A week ago today the island of Cozumel, Mexico was outside my stateroom window. Memories of the cruise sit in a strange space in my brain, like they belong to another life somehow. I read posts on social media from my fellow travelers about how they are sad it is all over. I haven’t been sad, but I think that is because my brain has decided that the cruise workshop space still exists and I’ve just stepped away for a bit. It feels as if I could just step back. Or maybe as if I’ve bundled it up small and carry it with me.
The trip was not made entirely of joy and awesomeness. This is because Howard and I accidentally packed along some emotional baggage. As this sort of baggage tends to be invisible, we tripped over it on a couple of days until we managed to identify it and get it safely stowed away. Perhaps that is why I’m not sad about being off the ship, perhaps it is because, when we left the stateroom, I left some of that stuff behind. I hope the porter doesn’t mind cleaning it up. Though it likely evaporated by itself without me there to sustain it. Yet the hard bits are vague in my memory and the lovely parts are crystal clear. All the photos remind me of happiness and the entire trip was a gift, one I shall treasure.
The attendees have been sharing their photos of the trip. As I flip through the folders I realize that while we were all on the same ship, each of us had an experience that was unique. I see photos of places I did not go, of people I did not spend much time with. That was one of the powers of the cruise as a location. Each person could choose what sort of trip they wanted to have. Some stayed on the ship and wrote, or read. Others went on tours and sampled native foods.
I learned that building a house in Jamaica is a multi-generational project. They build a few rooms and move in, only adding to the house as funds come available. We saw lots of open and thriving businesses whose upper stories were construction zones.
I wore a silly hat and walked through a cave that has been traversed by a Spanish governor, pirates, runaway slaves, and nightclub goers. The very air of the cave reminded me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, which told me I was passing through the original. I stared up in wonder as bats flew overhead.
And then there are the things for which I don’t have pictures.
As I said earlier, the trip was a gift. It is one I’d love to share. Registration for next year’s cruise will open in a couple of months, I hope that many amazing people will be able to join us because we plan to make it even better. I know I feel honored to have been a part of it.
I just contacted my Patch’s cello teacher to tell her we’re not coming for a while. I called it an “indefinite hiatus,” but the truth is that we’re not likely to come back. In the two years he has been playing, Patch has grown increasingly less able to face cello practicing and cello lessons. Finally I looked him in the eyes and said “If you don’t like the lessons, and you don’t enjoy orchestra, and you don’t want to practice, then maybe you just don’t like cello.” The light dawned in his eyes. He finally recognized that while he wants to like it, right now he doesn’t. Right now it is one thing too many. Right now he needs to focus on some other things. So we’ve cancelled the private lessons. I’ll go talk to the school counselors and see about getting him transferred into chorus for his music credit. (No at-home practice required.) Then I’ll take the cello back to the music store from which we rented it. One less expense, one less stress.
This is not a failure. Making sure Patch sees that is my one goal in this letting go process. I don’t even need to grieve. I would have loved for him to love playing cello. Since he doesn’t, I’ll wait to see what other thing comes to him that he loves.
When I pick up a book in the middle after I’ve not read in a while, there is always an orientation period where I have to read and remember where I was in the story, who is talking, what is the plot driving the characters forward. Today has been like that. I have been re-settling myself back into my house and my parenting roles. I sort through the fridge to see how the contents have changed while I was gone. I run loads of laundry and I run errands. I contact teachers of my two sons, both of whom stayed home from school while I was gone. One by one I pick up the tasks that I put down before I left. They feel lighter than they did before. The rest was good.
I still have tasks to pick up. Most notable are the business tasks. There is accounting and shipping to do tomorrow. Then I have to dive into layout work on Planet Mercenary. Howard and Alan need to see their words in context so that they know the words are working the way they need to. The house could use vacuuming and I really need to finish off the pin sorting project that has been living in our family room for a month. The flower beds need to be weeded and planted so that I will have a fresh crop of flowers for future me to enjoy. There are grapes to pick and turn into juice.
And I want to take time to draft the pair of picture books which showed up in my head and are wanting attention. Then there are the edits on House in the Hollow.
It feels very nice to have my head buzzing with things I want to do instead of just trudging from chore to chore.
