The 4 Secrets of Greatness (and the hardest one for an advocate)

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Henry and I love reading the adventures of Jack and Annie in The Magic Tree House book series. In the last one, the brother-sister duo was rewarded by Merlin in Camelot for learning the fourth and final secret of greatness. According to Merlin, the four secrets of greatness are:

  1. Humility
  2. Hard work
  3. Meaning and purpose
  4. Enthusiasm

As I waited for Henry to fall asleep, his arms wound around my neck, I pondered the times I’ve had all of these and when I’ve fallen short. Interestingly, in every instance of failure I could identify one or more of the 4 elements lacking.

When I gave a sloppy audition for a piano scholarship at Furman? Lack of purpose and enthusiasm. (I loved piano but didn’t want a piano scholarship.)

When I fumbled through questions about one poem on my oral exam? Lack of hard work and enthusiasm. (Ugh, hated that poem.)

What about relationships? I notice when I’m not exhibiting “greatness” as a mother, wife, or friend, I’m usually lacking humility or enthusiasm.

One of my biggest goals right now is to be a great advocate for folks on the spectrum. I don’t want to be their voice, but I want to help others understand them as best I can. Perhaps I can be a bit of a translator. For example, Henry has a classmate whose mother doesn’t speak English. Her voice is as important as anyone’s, but at times her child must convey her thoughts to others who do not speak their native language. Is he capturing every nuance of his mother’s communication? Probably not, but he’s doing his best in the language that both he and the other person understand. Follow me?

The difference, of course, is that I’m not autistic. Henry’s friend can speak both English and Spanish, but I only “speak” neurotypical. What I can do is try to see the world through Henry’s eyes. Notice I didn’t say I can do it 100% correctly every time; I said try, and I can do that better than almost any non-autistic person I know. Next to Keith, I know Henry best. Herein lies the rub, though. The minute I assume I understand everything, I have lost my credibility.  The most difficult secret of greatness to achieve, at least in the advocacy role, is humility.

In my observations of other advocates, I find hard work, meaning and purpose, and enthusiasm are constants. The inherent passion of an advocate almost guarantees those qualities. What I see more sparingly is a willingness to admit not knowing everything, a desire to know more, and a readiness to admit when we’re wrong.

If I am to be Henry’s best advocate, I have to remember that’s all I am. I am not him. I am his student. Books and lectures and academic studies are also my teachers, but he is my best teacher, if only I will observe and reflect.

I beg you, then, to remind yourself – often – that I am no autism expert. I am simply an eager learner. And while I am as much of an expert on Henry Dangel as one could ever be, Henry is the best expert on Henry.

We’re beginning to see some of this expert emerge, to our great relief and delight. The most exciting statements come out of his mouth, such as why he doesn’t like showers and why he hated the last page of Hello, Wally! when he was 3 years old. The best insights are yet to come. As I read accounts from adults on the spectrum, I smile with anticipation for all the things he will one day tell us. Look out, world. Here he comes.

New here? Glad you made it! I write about my unique joys and challenges as Mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick­-witted, train-loving, autistic 8-­year­-old with an infectious smile. I long to encourage autism parents and empower all to see inclusivity doesn’t have to be difficult - it can be beautiful. Like what you see? Sign up here to receive news and occasional freebies just for insiders.

Why I’m a puddle of thanks: 10 months of awesome

As kindergarten ended a couple weeks ago, I am once again compelled to remember, reflect, and give thanks.

He went from writing about and drawing trains exclusively to illustrating other stories as well.

From extreme, crippling, terrifying-to-behold anxiety to calm confidence.

From sitting at his desk during circle time to enthusiastic participation on the rug to age-appropriate antics with his best friend.

From “I miss my 5s school” to “I want to go to a college like my school, because I love Perry Harrison.”

From newly six to almost seven.

I never have the right words to thank his teachers. I try and I fail and I hope that somehow they know, somehow they can read through my effusive thanks and fumbling cards and feel the heart of what I’m saying. That “we couldn’t do this without you” isn’t a trite phrase but the most authentic truth. That the fact they see him in all his glory means more to me than all the money, accolades, or praise in the world. That I will never stop thanking God for surprising us with the gifts of people who love our child.

