Tour de Us

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“…but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid…” —The Bible, and George Washington, and George Washington

I am driving my mom’s big-ass Toyota Highlander through a parking lot of traffic west on 285 toward Vinings and my women’s small group from our Atlanta church, and this is ridiculous and remarkable. I don’t live here anymore! Right? I mean, I live in Sydney. But here I am, driving down the right side of the road, searching for a decent XM station on The Mom’s radio, knowing exactly where I’ m going. And when I get there, I open the unlocked door and settle into the empty seat right between two friends, one who always laughs at my jokes and the other whose baby bump is MUCH bigger than the last time I saw it, and I’m hearing teaching and sharing life among familiar voices in a known spot. I live nine thousand miles away, yet I am still home. There, and here.

I am sitting on our couch, assigned the task of going through The Kid’s medical file which is really a medical drawer which is overflowing, and I’m actually throwing things out. There are things we don’t need here. Things he has outgrown. He doesn’t live here anymore, within these pre-surgery scans and PT exercises, and before I toss them (trust me, I didn’t toss that much), I take them to The Husband. “Remember this?” I ask him, as people always said we would–that we’d barely remember so much of this, and marvel at the recollections–and that’s what we do. Marvel over where we were, and where we are. I kept discharge papers, those golden tickets we were handed that were our tickets to freedom after hours and days in the hospital. And I toss them. They are no longer my tickets to freedom.

I am burrowed into a couch in a beautiful home that feels like a second one to me, a place where a party was hosted in my honour to bid me goodbye, and it smells and feels like home, so why isn’t it? It is. I am sharing life not over email this time but in person, and we are nodding and grinning and crying and talking and who knew when I nervously asked her to be my mentor a year ago that she would also be one of my dearest friends?

I am checking into a hotel a couple of hours before the other three arrive, and when they do it’s like no time has passed. No–it’s like ALL the time has passed, because in it have been texts and Skype sessions and stories and laughter and tears, and we are that much closer for the nine thousand miles, and over dinner and drinks we do life together, in person again, and I’m home here. Someone asks the next day if it was fun, and I reply in the affirmative even as I know that word doesn’t begin to describe what is experienced among friends like us. “Life-giving” comes closer and still doesn’t touch it. “This was good for my soul,” one says, and I think that just about nails it.

I am sitting on my family room floor after a Chick-Fil-A lunch and this baby is four months older and bigger now, and my boys are periodically enthralled with her, and I catch her grin and grab her rolls and see, again in person, what a blessing she is. And her mom and I, who have been somehow made stronger through the time and distance (this seems to be a theme among my closest), we share life over fries and children and the kind of vulnerability that is born of trust that is born of the CS Lewis, “You too, I thought it was only me” identification, which is of course born of grace. And a few days later I am sitting on this same floor as three of us women, and three of our men, and six of our kids are wreaking havoc around us. My youngest niece is four months older and she smells like heaven. Her sister, The Niece OG, crushes me with her hug. Our honorary nephews mill about as do my boys and I stop for a second to take it in: the three of us, stumbling our way through college friendship to these six lives and our triplet of marriages, and it’s so hard and wonderful and everything else in between. And I am home.

I am walking toward the front on Sunday, and a knowing glance is paired with the bread and wine, and I am given these gifts at the table and in life: these incalculable mysteries and mundane moments and all of it, scattered across maps and time zones and climates and continents, and it all plays like music I know yet am hearing for the first time. Our vines and fig trees are in two places for now, and we are doubly rich for it, even on the plane in the middle of a sleepless night in the air, even in the getting-to-know-you awkwardness of new friendships, even in the packing-up stress of house reassignment, and especially in this: these reacquaintings that are deep soul reunions that are preserved by grace. All of it blessing, all of it gift, because this is the only language grace speaks, no matter the local dialect.

I am doing my life, among my people–the American subset of them–but all of it points back to this: the one who is I AM, which means, really, Was Already and Will Be and Always Is. No matter where I am.