Before this trip I had never been on a cruise. I’d never been interested in them. They seemed the sort of thing that would appeal to other people, not me. And there is truth in that instinct. I would not have enjoyed this cruise as much if it were not full of fascinating writer-people to talk to. There have been times when I ate lunch with a random selection of people from the ship. They were friendly and we had a pleasant conversation, but it was not the sort of energizing conversation that I have with writers or the family members of writers. On the other hand, I suspect my experience is somewhat typical. The cruise offers such an array of activities that there are certain to be some that lie outside the interests of any particular individual.
I expected luxury, and I expected to feel guilty about having that luxury. Saying “I’m going on a cruise” feels privileged and self-indulgent, and it is, but it is also an eye opening educational experience in ways that I did not expect. Before I spent a week on a ship I was never able to distinguish port from starboard. Now that happens instinctively because I need it to find my way from one place to another. Until I stood at night looking over the railing at endless water and felt the deck under my feet moving slightly, I did not understand what was meant when people said they feel “at sea.” There were a couple of days during the cruise where I felt emotionally off balance and disconnected from myself, as if I were lost out in the ocean. Looking down at those waves I comprehended that the ship was the only safety available. If I were to go into the water I would die before I could find any other safety. My creative mind helpfully pictured that for me and I visualized myself swimming, watching the ship get ever further away. Then I stepped away from the rail and went back inside where there were walls between me and the vastness of the ocean. On a map, we’ve never been that far from land, just tooling around between Florida and various islands in the Caribbean, dodging Cuba. Looking out to sea, I realize how big the world is.
On the first day there was a paper in my stateroom introducing the ship captain and crew members. I tossed that paper without really reading it. The captain seemed as irrelevant to me as the various airplane pilots who have taken me places. Here at the end of the week, I see it all differently. I’ve heard the captain’s voice announcing arrivals and departures. I’ve heard him explaining why the ship stopped unexpectedly in the middle of the night (because some drunk guy told his wife he was going to jump off the ship, and she panicked and called the emergency line.) I’ve heard him explain that a medical helicopter would be landing to remove a very sick patient. I’ve seen him across the room as he stopped by one of our social events. Slowly I’ve come to understand that we are all in his hands, that his decisions truly matter for the course of the ship and for my experience on it. I also begin to feel connected to nautical tradition where out on the ocean everything stops or changes to help others in distress. I watch the social atmosphere and tiers of service and interaction on the ship. Then I realize that I am participating in cruise traditions that have their roots hundreds of years ago. I begin to understand in ways that I did not before.
I expected to feel uncomfortable being served and waited on. During the first day I thought that expectation was justified when I saw how much of the serving staff had brown skin and that the majority of the vacationers were white. Then I witnessed how many staff members read my badge and greeted me by name. Then a staff member saw Howard on shore and stopped Howard to make him sit down and wait for a car to take him back to the ship. The staff member realized that Howard was on the front edge of heat exhaustion. I watched native tour guides and heard their accents in context without the slight deference that accented people always display in the US. I hadn’t even realized that the deference was there until I saw Mexican and Jamaican tour guides standing strong and confident in their own countries. They were professionals, intelligent and very good at a very difficult job. All of the serving staff are smart, sharp, highly trained, and function so smoothly that most guests will never notice the multitude of ways that their stay has been made easier. I have been meeting the eyes of staff, learning their names, and giving them as much professional respect as our brief encounters will allow.
I was surprised at how international an experience I’m having on the ship. I knew I would encounter other cultures on the shore, but I find them on the ship as well. Our captain has an eastern European accent. Most of the staff are not from the US. Among the guests I’ve heard a dozen different languages. Many of our retreat attendees have come from outside the US. I love hearing voices with different perspectives. It helps me see my assumptions which had been invisible before.
The ship itself surprises me in small ways. The bathrooms all have thresholds to step over and they latch in ways that remind me I am on a ship, not in a hotel. Most of the time, I am only aware of the motion of the ship as a slight rumble, not really different than the rumble from an air conditioning system in a building. But then there will be a moment where I feel as if I am dizzy. I’m not. It is just that the room is moving slightly around me. Once I identify the motion of the ship, I can adapt for it without trouble. I brought sea sickness remedies, but I have not needed any of them. I enjoy watching the logistics of getting the massive ship into and out of a port. The sunsets at sea have been uniformly gorgeous, which has more to do with the clouds and the sea than the ship, but they surprise me and it is only on the ship that I can see them this way. Behind the ship the wake stays visible all the way to the horizon and gives me thoughts about how we all mark the world by our passing.