The gratitude is overwhelming.

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New here? Glad you made it! I write about my unique joys and challenges as Mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick­-witted, train-loving, autistic 8-­year­-old with an infectious smile. I long to encourage autism parents and empower all to see inclusivity doesn’t have to be difficult - it can be beautiful. Like what you see? Sign up here to receive news and occasional freebies just for insiders.

The Reason For Your Guilt

My dear friend and fellow mom asked me, “Why do we have such guilt?”

I believe our guilt, at least in part, comes from our culture’s very mixed messages. Our media outlets say – Indulge yourself! Girlfriend spa day! Weekend in Tuscany! But they also say, in more subtle ways – If you’re not busy, you’re worthless!

When I stop to reflect on these scary messages, I have to remind myself of the same principles I teach my students. One of those is to ask: Who is behind them?

People. Not golden scrolls sent down on heavenly parachutes, just people like you and me. People who are much the same, but also fundamentally different. While a monthly spa day may be great for you, it’s not for me. While a book on the back porch might be restorative to me, it might not be for you.

The coping and healing strategies are different from person to person, as are the reasons for the hustle/stress/anxiety/fillintheblank. I’m a Highly Sensitive Person. I’m easily overwhelmed by sounds like 5 children talking at one time; by attempting to accomplish 4 tasks at once; and by spending too much time in traffic.

You might be easily overwhelmed by a boss who just fired 3 people and thinks you can do all their work on top of yours.

You might be alone, working from home, trying to find a way back into an office so you can meet people. Too much solitude actually drains your energy.

You might be a mom of 6, trying to make it through the day without worrying that you’ve permanently ruined the middle 4 by nursing the newborn around the clock.

You might be the mom of 1, trying desperately to make people understand why you just have 1, only to hate yourself even more for feeling compelled to explain anything at all.

My point? We are all different. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to life, so why do we compare ourselves to everyone else?  Why do we assume someone else’s yeses must also be ours?

Yesterday I read the most eloquent explanation of what I believe is part of the answer:

“We live in an incredible era of opportunity for women. But I think we’ve misunderstood our newfound choice as a people, especially a female people.

We are not choosing anything; we are trying to do it all.”

– Alexandra Kuykendall, author of Loving My Actual Life

I seem to be talking a lot lately about the power of yes and no, and what Kuykendall says is right-on. We must utilize the power to choose. If we don’t? Everyone else will choose for us. The hard truth is that only you can take back your life, refuse to crumble under guillt. As Lysa TerKeurst says, with God’s guidance and strength, we can say no in order to give our best yes.


To think about:

By not saying a strong yes or no, what have you allowed others to choose for you?

Are you making choices or are you trying to do everything?

To whom do you compare yourself on a regular basis? Why? Now think about that person’s personality and life circumstances. Are they exactly like yours? (Hint: almost certainly not!)

New here? Glad you made it! I write about my unique joys and challenges as Mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick­-witted, train-loving, autistic 8-­year­-old with an infectious smile. I long to encourage autism parents and empower all to see inclusivity doesn’t have to be difficult - it can be beautiful. Like what you see? Sign up here to receive news and occasional freebies just for insiders.

Crash: When I said the wrong “no” too many times

“When is the last time you did something for yourself?” my therapist asked softly. My brain raced. Um, like what? Brushing my teeth? I told her I really didn’t like manicures and pedicures, if that’s what she meant. Keith often urged me to do the things I love – read a novel, take a walk, grab a coffee, or get a massage – and I always declined.

“Why, Meredith?”

The answer was complicated. How do I explain an entire lifetime of trying to be … be… well, this woman who doesn’t even exist? How do I explain that the mythical woman I want to be doesn’t need help and doesn’t need pampering? How do I say, without offending another woman, that pedicures don’t solve anything?

The woman I was supposed to be was Wonder Woman and Mother Teresa and Princess Kate all rolled into one. I was supposed to be good at everything. My calendar was never too full for one more good thing. Isn’t that what a good working mom does? Doesn’t she brush off the inconveniences and struggles and forge ahead, pushing her toddler’s stroller while wearing her perfect outfit and carrying her designer diaper bag?

