Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Into the Woods

Last Saturday, I went on a hike with my autistic son.

It was a hike designed for children with autism spectrum disorders (i.e. non-neurotypical, if I have my euphemisms down correctly) and it was a group activity. I signed us up on another mom’s recommendation, which is kind of unusual for me; I don't tend to hang out with other moms or other parents in general, since they kind of bore the pee out of me. But this seemed like fun, so sure, I figured, why not?

The first thing that hit me was the silence. Any normal neurotypical bunch of nine or ten boys in the woods, the first thing you would notice would be the noise. Laughter, shouting, play-punching, yelling, you name it. Boys = noise. So the quietness was what I noticed. Actually, what I really noticed first was that things that are perfectly normal for my kid are just plain WEIRD when other people’s kids do them. I’m used to my son’s general quietness, but multiply that by eight and it’s kinda freaky. I don’t mean they never talked, but they talked to their parents (and only when spoken to) and not once to each other. There was absolutely zero horizontal communication.

So mostly, they walked. Intently, eyes forward, head down, focusing on what they were doing. As for us parents, we had a great time. I was the only mom on the hike (autism spectrum disorders, if you didn’t know, track heavily in the Y-chromosome population, so this was kind of a dad-son event), but that suited me fine since I tend to get along more easily with men than women anyway. We talked and laughed and joked, and to all appearances had a much better time than our quiet frowning sons, but that probably wasn’t true. Here was another thing: I was always getting crashed into. These kids, they’re not so great with physical boundaries. Most of them, it’s not that they particularly WANT to violate your space; they just have a hard time remembering that you’re residing in it when they’re moving forward intently. Most boys will bump against you, sure, but very few will just walk INTO you. So after a while I learned, and I hung back with the dads, and the kids plowed on up front, like a line of intent dwarves – minus the pickaxes and the singing.

But for all the walking, progress was slow. Because we stopped for snacks, and when we did, well, that took a while. Daniel had to eat the corners off of all his cheezits, and TJ had to fold his ziploc bag into sixteenths. And then re-fold. We stopped to skip rocks across a stream, and that approached dangerous, because it’s pretty normal for these kids to have have, erm, challenges with spatial relationships. Thus, Roran failed to understand that a) a head-sized boulder is not the same as a palm-sized rock and that b) there is a crucial 15-foot difference between standing directly next to the creek and standing behind all the adults while hurling. I quickly moved out of the line of fire, and watched in jealous admiration as the dads took over the whole stone-skipping thing. Something about the male upper arm going on there, I’m sure. Their rocks bounded gleefully across the water, light as dragonflies, to land on the opposite bank. Yeah, but you can’t NURSE, I thought, and was consoled.

Lunch was even more interesting, and it felt good to see that I’m not the only one driven to pleading at mealtimes. Just one more bite, come on, to someone who tuned you out fifteen minutes ago and has consumed maybe two hundred calories since yesterday. TJ sat with us for lunch at the picnic tables. Having a good time? I asked, and TJ promptly clapped his hands over his ears and stayed like that for the rest of lunch. I concentrated on trying to arrange my son’s egg white more pleasingly, but all he wanted was the pretzels, mainly so he could suck the salt off them. Like many of these kids, eating is not a pleasurable activity for him, but intense flavors are: salt, jalapeno, anything with a bite. The egg white was probably futile, but I was just trying to get some protein into him. I worry, because on top of everything else he’s really small for his age – really small — and I’m always trying to shovel some extra calories into him.

The smallness became a factor after lunch, when he stopped being able to keep up with the other kids. So I stayed behind with him, and that was actually the most enjoyable part of it, where he and I just drifted through the woods together. That was when he actually started chatting with me a bit, and by chatting I mean he would respond to things that I said with actual sentences. He doesn’t initiate conversation, but that’s fine; he’s easy to be around and happy (most times) to answer you when you need to hear him. Falling behind allowed him to pull out his lizard, too. He keeps a stash of stretchy toys around, because lots of times he needs to have stuff in his hands, and there is certain feel that he needs – the rubbery stretchy thing. So he would have to stop in the woods and groove on his lizard for a while, which I’ve noticed he doesn’t like to do around other people; facial contortions and things are involved, and I think he’s not so much embarrassed about it, it’s just that it feels private, like going to the bathroom. And it’s probably an equally intense physical need.

