow home school to sap all of my project energy. While simultaneously not allowing home school to slump and not get done. It’s going to be a busy week.

Women at Lunch

I had a women’s lunch today with extended family. It was hosted by the woman who is the closest thing I have to a mother-in-law. She’s the woman who all but adopted Howard’s younger brothers after their mother died. And while she was adopting people she extended that adoption to Howard even though he was already in college. At least once per year she hosts this lunch to gather daughters and daughters-in-law so we can sit around a table and catch up. I love these lunches. I love these women. They’re so good, and work so hard serving their families and communities. We went round the table giving a summary of how all our kids are doing and a status report on our lives. There is no pressure or competition to make our kids sound good. In fact, we’re just as likely to spend time talking about the struggle we’re having with a particular child mixed in with loving descriptions of why that child is amazing (and driving us crazy).

Most of the women are stay-at-home mothers with husbands who earn the household income. I might be the only exception to that. In other years I’ve included information about my work in my status report. This year it was nice to be in a space where I could set work aside and just talk about my kids in detail to people who were actually interested in all those details. I’d had a similar realization talking to a friend only a day earlier. My brain is filled up with minutia about my children and most of my conversations aren’t appropriate venues for airing that minutia. It was incredibly healing both yesterday and today to share a small detail and to have the listeners react in a way that shows they know exactly what that small detail means to me in my life. They rejoice for my kids accomplishments and grieve for their struggles because they know and love my kids. Professional spaces don’t give me that validation, not about parenting. And parenting spaces don’t comprehend how to validate my professional pursuits.

After the lunch was over, I thought about all the things we shared across the table. There were so many similarities between our children and their struggles. Possible solutions were offered and ideas were exchanged. I realized that what I’d attended was a small-scale professional conference between women who take their parenting seriously. Networking between parents is every bit as critical as networking between professionals working in the same field. Sometimes the village necessary to help raise our children is right around us, other times we have to seek it out and work to maintain it. Naturally this lunch was also a meeting of family, women who have known each other for decades. We have watched each other grow up, get married, manage toddlers, and now begin launching oldest kids into adulthood. These are my sisters though I have no genetic relation to any of them. I’m so grateful to my friend, the adopted sort-of-mother-in-law who knows it is important to schedule these annual lunches.

Replacing a Windowsill

My 16 year old has developed an interest in plants. She is truly enjoying watering green things and watching them grow. The one problem she has is that there is only so much space on her windowsill and desk.

There might also be a desk clutter problem, but the widow sill is only four inches wide and thus can only accommodate a few plants. And if you take a closer look at the sill, it is plastic.

I’m fairly confident that the original builder of this house was going for inexpensive rather than durable or beautiful. The plastic has yellowed, stained, warped, and cracked. I decided to replace it with hard wood. So I spent a week sanding and staining a board. total cost for the board and stain $15. I picked a glossy stain so the finished board would easily stand up to water spillage from plants. Once my board was ready, I removed the plastic widow sill. And I discovered Styrofoam glued to the window framing.
.

I was able to easily pry up the Styrofoam, except for spots where the glue was so bonded to the wood beneath it might as well have been cement.

But the glue spots were fairly flat, so I could just install the new sill on top of them. And I did.

There are now ten inches of space on which she can arrange plants and other decorative items. We’ve moved the desk back into place (much cleaner now.) The plants will get to move into their new home as soon as the caulk dries. And now a small corner of our house is prettier than it was before.

Emotional Investment

Functionally I have three teenagers in my house. One is twenty years old and has a common autistic pattern of asynchronous development, which means chronologically he’s twenty, but in many social and emotional ways he’s in his mid teens. He’s the one I’ll be launching into a residential program in January, which has the similar life weight as heading off for college. We’re riding the push-pull emotional roller coaster of a child who wants more independence than he’s quite ready for and who doesn’t want to learn from his mom anymore. The other two are chronologically teens, but they struggle with some mental health issues which have pushed them into self awareness and communication skills that are beyond their years. They are often puzzled or frustrated by the behavior of “typical” teenagers. (I put typical in scare quotes, because it only exists statistically. No individual you examine will ever be completely typical.) I’m very grateful for the growing self awareness of my two youngest and I hope that the twenty year old is able to develop something similar using his neuro-atypical thought processes.