(No. Not at all.)

My reserves were depleted. I was exhausted without knowing why. I looked in the mirror and didn’t know who stared back. I looked at my husband and wondered why he loved me. I didn’t know what had happened or who I was becoming. And that terrified me more than anything else.

So, when the therapist suggested I take Keith’s advice and go for a walk or coffee sometimes, I decided to listen. If she was wrong, so be it, but I had to try something.

I went for walks. I told Henry to let Keith pour juice, give him a bath, or change his diaper. I learned to say, “Your daddy loves you too, Henry. You need to let him help you. Mommy needs a break.” Even as I said those words, I felt ridiculous. A break from what?, I wondered. Still, I kept at it, hoping the magic would eventually work. And it did work.

Slowly, I began to feel more alive, more like myself. Most significant to my recovery, perhaps, was saying yes when Keith offered to tuck Henry in bed and send me out for the evening. I might escape to the back porch or I might hide in my bed. It didn’t matter as along as I was alone and, at least for awhile, no one needed me.

The answer had been so simple all along.

Yes.

One little word changed everything. In wondering what was wrong with me, I had considered every other possible angle, from imbalanced hormones to bad influences to poor decisions. I researched new vitamin supplements, pulled away from friends, and even tried a new career. Until that day in the therapist’s office, I never realized all I had to do was change the word I said over and over again.  

While I said yes to everyone else’s needs, I always said no to mine. The gift is that my husband saw it when I didn’t.

Now, if someone asks when was the last time I took care of myself, I can say, “This morning.”

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To think about:

It takes daily intentionality – mental energy, if you will – to maintain balance. Do you have trouble with yes and no? With taking time for yourself?

Who in your life is (or can be) your accountability partner? We all need someone who is willing to call us out, both gently and firmly, when we aren’t being kind to ourselves.

I’d love to hear your tips and tricks in the comments here or on Facebook!

 

New here? Glad you made it! I write about my unique joys and challenges as Mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick­-witted, train-loving, autistic 8-­year­-old with an infectious smile. I long to encourage autism parents and empower all to see inclusivity doesn’t have to be difficult - it can be beautiful. Like what you see? Sign up here to receive news and occasional freebies just for insiders.

A hard “No”

For the last two summers, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Kenya with ZOE. And I’ve considered it, believe me. Africa has been on my heart since I was a wee girl. Each time I’ve said no with a hint of regret, but I’ve also had peace in my decision. This is not the right time in our family’s life for me to leave the country for 9-10 days.

For every yes, there is a no; for every no, there is a yes. In this season of my life, a trip to visit our working group in Kenya isn’t a good yes, so what is? What can I say yes to right now?

  • praying for our group
  • financially supporting our group
  • telling others about ZOE
  • teaching Henry what the Bible has to say about orphans
  • serving people here, in Chapel Hill
  • preparing myself for a ready answer when Henry asks about our local homeless

These are just a few ideas I thought of in about 5 minutes. The possibilities are really endless.

No is hard. It’s also liberating and powerful and – I believe – holy. No opens doors to the most beautiful possibilities, because only in the no can we say the most important yes.

To what are you saying, “No, thank you,” right now? And why?

New here? Glad you made it! I write about my unique joys and challenges as Mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick­-witted, train-loving, autistic 8-­year­-old with an infectious smile. I long to encourage autism parents and empower all to see inclusivity doesn’t have to be difficult - it can be beautiful. Like what you see? Sign up here to receive news and occasional freebies just for insiders.

A home that says welcome, a table that serves grace

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When we moved in our house 3 years ago, I admit I was a bit embarrassed by the square footage. Is it a mansion by celebrity standards? No. Is it more than 3 human beings really need? Yes.