I carried him the last bit of the hike, which was of course ridiculous – he’s far too big for it now, and it wore me completely out. But. . . small thin arms around me, warm breath in my ear, his forehead leaning against the back of my neck. These things will only be mine for a few more months, because he is growing, even if slowly. And once or twice he even initiated, like he will do sometimes if it’s just the two of us.

“Do you think we’re lost?” he whispered conspiratorially, when the other hikers had rounded a bend out of sight.

“Probably. We might have to camp here for the night.”

A sharp intake of breath against my back. His voice was thrilled and frightened. “Where should we spend the night?”

I forget, even after all this time, that joking does not register, and that he can’t read my tone, especially without being able to see my face. “I’m just kidding. We’ll be okay.”

“All right,” he said, and tightened his arms on me.

When he was very young, about two, maybe three, it was the worst. We had a name for things, a diagnosis for why our son was there but not there, but no real plan of action, no idea what any of this meant, no idea what his life would be like. I was home with him, not working at the time, and he was behind a wall I couldn’t get to. Literally, sometimes. It was like he was locked in a prison and was trying to get out, but couldn’t quite, like some nightmare you or I might have, only his never ended. Something would set him off — rarely anything I understood or even knew about. His wailing would begin, but you couldn’t touch him, never never touch him. That made it infinitely worse. He would drag himself into a room — we were living in an apartment, and my bedroom was the closest, so most often it would be there — and push the door shut, and simply scream on the other side of it, hoarse wails of wild grief and terror. Please honey please I would beg, but his sturdy arms would be pressed against the door on the other side, no no no no no. But worst of all was when he didn’t say no, but Mommy. Just my name, over and over, like he didn’t want to be doing this, and wanted me to save him, help him somehow, but I couldn’t. Mommy Mommy Mommy. And I would keep saying I’m here, I’m right here. I would work my hand under the gap of the door, I would try to reach him and touch him. After a while he might move away from the door, and then I could belly crawl into the room — not too fast, or I might scare him away, just a bare inch at a time — and edge closer and closer. Mommy Mommy Mommy. It seemed like it would take hours to reach him, more hours to touch him. These were my days.

So now, when he crawls up in bed with me and lets me snuggle against him, or when he wants me to hold him and pick him up and carry him? Yeah, you better believe I do it. You better believe it.

“This looks like a good place for a camp,” he said into my neck, as we rounded a bend on a sunny little meadow.

“It does,” I said, and there we sat for a bit. He sucked the salt off his pretzels and rubbed his lizard; I watched him. It was a good day.

Monday, April 13, 2009

More Adventures in Judaism

Some memories of this past week's seders, cobbled together.

We went to the home of some dear friends for first night seder, and for our kids, it was Disney World. "Wow," my eldest breathed, as I took them out into the back yard to work off a little energy before showtime. "Their house backs right up to a ballpark!"

"Um, no it doesn't," I had to explain. "That's their baseball diamond." I thought 'eyes like saucers' was a figure of speech until I saw hers. And then the littlest Fabulette streaked off to go roll in the dirt of the diamond. In her Pesach dress, like some poorly trained Labradoodle on top of a dead squirrel.
Well, things could have been worse.

The kids held up pretty well, considering this was not remotely a child-friendly event. We were 19 at table, so it was quite the affair, and the presider, our friend's father, was, oh, about 137 years old and not what you would call the most dynamic leader. But it made my heart clench up to watch our friend constantly and lovingly defer to him, even when his father made mistakes and got things wrong and supplied the wrong explanation for things; our very Jewishly educated friend simply smiled and nodded, and I thought, to quote my eldest, wow. That's piety in action, you know? Not an eyeroll, not an impatient sigh, not a twitch did he betray.

Needless to say, my two youngest did not make it all the way through, and our friend, spotting their impatience, said as soon as we were through Shulkhan Orech, "why don't you guys come with me to the screening room?" And they toddled off after him. I got to hear their sighs and gasps of delight at the in-house movie theater, complete with heated remote control leather reclining seats. So they grooved on The Prince of Egypt, which we had imported specially for the night, and though it may not have been a conventional end to the evening, by the time all the other guests had evaporated, the small group of us curled up together in those chairs and watched the closing of the movie with the kids, laughing at the littlest Fabulette's comments, and it was wonderful.

me: See, sweetie, that's God leading his people out of Egypt.
her: Well, he sure does have a lot of them.

her: (exultant when Pharaoh, her favorite character, reappears) Yay, Pharaoh's back! (spotting his army) Oh, look, he brought Moses some friends!