Parenting these three is a significant time commitment right now. Particularly since the various atypicalities have pushed us into a partial homeschooling arrangement. Their best learning paths require both on campus time and some classes done at home. I don’t have to create curriculum, but I do have to be the enforcer of schedule and the organizer of assignments. Lately I’ve been an exercise buddy for my son who is doing a PE class. Thirty minutes of walking every day for two weeks. The walking is good for me because I need more exercise. It is good to spend time with him just talking about all of the things. He’s good company. I can see all the ways these exercise requirements are forcing him to face some personal demons as well as get him up from his computer. The home school stuff is being really good, and is obviously the right educational pathway for us right now. But the mental effort I expend on it can be exhausting.

Parenting is tiring. This isn’t news. And I’ll definitely take the fatigue of assisting my child’s growth over the despairing weariness of watching my child getting smaller and more depressed. I guess I’m just pausing to acknowledge that I’m tired and that parenting is using up much of the creative space that opened up when Planet Mercenary stopped demanding full attention.

Consolidating the Rules

There is an ongoing conversation playing out online. It manifests in tweets, articles, arguments, massive headlines, and reports of charges filed. This conversation is about how our society will restructure the social rules about gender. It leads to some very real dismay from people who are now worried that they don’t understand the social rules in a place where they used to be comfortable.

The problem stems from gender based social rules. These gender based rules were a given for generations. There is one set of social rules for dealing with a woman and another for a man. We treat boy children different than girl children. Male coworkers have a different set of expectations than female coworkers. This is the reason that some people become acutely uncomfortable when they meet a transgender or non-binary person. They are not sure which set of social rules should apply, and often they respond to that discomfort with anger. They want to force the non-conforming person to fit into their binary expectations.

I’ve felt that discomfort myself, and it was only when I recognized the source of the discomfort that I was able to resolve it. I had to consolidate my categories. Instead of male person and female person, I now try to just have person. Instead of male colleague and female colleague, I try to just have colleague. There are a few situations where this doesn’t work, like the social arenas surrounding dating, love, and sex. Those areas will require more categories, not less, because gender and attraction are very relevant to the social outcomes that people hope for. And it can get extremely complicated when dating social interactions are mixed together inside a workplace, college, or other location that isn’t explicitly for romantic purposes. I haven’t had much practice with this multiplication of categories since I’m monogamously married and happy with my romantic situation. Since I’ve taken dating and romantic connection off the table, the gender of the person I’m dealing with should be irrelevant to the social interaction we are having. This is true for the vast majority of my interactions

I’m still sorting my thoughts on all of this. My opinions continue to evolve as I listen to people who are finally being heard more widely than they ever were before, and as I listen to those who are clinging to (and grieving for) a social structure that they understood and felt comfortable inside. It is a complicated conversation with many nuances and special circumstances. And it is a conversation that will never be complete because social norms are always up for discussion as generations change and as technology forces people to interact in ways they haven’t before. The internet is a huge disruptor of social order, but it isn’t the first and it won’t be the last.

For my part, I’m listening, trying to offer respect, getting it wrong, fixing my errors, and working to adapt.

On the Stairs

It was six pm and I was standing on the stairs watching my daughter on the floor of the landing while she had a panic attack. Life was too much. She could never do it all. She was failing at everything.