We have already scheduled the cruise for next year. I’ll be going again. Next time I’ll be much more familiar with how the ship works. Howard and I will not attempt to go without internet because apparently we keep portions of our cognitive functioning stored in the cloud. I did no writing until I was reconnected to the internet. I have mixed feelings about that. Things that were unexpected obstacles this time will not be problems next time because we’ll know what to expect. I do hope that I’ll learn as much next year as I have this year. I believe I will because it was other people who taught me and I will not run out of things to learn from others. I’ve learned and grown from my conversations with the attendees and the staff on the ship. It will be interesting to see how all my new thoughts settle when I get back home.
Last week I mentioned that I got a new diagnosis for one of my kids. Link has autism. Link accepted this information with very little emotional reaction. Which is how he often reacts to new information. Then days or months later he’ll come and ask questions about the thing I’ve told him. So far he hasn’t bothered to ask me anything, which could mean he’s fine with it, or could mean the thoughts are still percolating. I’ve spent the last week or more sorting out my tangle of emotions about this. It is strange to suddenly discover, after eighteen years, that I am the parent of an autistic child.
Things I am feeling:
Guilt: This kid has had full behavioral psych profiles four different times in his life. At each one there were indicators for autism, but the professionals and I said “I don’t think it is.” We said that because when he’s relaxed and happy he’s able to meet eyes and empathize with others. He also doesn’t have some of the stereotypical behaviors like stimming or echolalia. The guilt is because I was satisfied with “we don’t think so” and never requested the extra step to check.
Peace: Because I know that at every single stage of Link’s life I have done everything in my power to help him. I made the best decisions I could based on the information I had at the time. I’ve worked hard for this kid and he has worked hard too. It is possible that an earlier diagnosis would have opened doors and treatment options for him. It is also possible that he is more advanced and socialized now because he was not shunted off into an autism educational track. There is no way for me to know and woulda coulda shoulda is not a useful game to play.
Hopeful: Because this diagnosis opens up access to some transitional programs that are designed to help people with Link’s particular set of challenges. We have a clearer path into independent adulthood than we did a month ago.
Worried: Because I don’t know how the autism label will affect Link’s self conception and I don’t know how the world will perceive and treat him because of it. So far the signs are hopeful. When I told Link he’s high functioning and that autism has a huge range of expression, it seemed to shift his self view. Suddenly instead of being at the low/disabled end of one spectrum, he’s at the high/most-capable end of a different one. I’ve seen the same out in the world. When I tried to describe his challenges before, I had to use a lot of words and often wasn’t able to convey what he needed. But the world is familiar with autism. When I say “he’s autistic” people nod and know how to adjust for him. And they say “He does really well. I can’t even tell.” So maybe my worries are unfounded, but they linger in my head and will for a while.
Tired: Because all the thinking and emotions are exhausting. Also we still have a long road ahead of us to help Link get to an independent adulthood.
Awkward: There is this huge community of autism parents out there and suddenly I have the diagnosis that says I belong. Except I don’t believe that my experience with Link is comparable to the experience of a parent whose child is profoundly autistic and who has had to bend their entire lives around autism management. As with any community there are social rules, controversies, and hot buttons. I don’t know them and so I don’t know if I want to dive in and participate. I don’t need another community. Or maybe I do. Maybe I need friends and guides who have been down the path that I need to walk with Link.
Awkward: (with a side order of embarrassed) My life is full of people who have known Link his whole life. Each time I encounter one I have to decide whether or not to say “Oh by the way, Link is autistic.” I have to decide if saying it is relevant to the person and relationship. I have to evaluate which people will feel hurt/upset if they are not told. I have to consider if having the label will change their interactions with Link in good ways or in unfortunate ways. If I do say something, I then have to watch them react and have emotions about the information. There is also an element of embarrassment here. “Hi my son is autistic, but I’m so clueless I didn’t figure it out until he was eighteen years old.”
Sad: The sadness is not new nor really altered by the diagnosis. It is the same sadness I sometimes feel for my other kids too. I’m sad that things which come easily to other kids are so difficult for mine.
Regret: I do wish we’d had this diagnosis at least a year or two earlier. High school has been really rough on us and we would have approached it differently. The last year has been a crash course in standard educational modes not working and learning to adjust.