(I should point out that she is way into Moses. She dressed herself for this event in a rhinestone tiara with matching rhinestone purse. Don't you look lovely, I had said to her. "I'm a princess for Moses," she announced.)

Awkward moment of the evening: I stumble into the kitchen just as Sister-in-Law is reading the riot act to her Brother and Sister-in-Law about the dessert, which, okay, was cake and eclaires, and, um, yeah, pretty much a towering mountain of chametz. We opted for the ice cream and said nothing, but Sis-in-Law was after them but good, with all the zeal of the convert. "Hypocrites!" she was hissing at them. And I couldn't help but think, hmm, there's something in Jewish law somewhere about contemning hospitality, I'm almost sure of it.

Chest-clenching moment of the evening: Fabulette le fils is tapped to read a page. My palms start to sweat, and I start to make little head-shaky motions at the seder leader, who I'm sure can't see me through his cataract fog anyway. I'm thinking oh no, please no, they're not going to understand that he can't do this, reading is so hard for him, this is going to lead to all sorts of explanations, please don't let this happen to him. But then he piped up and said, "Sure!" And he started to read. I was shaking. His voice was so unafraid, so sure. When he stumbled, his sister bent down and whispered the right word to him, and he picked it right up, cheerfully unfazed. HE MADE IT THROUGH A WHOLE PAGE, AND HE WAS AMAZING. Unafraid, in front of 18 people. I had to squeeze my fingers very hard to keep from crying. In the wise words of Dory, if you pray that nothing will ever happen to him, well. . . then nothing will ever happen to him.

So all in all, a success, and as we were driving back home late that night I was excited, brimming over with all the plans for our own seder next year: totally kid-centered, puppet shows, costumes, everything but dancing goats and flame-throwers. "What do you say, guys? Wanna help me? Won't our seder be fun?" A somewhat lame chorus of assent greeted me from the back. And then a small little boy's voice:

"Will it have a movie theater?"

Monday, April 6, 2009

Adventures in Judaism

So this past Shabbat I got to visit a piece of American Jewish history: Boston’s Havurat Shalom. What was it like? Well, the best way I can describe it is this:Mea Shearim meets Woodstock.

Quick summary of what the Havurah is, and those of you better versed in American Jewish history please feel free to jump in and correct my oversimplifications here: in the 1960s, lots of young American Jews (most of them raised Conservative) felt alienated from denominational Judaism. Synagogues were for your parents, stodgy suburban country clubs full of old people and unexciting services. There was a whole mass of young people who felt alienated, not from Judaism, but from the somewhat hidebound expressions of Judaism they had grown up with. Groups of young educated Jews began meeting to daven, sometimes just enough to make a minyan, sometimes more – do-it-yourself rabbi-free Judaism, just people gathering to pray and form small, intensely committed, free-thinking communities that had nothing to do with synagogue dues and social clubs and golf games. And so the havurah movement was born: like Jesus freaks minus the Jesus, in a way. Or seen another way, plus the sanity.

The grand-daddy of them all was Havurat Shalom in Boston — in Somerville, to be exact, in the shadow of Tufts University. I think (and here is where those who know this history much more intimately will have to correct me) that the havurah was originally run as something of a commune, and even today there are members who live there in full-time residence. Today it remains what it was then: an old Victorian house as bare of furniture and pretension as it is of rabbis, a vibrant community of aging hippies and newly-sprouted ones, a rollicking, warm, amazing place to spend a chilly Shabbat in early April.

I went because I happened to be in Boston for the weekend, and because a dear friend of mine was leading the davening there, and I was as eager to go as she was to take me. I read Jonathan Sarna’s American Judaism earlier this year (an okay read, fascinating in its treatment of colonial Judaism, but then skip the rest cuz it’s a snoozer until you get to the 1960s stuff), and it has some info on the Havurah, and even a picture! I studied this picture hard, because I knew that this was my friend’s congregation, but the picture was just a black-and-white of the Torah ark at the Havurah: a kind of wicker box bolted to the wall, with a macramé parochet attached. I had kind of thought that was a picture from the 60s, and that when I got there it would all be totally different, but nope—same Torah ark as in the picture, same cheerful macramé decorating the front.