Every time I’m faced with one of these meltdowns, whether it be a panic attack, depressive episode, or OCD freak out, I have to choose. Do I use this moment as a learning opportunity, carefully nudging the person in front of me toward realizations? Most of the time I can so clearly see the choices they made that directly contributed to the meltdown. However, mentioning those choices often leads to lecture mode and the person shutting me out. Do I recognize the actual suffering in front of me and sit down with them in sympathy? This is more comfortable to me than confrontation, and thus I risk setting a pattern of meltdown and rescue. Except we all need rescue sometimes. Do I ignore both the sympathy and education paths to focus on management skills where they learn to set emotion aside and get stuff done anyway? Sometimes a little coaxing gets them moving, and motion makes things better. Other times, my push makes the meltdown worse, harder to pull out of. No choice is obviously right or wrong. The road is never clear.

Mostly as I stood there, leaning on the wall, I thought about how tired I was. How I’d spent several hours of afternoon helping another kid with his home school, and forcing us both to confront the fact that he is, once again, failing some of his in-school classes. That made me tired, discouraged. Because I’d thought things were going well. I’d thought he was stepping up and handling things. But he wasn’t. And we had to negotiate a carrot-and-stick agreement which hopefully will provide him with the necessary motivation to actually do the work and turn it in. I have an ongoing part in the motivational plan, a reoccurring task set, and I have to be willing to actually apply the agreed upon consequences. Even if the result is an unpleasant experience for everyone.

I also thought about how the other son has been in the depths of depression for days, completely unwilling to talk to me about it. He doesn’t want my answers. He rejects my experiences of depression and the tool set that I offer for dealing with it. He is absolutely sure that my answers won’t work for him. It is the same impasse we’ve had to varying degrees for several years now. A change is coming with the new year. It’ll be a big shift. It might finally offer him a way forward. It might be his path to a brighter and happier life. Or it might make everything much harder and darker. We have a long stretch of weeks before I can find out how the change goes. And that makes me tired too. Waiting is exhausting. Particularly when I have to watch him being miserable while I wait.

This all presses on me as I look at my daughter on the floor. The largest thought in my brain is that I really don’t want to help manage yet another emotional tangle. I was weary. In that moment, and many moments like it, I was irritated to have to deal with the excess of emotion. It was late in the day, I wanted to be unwinding and relaxing, not trading work effort for parenting effort. And I felt bad for these selfish thoughts and emotions. Maybe the right answer would have been for me to walk away. To let her figure it out for herself. I considered doing it, but I have to be completely convinced that leaving the person alone is the right course, and even then I’ll spend the time in a state of anxiety, actively preventing myself from going to them and trying to make it better. Walking away is as exhausting as staying.

So I stayed near and made exploratory statements down each possible path to see which one got a positive response. The solution turned out to be a blend: covering her with a weighted blanket and leaving her alone while I sorted a few jumbles of things in her room. Then she centered herself enough to request a reprieve from some home school assignments, which I granted. We made a plan for her to get math help the next day, and she pulled out her psychology homework. She ended up showering and heading to bed rather than completing the work, but she’ll likely be able to do it tomorrow without difficulty. We hope.

After all is sorted and calmed, I sit by myself with my computer. This wasn’t actually all that difficult a day. Not compared to days from the last several years. The ongoing struggles are real, but all of the kids are far better able to articulate what is going on inside their heads. They’re able to discuss problems and solutions with me in ways that they could not before. They’re able to listen when I explain why a situation is frustrating to me, instead of the faintest hint of my frustration turning them into curled up balls of stress panic. I can clearly see how much better off we all are than we were.
I’ll take that.
Tomorrow.
When I’ve had some time to rest.

Scattered Scenes from Arrival Day at the Writing Retreat

It turns out that packing several thick books next to blocks of chocolate will result in airport security wanting to hand search my bag. Then they will wipe down the chocolate to see if they are as advertised rather than being blocks of something explosive instead. The guy doing the search was pleasant. He took one look at my Planet Mercenary book and asked if there was a gaming convention happening. Apparently cases full of minis have been going through security today.