Enlightened: When viewed through a lens of “this is autism” many of Link’s quirks begin to make sense. He does not think in words, so when he speaks to us, he is translating. He reports that when he does have thoughts in words it is only because he pictures someone in his head saying the thoughts to him. The fact that he has a specific set of “going out in public” clothes in very bright colors, this is his visual name, a visual signature. There are other things too. I can see why the autism diagnosis is correct.
Quiet: For the past year or more I had this clock ticking in my head, telling me that time was running out. I could see that eighteenth birthday coming. I knew the rules changed afterward. Maybe it was passing that birthday and discovering things on the other side not so different. Maybe it was recognizing that he doesn’t need to graduate from high school on the same schedule as everyone else. Maybe it was Link passing his Eagle Scout board of review. Or maybe it was the new diagnosis. The clock stopped ticking in my head. I’m no longer afraid that I’m running out of time.
So far I’m the one with the most emotions about this. Howard and the other kids found it hopeful/interesting and proceeded with their regular things. I had more sorting to do. Probably because I’m in the middle of an emotional sorting process anyway. Now we see what comes next. I’m hoping for a stable period where we all quietly grow.
This morning I had a conversation with a friend who was having to decide between a professional event and helping a relative post-surgery. She knew I’d understand because I’m leaving on Saturday and I’ll leave behind three kids who all have school schedules and mental health issues. I’ll leave them in the care of a responsible adult. They will be fine, but it is entirely possible that me being gone will trigger anxiety and panic episodes. And then they’ll have to deal with that. I may come home to emotional clean up. The responsible adult who is coming to watch my kids had to arrange for eldercare for her mother-in-law while she would be gone. None of these things had to land on top of each other. There were lots of other weeks available. But my experience is that my kids are most likely to melt down when I have somewhere I’m supposed to be.
Life is messy. All the things interfere with all the other things. I wish they wouldn’t, but if I put “non essential” things on hold until there is a clear space for them, then I’d never get to them at all. And some of those non essential things are actually pretty critical. It is true that even if it doesn’t rain, you can draw water from the well. Yet if the rain is gone long enough, the aquifer empties and the well goes dry.
So, barring death or dire circumstances, I am going on a trip. On the far side of it we will all have had experiences that are new and maybe we’ll all have grown. Even if there are emotions to untangle when I return, taking the trip is the right choice this time.
One week from today I’ll be on a ship en route to the Caribbean. I’ve never been on a cruise ship before, nor have I been to that part of the world. This is both exciting and anxiety inducing. I’ve watched as the final schedule for the writing and workshop portion of this event comes together. It is going to be an amazing trip, but I am definitely going to come home tired. I will have hiked in new places and spent hours working to make sure that the attendees and their families are happy with their trips. I’ll have almost no access to the internet while I’m gone, but I may write up blog posts to put online when I get back. Or I might spend my writing time on fiction. I don’t know what thoughts this trip will unfold in my head.
Between now and my departure I have much work to do in order to get my house, my business, and my kids ready for me to be gone. I’ve arranged to import a responsible adult, but I have instructions to write so the adult will know who needs to go where and when. I also have to pack. Oh, and there is also my son’s Eagle Scout board of review and two Parent Teacher conference days along with all the regular things. It is going to be a busy couple of weeks.
“I’m scared of earthquakes.” Gleek launched into this statement almost before she cleared the door to enter my room. Her face was pale, wide-eyed, and a little teary.
“Okay.” I said putting down my book and scooting over so there was room for her next to me on my bed. “What makes you scared about earthquakes today?” I always ask questions when my kids are mired in anxiety. Additional information helps me figure out which flavor of anxiety we’re attempting to manage. It matters because sometimes the anxiety needs to be laughed at and sometimes it needs to be sympathized with.
“I’ve been scared for days. My history teacher says there is a huge fault here in Utah and it is sixty years overdue for an earthquake. And now I’m scared that the earthquake will come and knock down our house and destroy everything.”
So we talked at length about earthquakes. I grew up in California and lived in the Bay Area during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which knocked down a section of the Bay Bridge and collapsed a long section of the Cypress freeway. That quake had more than a dozen aftershocks over the next two years. I also remember the Livermore quake and its aftershocks. I was able to tell her what an earthquake feels like and that humans are much smarter about building structures that are earthquake safe. I told her about many different earthquakes and how mostly it was just an interesting (if unnerving) experience with little or no damage done. Then we talked about her anxiety disorder and how it makes her more afraid than she needs to be. Yes an earthquake might strike, but beyond some basic emergency preparedness there is nothing we can do about it. We certainly shouldn’t let our daily lives be affected by fear of earthquakes.