Why, then, did we go for it? We love opening our home to others. If we had the means to do so, we wanted to buy a home that would welcome a large number comfortably. We wanted the opportunity to host cookouts, church meetings, prayer groups, fundraisers, or whatever else came our way. We wanted our parents to have a first-floor bedroom in case they ever had joint problems or injuries. I wanted enough room for my sister to visit without needing a hotel for their family of 5. Hospitality – not stuffy entertaining, mind you – is a core value in our household.

I realize one can be hospitable absolutely anywhere, from a shack to a one-room cabin to an Oprah-sized estate. I learned this at the feet of my mother, who exemplified Jesus’ extravagant generosity.  While my parents were not wealthy, my childhood felt rich.  Our home was often full, and there was always enough food. I saw Mom take countless meals to families whose mothers were sick or injured or families who had lost loved ones. I saw her put her sleeping bag next to the most challenging child in the class on our overnight field trip. One December, she made sure my classmate, who wore jeans much too tight and short, received a new pair from Santa. That’s the kind of hospitality I saw every day.

I understand, then, that the size of a home has nothing on the size of a heart. Here’s what I believe: nothing we own is really ours, and if we don’t share it, we don’t deserve it. Everything we possess – belongings, talents, skills, gifts – is God’s gift and we are stewards of it. Therefore, I will use what I have without reservation and give without measure. Do I save for Henry’s college years or put away money for my and Keith’s retirement? Yep, sure do. But I also make sure to live life now and make life better for others now.

I know some people don’t enjoy having large groups of people in their home. That’s ok! Invite one friend, one couple.  Maybe find a senior citizen in your church or other community who would not only love some company, but whose presence would bless you far more than you may know. My friend Jenn likes to remember Proverbs 17:1: “Better to eat a dry crust of bread with peace of mind than have a banquet in a house full of trouble.” The food, the dishes, the tablecloth… those aren’t what people take away. They remember your grace.

Keith and I are expectant and eager when preparing our home for guests. We are honored they would choose to spend time with us. And if we can share the love of Jesus along the way, that is the ultimate gift.

Jesus didn’t run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events. He ate meals.

— Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus

May we be more like Jesus in the way we share our table.  After all, it’s why we have this table in the first place.

New here? Glad you made it! I write about my unique joys and challenges as Mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick­-witted, train-loving, autistic 8-­year­-old with an infectious smile. I long to encourage autism parents and empower all to see inclusivity doesn’t have to be difficult - it can be beautiful. Like what you see? Sign up here to receive news and occasional freebies just for insiders.

On Memorial Day weekend

Re-run alert. Originally written May 30, 2011.
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photo by Amy Hoogervorst, amyhoogervorst.com
Memorial Day.
Growing up, it was just a day on the calendar. Maybe a day to eat hamburgers and swim. My grandfathers were not veterans; I didn’t grow up hearing war stories. My parents didn’t lecture at the supper table about the importance of serving your country. It was just a day, but then something happened. I grew up.
One of the activities most of us enjoy as we transform into adults is finding our mate, and I’d say that changes everything. Besides the obvious end goal of being married, we change along the way – we grow, develop, and stretch our character. When I was 19 I had a few dates with a wonderful young man named Andrew. He wasn’t the man for me, for my eyes were already firmly set on Keith, but he was enough to turn my head for a moment. I knew he’d be an amazing man and devoted husband for someone.
Andrew and his twin brother were in the ROTC at Wofford College. They loved their country deeply and had no fear of serving it, no matter what that meant, which I admired. I’d never been close to people like them. A couple of years later, our country was at war. I awoke from slumber one morning to a phone call from my mother. Andrew was dead. The details were fuzzy at that point. His Black Hawk crashed. Maybe a sandstorm. It didn’t matter. He was gone.

My body was chilled and stunned. My sleepy mind began to buzz. Andrew who? Did she mean who I thought she meant? Yes, she did. Then, in rapid fire, my mind played the few sweet moments we’d had together, and I imagined the beautiful life Andrew could have had. My thoughts turned to his twin brother and best friend, who must have felt the loss down to his marrow.  It simply couldn’t be true, yet it was.