This was really like no other religious service I have ever attended, and I say this as the veteran of more varied and diverse religious services than you could shake a lifetime of sticks at. I got there early, because, well, that’s just what I do, which meant that for a long time I was the only person in attendance at the service, other than the man who was leading the first part. I sort of stood around awkwardly until he invited me into the davening room. Our conversation went like this:

Him: Get comfortable! Here, grab a meditation pillow.
Me: 0_o
Him: Or, you know, you could just use one of those chairs.

So yeah, I went for the chair. (My friend later told me that it used to be, they would only use meditation pillows they had scavenged out of the garbage, out of purity of principle.) But the chair was good, because I had worn a skirt. I had asked my friend the day before what I should wear, and she had been all breezy – “you know, just anything!” Which to my southern way of thinking means, a skirt and blouse, with flats and not too much jewelry. So yeah, I show up looking like some extra from Legally Blonde, all Ann Taylor skirt and professional wear, and everybody there (when they finally got there around eleven or so) was in sweatpants and socks or long peasant skirts with bandannas on their head, and they gave me these very sweet but slightly pitying looks. I ended up slipping off one of my bracelets and resting it on the floor beneath my chair, because when I moved my arm my two bracelets made a slight clanking noise together, and I was fairly sure this was not a noise they had heard before.

Where to start. The service was. . . amazing. First of all, people just drifted in. Literally. And then they would drift out. They would grab some cushions and some herbal tea from the kitchen, and prop themselves up and dive right in. Small children wandered in and out, for the most part trying not to step on people and cups of tea, and they were petted absently, like cherished cows in a Hindu village.

Here was something: they refer to God in the feminine. Not occasionally, not for equal time with male references – always. Consistently. Exclusively. Which, okay, sure, but if you know Hebrew you know that Hebrew is a highly gendered language. In other words, unlike most other inflected languages, even Hebrew verbs have gender. “Give” is a different word, with a different ending, depending on the gender of the person doing the action, and then of course all your adjectives and modifiers change too. So it’s a much more powerful and present thing than it would be in English, where you might catch a few references to “Mother Creator” here and there, but basically all the same, right? Not this. It really threw me off, because even basic berachot that I thought I knew were completely different. I stumbled a few times, though I hope in a low enough voice that those around me didn’t hear me voicing my internalized patriarchy.

Jewish liturgy is an enormously flexible thing, much more so than Christian liturgy (and by Christian liturgy I mean sacramental Christian liturgy, since non-sacramental Christianity for the most part eschews set liturgy, or at least eschews the richness of historical liturgy.) If you woke up on Shabbat morning and decided you were going to do everything that’s in the siddur, well, get comfortable, because you’re in for a good four-hour stretch, and that’s at a minimum. So the result is, everyone picks and chooses, because no one congregation can really do it all (and even the ones who say they do, don’t.) You end up picking so much from Column A, so much from Column B, and so on. The Havurah’s choices struck me as just about perfect – all told, it was about a two hour service. That’s long enough to get to do some actual stuff, as opposed to a drive-by. The real treat was my friend’s davening. She is, I think, a second soprano, but she pitched her voice low enough that everyone could comfortably join her, and her voice — there’s no way to describe it. There was nothing show-offy about it, nothing overly operatic, nothing alienating or distancing. It was a voice that drew you in, that made you want to join your own voice with her rich cello of a voice, and it made me instantly revise my opinion of female cantors (yes yes, see “internalized patriarchy” above.) I just don’t like them, okay? I don’t go to services to feel like I’m at freaking Aida. Their high warbles, their trills and arpeggios — gimme a break, I just wanna daven. A friend of mine and I have a joke that there is only one female cantor in existence in our area, and she hops in her car and bilocates so she can instantly be at every service that we might ever think about attending. A technically good voice is not necessarily a praying voice, is my point. And my friend’s voice is exactly the kind of thing you want to pray with, that feels like it is bolstering your own voice and leading you gently onward, into the heart of the service.