Gleek acknowledged all of this and said “Usually when I’m scared of things and the scared won’t go away, I have to talk it out.” I loved hearing the self awareness in her voice. She has grown so much and has developed a solid set of coping strategies. Her fourteen year old strategies are worlds better than the ones she was employing at twelve.
This is a thing I need to remember when Patch responds to stress by becoming uncommunicative instead of engaging with me to figure out where the stress is coming from. When he finally spoke with me (after missing his bus) we were able to determine a specific problem that could be easily fixed. Patch is still acquiring good strategies. I just need to put structural support in place and give him time.
Gleek wound down from her outpouring of earthquake fear. Oddly, the most comforting thing I said was that sometimes I’d only know there was an earthquake because I’d see the lights swaying on the ceiling. Gleek now has plans to hang some things from her bedroom ceiling so she’ll be able to see if there is an an earthquake and get under her desk. On one level she knows that this warning system does little to protect her from the real possibility of an earthquake, but it is a small tool she can use to quell the anxiety. “See the hanging things aren’t moving. We’re fine.”
The other thing I’ll do is go have a word with Gleek’s teacher and let her know that while I understand she has the responsibility to teach about hazards in our area, maybe she could do so in a way that isn’t going to trigger anxiety for the anxiety prone kids.
I recently read an online article from Amanda Palmer talking about her creative life and her impending motherhood. My life has been so different from hers. I dove into parenting while still in college, so adulthood and motherhood were all tangled up together. For a long time all my creativity was absorbed into my parenting and homemaking efforts. It was only later that I began to create in ways that were shareable outside the walls of my house. Palmer’s fears about the impact of motherhood on her life are valid. All anyone can say for certain is that what comes afterward will be different than what came before.
I’m thinking much about the impact of parenting on creativity. I think about it often as I contemplate the novel I’m still writing years after I began it. I spiraled down into depression thinking about this over the past year or more as the needs of my children loomed and my creative spaces vanished. I thought about it now during the second week of school where we’d not yet had any emotional crises and I’d had several good work days in a row. I thought about it again after the third week of school where I did not have any good work days and emotional stuff spilled all over the place. I’m not fully able to judge if teens with mental health crises is more problematic for a creative life than infants or toddlers, (I wasn’t trying to maintain a separate creative existence during those hands-on early years) but I can attest the the toll that mental health during the teen years has taken. Though truthfully it was likely my own depression and anxiety which impacted my creativity more than the time taken by my children. Of course, my depression and anxiety were triggered by my children, so it comes to the same thing really.
I wish I had answers for this. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to look back and see how it all went together. From a distance I’ll be able to explain how all the things affected each other and maybe I’ll be able to draw a useful conclusion from it. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe being creative is always messy and complicated by the details of living. Either way, summarizing is not my job now. My job now is to make sure that I don’t hide from my creative work merely because I’m tired. I have to remember that creative time gives energy back to me in a way that down time does not. I have take time each day to pause and listen deep into my soul and ask the question “What is the work I should be doing today?” The answer to that question matters.
As of tomorrow morning half of my children are legally adults. That is just the capstone of a surprisingly eventful week which included a couple of emotional hurdles, school meetings, the news that it is possible for Link to graduate with his class (a thing I’d thought was a lost cause, which now I have to decide whether we should stretch for it. Letting it go had reduced stress), a new diagnosis for one of my kids, planning for an 18th birthday, having to decide to shift a school schedule, a couple of kids missing school because of meltdowns, another kid coming down with a cold, a phone call about a problem with Link’s Eagle Scout paperwork that caused me (needless) anxiety and my 95 year old grandmother being in the hospital again.
At one point during the week I called my sister and said “I need help processing.” She immediately invited me over and we sat for a couple of hours while I spoke all the random things in my head. I’m still processing. Mostly I’ve spent this weekend making sure Link’s birthday went well because I really messed up Kiki’s 18th birthday and Link’s last two birthdays were seriously impacted by Salt Lake Comic Con. We have one more day before we declare the birthday complete, but so far all the things have gone well.
I only have two weeks before I depart for the Out of Excuses Retreat. My big goal between now and then is to put things into a stable configuration so the kids can just do school while I’m gone. There are a lot of To Dos on my list.