A year or two later my cousin Lindsey fell in love with the man she’d later marry, a young man in the army. I watched her grieve when he was shipped to the Middle East not once but twice. Not long after his second tour, and just after he left the army, his unit was shipped out for the third time. And we all now know that third, fourth, and even fifth tours are not uncommon. Since Severyn has been home, I haven’t asked questions. I don’t want to know, and I imagine he doesn’t want to tell what he saw and did. Because he went, I don’t have to know.

Because of Andrew and Severyn, my perspective on Memorial Day has been forever changed. What our soldiers do, what their families do, is not about fireworks and cookouts. It’s not even about politics. When the President says go, they go. These men and women have chosen to be a part of something bigger than themselves, something they cannot control and sometimes don’t even like. They know war has existed since the beginning of time and that even in times of peace, fighting could be only a heartbeat away. They know someone has to do it, and so they do. They know they may not come home.

We can’t begin to thank them, but we can remember that Memorial Day is about more than enjoying the sun. If you’re celebrating with your family today, hug them close and be thankful they are with you. Do it for those who can’t.

New here? Glad you made it! I write about my unique joys and challenges as Mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick­-witted, train-loving, autistic 8-­year­-old with an infectious smile. I long to encourage autism parents and empower all to see inclusivity doesn’t have to be difficult - it can be beautiful. Like what you see? Sign up here to receive news and occasional freebies just for insiders.

“Mom, look!” Why I need to respond.

“Mom, look! It’s the metro!”

I was busy. I didn’t want to walk over and see what was on his iPad. Besides, he’d probably shown me the exact video ten times before.

But I did. I stopped what I was doing and looked, and I was wrong. Henry was pointing at a new-to-us train video, and sure enough, there was the Washington, DC, metro. Like Henry, I recognized the tunnel we had visited only weeks before.

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I smiled as I realized what I would have missed if I had blown off the request. A moment of authentic, meaningful connection. A moment that said, Look, Mom. We did that together. That was special to me. 

Too many times I have said, “Mm-hmm. Yeah, I see that, bud,” but didn’t really see.

“Just a minute, Henry.”

“Hold on, honey.”

And when I do, I am missing out. Definitely. I am missing out on precious encounters with my son. What’s worse, though, is that Henry is missing it too.

He wants me. He wants Keith. He desires connection with us just as we did with our parents. As much as he enjoys time alone, creating stories with his trains or hiding in the closet or nesting under his blanket, he also relishes our attention. Just like any other child, his self-worth, his happiness, and his relationships with other humans starts here, at home.

These moments are gone as fast as they come, and I must be better about capturing them. I must be more intentional, more present, and less involved with whatever it is I’m doing at any given moment. Nothing is really that important anyway, not in comparison to creating a life for this little boy.

When I think about what made my childhood so great, and when I think about what shaped my personality, my beliefs, my convictions, even my ideas of fun, it’s not Disney World. It’s not the expensive prom dresses. It’s not my first car. It’s not one thing. It’s the culmination of many moments, flowing one into another like a gentle stream. The individual water molecules are indistinguishable to the glancing eye, but each one is actually a treasure, and the overall effect is beauty.

I want to see every bit of that stream. I want Henry to know I think it’s beautiful.

New here? Glad you made it! I write about my unique joys and challenges as Mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick­-witted, train-loving, autistic 8-­year­-old with an infectious smile. I long to encourage autism parents and empower all to see inclusivity doesn’t have to be difficult - it can be beautiful. Like what you see? Sign up here to receive news and occasional freebies just for insiders.

Running and resting

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Earlier this spring I was in a bit of a hurry to fit my daily walk into my schedule, so I tried to run a bit. I only made it past a couple of mailboxes. Each time I went a little further. Today I run intervals, maybe half a mile at a time, and I actually love it. I love the burst of speed (ok, maybe speed isn’t the right word), then the quick recovery.

I’ve been thinking. Life is like that too – at least, it should be. We cannot run at full speed all day, every day and expect excellent results every time. I know, I know. Some people think they can. Some people think they “thrive on pressure” or “produce best when they’re busy” or “only need 4 hours of sleep.” Maybe that’s true for a short season, but not for a month. Not for a year. Certainly not for a lifetime. It’s just not true. Our bodies weren’t made for it.