I was offered an aliyah, which I churlishly refused, solely out of cowardice. I didn’t want to look like an idiot, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to feminize the berachot that fast. And even more truthfully, I had no guarantee these people weren’t going to actually expect me to READ FROM THE TORAH at which point I would have had no choice but to fake a brain hemorrhage in order not to reveal that I DO NOT ACTUALLY KNOW HOW TO DO THAT AS I AM NOT EVEN BAT MITZVAH YET STOP SCARING ME OH MY GOD. So it turns out that I could have done it, because they had the little crib cards up there and everything, and no, of course no one was expecting me to chant, and now I’m sorry I didn’t. But they read a nice chunk from the Torah, with a sweet older woman in socks doing the chanting – somewhat incomprehensibly, but still, it was very pleasant.

Judaism, I find, is rearranging my categories of conservative and progressive – or rather, rearranging the existence of those categories at all. For one thing, this was in many ways a very traditional service, at least in terms of the liturgial choices. Much more traditional, say, than my own Temple, which is, you know, well, exactly the kind of place the Havurah movement was founded to get away from – suburban, wealthy, and circumspect in the extreme. But on the other hand. . . well. They were in their socks, and talking about God as a woman, and there were no rabbis anywhere in sight. And yet, what I saw in that little bare room, with women leading the service and children milling about, was probably closer to (if such a thing can be said to exist) mianstream Judaism, at least if you’re defining mainstream as “Judaism as it’s most commonly been practiced over the last few thousand years.” The more I study Judaism of the Talmudic era, the less I believe, well, anything the ArtScroll catalogue is selling me, that’s for sure. Separate seating for women? Probably not before the eleventh century. Women excluded from synagogue leadership positions? Not hardly, in the ancient world, as the archeological record attests. Rabbis? Ehhh, not so much. So what calls itself conservatism turns out to be, in this case as in so many others, in fact a reinvention and an entirely new thing, that depends for its survival on being able to persuade people that “this is how it was always done.” And this is rearranging not just the way I look at liturgy and religion, but of course politics and literary criticism, and oh, you name it. I mean, I’m an enemy of conservatism, no question, but I’ve also been a credulous believer in the myth of conservatism, particularly religious conservatism – the myth that says conservatism is the viable and living connection to the past. When in truth, often what calls itself radical progressivism is closer to “the way things used to be done.” Or at least, it’s no farther away from it, and both are equally reactions to the needs of a particular time and place.

In looking back over this, I don’t think I came at all close to telling you what spending Shabbat there was like. And I didn’t even get to the wonderful afternoon I spent with my friend and her family, and the peace of Shabbat in their warm cozy house with their little boy who kept singing endless riffs on “my toe’s blue, I dropped a hammer on my shoe. . .” and digging for reluctant worms. Maybe it’s because I can’t really describe it. In describing what the Havurah was like, I find it’s easier to describe the incidentals – what people wore, what the small light-filled room looked like – than the essentials, because in many ways I am still processing, still absorbing, and will be for a long time, I think. Maybe it's because I can't look directly at it, the way you instinctively lower your eyes when the Torah ark is open, just for that half-second of awe. I felt very close to something there, and I don’t know if it was God or not; maybe it was my fellow humans, maybe it was Judaism, maybe it was God Herself who pulled up a cushion next to my awkward over-dressed self and leaned over to whisper, “oy, stop worrying so much, you give me a headache.”

So, happy Pesach to those of you still frantically cleaning your houses in preparation for Wednesday. I’m taking the easy way out this year; I’m going the route of “I live with four non-Jews who will kill me if I so much as lay a hand on their bagels and their pepperoni pizza,” so I’m not doing any cleaning or anything like that. I will observe the laws of Pesach in what I put in my own mouth, but not in how I run my house, because my house is shared space. I am attending a seder at some friends’ house for first night, and our Temple’s seder Thursday night, so I expect I’ll post about that, too.

Emended to add: I forgot to say another cool part, which was that even in a place so far removed from my normal worship comfort zone, I still knew tons of the melodies -- most of them, in fact. My friend was kind of surprised that I did, but the actual community I worship with at my Temple is a small group that gathers to daven on Shabbat far from the Bar Mitzvah Factory of the main service. And we are led by incredibly well-educated, painfully hip young rabbis, so I have a feeling I know lots of things I don't realize I know, thanks to them. I was telling my friend about this after the service, in an "isn't this cool!" kind of way, and she sort of looked at me with shock and said, "Led by rabbis! oh, THAT'S no good." Hee.