The pass through security was made extra interesting by the fact that my anxious 16yo started texting me just as I was dismantling my kit to pass through the scanning machines. She was worried about her math test and because of her anxiety, if I don’t answer promptly, she tends to ratchet up in intensity. So while my phone was going through the x-ray, I could hear it chiming. Then I had to decide if texting on my phone while waiting for my bag to be hand searched would make me look suspicious. I texted anyway and the staff didn’t react at all. Being middle-aged, white, blonde, female, and non-threatening almost certainly contributed to their unconcern.

The security check and reassurance of teenager both wrapped at about the same time. I told her she had my permission to completely bomb her math test. She answered:
“THANK YOU. I didn’t know I needed permission to get answers wrong until you said that. I’m still gonna do my best, but now I have permission to fail. Wow, I’m weird.”
I answered that I’m the same kind of weird, so we can hang out together in solidarity. It was a fun exchange.

I checked back an hour later. She didn’t bomb the test.

*****

The location for this retreat is lovely. I’ve not been to Phoenix before, so it was fascinating to see saguaro cacti growing along side the freeways like trees. We even have one here in the garden of the house where we are staying. The whole place feels familiar and welcoming to me. The architecture is south-west spanish influenced, just like my home town in California. The plants are similar to my home town as well (except for the saguaro). But the air is dry the way that Utah air is dry. I like all of it. I’ve even found what I think will be my preferred writing nook.

We’ll see if it is as lovely in the heat of the day as it was at sunset. In my room I discovered that my hosts went above and beyond to make me feel welcome.

They quested to locate and purchase some Rose Lemonade, which can’t have been easy and was a true kindness considering they must have had dozens of other preparatory tasks to do.

*****

Here at the retreat meals are social times. We gather to eat and talk. I’ve begun to learn names. I suppose I should have prepared for the “what are you working on” questions. It is so hard to not frame my answers as apologies. Apologizing for not working on a novel like so many of the others. Instead I practiced my professional skills and spoke positively about the writing work I’ve been doing on Planet Mercenary. After the fact I realized that I can also speak about the writing I do on Kickstarter updates and customer support emails. These are genres of writing that take every bit as much forethought and effort as any other form of writing that I’ve done.

I’m quite tired this evening, so I’ll likely turn in early. Tomorrow I’ll venture forth and write more words.

The Waiting Place… Again

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow…
…or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another chance
Everyone is just waiting.
–Dr. Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go!

I’ve posted this quote before. It always runs through my head when I realize that part of my brain is waiting for an event. Today I’m waiting for multiple things. The most prominent being the fact that I’m waiting for a shuttle to take me to the airport, where I will wait to get on a plane, then wait to get off a plane, then wait for a ride to get to my destination. Of course the shuttle isn’t due to arrive for three hours. Theoretically I could get a lot of work done in those hours, in practice it is difficult to get my brain to engage with the work because I know I’ll have to stop in order to leave. In part, writing this post is helping my creative brain warm up to the idea that we can do something useful with the next three hours instead of just making the time pass quickly by watching Netflix.

I’m waiting on a larger scale as well. It shows clearly in my paper journal where I allow myself to be repetitive with my thoughts and words. Lately there have been a lot of lists like this:
3 weeks to Thanksgiving
6 weeks until college girl is permanently home from college (graduation in Spring)
7.5 weeks until Christmas
8.5 weeks until 20yo starts his residential “Autism school for Adulting” program.

I’m counting down because the change in who lives at home will be a big shift in our household dynamics. I’m curious to see how it will play out. Also I’m very excited for both kids to be moving forward into the next phase of their lives. There is also an element of making myself accustomed to the idea that my second child will be leaving home. I’d resigned myself to a long, slow launch that I figured would take another five years or more. But he’s anxious to get out and build his own life, so this guided program lets him move out far earlier than he could do solo. It has been less than a month since he decided he wanted it, applied, and was accepted. I’m still re-calibrating.

And I’m struggling to not switch over into waiting mode. Waiting mode isn’t very creatively productive. Instead I remind myself that I’ve been waiting for this trip to a writing retreat for almost a year. I need to not spend the retreat focused on waiting for something else. And that starts by not spending the next 2.5 hours waiting for a shuttle.