In recent years, what seems like a gazillion American writers have tackled this topic in both long and short formats, which tells me something important: we are a nation of too much. Everyone is commuting too much, talking too much, working too much, emailing too much, texting too much, and conferencing too much. We are moving, moving, moving and producing, producing, producing at a ridiculously breakneck pace.

And the few who have the means and opportunity to take vacations often do so in extravagant, indulgent ways, ranging from excess food and alcohol intake to slothful Netflix and Hulu binging.

Is this what we were made for?

I don’t think so. I think there’s a better way, and so does Jesus.

Whoa, Meredith, that’s pretty cavalier of you.

Is it?

Rest and work. Work and rest. It’s a rhythm we notice in the New Testament with Jesus and his disciples. Here are just two of the plentiful examples, emphasis mine:

“Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve – calling them apostles – that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” Mark 3: 13-15

“When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves…” Luke 9: 10

We could learn something from their example. I really believe keeping Sabbath isn’t just a rule to follow. Each of God’s commandments to the Israelites was for their own good, and I know they are still for our good today. Why? Because I’ve lived both ways, and I know which way is better. When I take time to rest and to commune with my Savior, everybody wins. My family, my students, my friends, myself.

What about you? Do you take time to rest? If so, how? Feel free to tell us your tips and tricks in the comments or on Facebook.

 


These examples of resting and doing from the Gospels were noted here by Sheridan Voysey.

 

New here? Glad you made it! I write about my unique joys and challenges as Mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick­-witted, train-loving, autistic 8-­year­-old with an infectious smile. I long to encourage autism parents and empower all to see inclusivity doesn’t have to be difficult - it can be beautiful. Like what you see? Sign up here to receive news and occasional freebies just for insiders.

Why asking to break dance is a big deal.

Recently, I wrote about why I want Henry to be fully, unapologetically himself – why I don’t want him to “pass” for typical.

I posted this on Facebook yesterday:

18 months ago, Henry participated in the 5s class Christmas performance the only way he could – facedown on the floor, singing into the carpet, raising his arm to ring his sleigh bells on cue. Oh, and where was I? In the hall, out of sight, taking pictures by sticking my phone around the corner. 

Today Henry asked his teacher if he could break dance for all the parents at the end-of-year celebration. 

Early intervention. It works. 

‪#‎delightinthedivine‬ ‪#‎miracles‬

It later occurred to me that these two posts might seem incongruous to some, as if I wanted him to perform like all the other children. Please allow me to explain why asking to break dance is such an important moment for Henry.

It never bothered us that Henry didn’t perform the way his peers did. What broke my heart was the fact that music, singing and dancing lay beneath the surface of the anxiety. Every time he raised his little arm to ring the sleigh bells, it was a reminder to me that he was not only present, but also engaged and eager to participate. He was doing his very best.

Henry has always adored moving to the beat, from bopping around in my womb during Jersey Boys to dancing in front of the computer screen while Katy Perry sang with Elmo. Though he rarely sang with the group in 2s and 3s Sunday School classes, his teachers reported he was always smiling, and when he started to speak in sentences, we heard the Sunday School songs in the privacy of our home. By the time he was 4, he was participating on most Sundays. By now, he can easily pull up his favorite tunes on the ipad. He still listens to his Vacation Bible School CD, dances to Michael Jackson and Pharrell in the living room, begs Keith to play “my jamz” in the car, and even makes up his own songs.

So, I knew as sure as I knew my name that it wasn’t the singing that bothered him. And maybe I’ll never know all the reasons performing was/is so painful, but I know this: he’s conquering the obstacle. He’s finding ways to make it easier – not to be like everyone else, but to be more fully himself. That is the reason I’m praising God.

New here? Glad you made it! I write about my unique joys and challenges as Mom to Henry, a smart, tender, quick­-witted, train-loving, autistic 8-­year­-old with an infectious smile. I long to encourage autism parents and empower all to see inclusivity doesn’t have to be difficult - it can be beautiful. Like what you see? Sign up here to receive news and occasional freebies just for insiders.