*Upon further reflection, the author would like to add the following:
I am wishing that I had more time to prepare a talk that I’m giving in two days in front of more than a couple of people.
I am loving my children while gnashing my teeth over their neediness and anxiety, which reflects my own, and over my guilt about leaving them for three days for the first time in awhile.
I am aching for alone time in the midst of wonderful reunions and talks over drinks and other blessings that are exhausting for a tried-and-true, dyed-in-the-wool introvert.
I am constantly realising how insufficient I am for all of this, which is reflected by my constant internal threats to just UP AND LEAVE.
I am wishing I would stop comparing our clock to Sydney’s, which has my older son missing more and more school.
I am trusting…off and on…that the greater I AM is bigger than all of this and swallows it up in love.

Here and There

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A bit of madness is key to give us new colours to see. –La La Land


It’s what The Husband and I kept repeating to each other from the moment our car hit I-85 and headed north, away from the airport and toward our house–our Atlanta house, as The Kid calls it. As we took Exit 5A and stopped by Chick-Fil-A to pick up dinner. As we pulled into our neighbourhood and headed down its familiar streets. And especially as we entered our house and flung our suitcases to the ground. Our familiar yet foreign house–one of two that meets such description, I suppose–the house whose ceiling seemed lower and walls seemed closer than before, the house where things are like we left them but also not, the house we grew into over six years and now feel to be growing out, or away, from.

Also, the cleaners hadn’t come like they said they would, which blew.

Our return trip began, I guess, before we even moved, a date on the horizon filled with hope. As it drew closer I pushed it away, fearing the travel ordeal, the jet lag, the emotional underpinnings. Saturday I did a half-dozen loads of laundry and packed three suitcases and grew more anxious and tense by the second. We took the boys to the zoo where there were meltdowns and euphoric moments, whining and flying above the terrain in a sky car, tears and views of the Harbour Bridge. That night, we went as a family to the restaurant where TH and I ate lunch the day we looked at schools. That afternoon I’d sat with him at the table, facing the water with a glass full of rosé and a heart emptied of hope. On Saturday, we sat with the boys, and TK approached another table where a boy his age sat with his parents. He was invited to play with Legos, which he did for a bit, as Little Brother narrated our tableau, and the waves rolled and crashed outside the window. The day before, I had run along that same beach, already missing it. On Saturday, the boys wanted to take their turn running on the beach, so I sipped my wine and watched them as TH took them outside and I waited for the bill. A few minutes later I was with them, chasing them across the sand to chants of “MORE!” TH and I looked at each other: Where else in the world would we have this? The ocean our backyard, Saturday nights filled with waves? I took snapshots in my mind like I was at Jim and Pam’s wedding. Three and a half months is how long it took to fall in love with this place.

The next day we boarded our flight and our kids proved their resistance to drowsiness-inducing drugs, sleeping for only two hours each on the fourteen-hour journey. We landed in LA exhausted and confused and crashed at the hotel. After a marathon sleeping sesh (them) and a Twilight marathon (me), our carless asses headed to the lobby to search for entertainment, which we found in the form of elevators and escalators. We had two Easters, neither typical: one on the plane and one in a hotel. We ate dinner at the bar and slept in two beds, one kid with each of us, and I marvelled at the changes over the past season: how much closer we are, how much growing the boys have done, how this adventure is changing us all, knitting us together.

Yesterday TH and I took TK for his fifth annual MRI, a tradition I’d rather pass on but Management (in the form of God and TH’s neurosurgeon) have assured me that won’t happen in the near future. I watched my brave boy follow the nurse back to the radiology department, gazed as he mounted the scale without the tears of years past, grinned as he tearlessly underwent the administering of the IV. Then I carried him to the MRI room and he lost his shit. But hey…progress! (This was NOT the camera he had envisioned. Fair enough.) A couple of hours later we got the good news, which was that there were no changes, and we headed back to our Atlanta house to be complete as four again.

This morning the ceilings weren’t as low and the walls weren’t as close. We went back to our gym–our Atlanta gym–and were greeted by faces that know us. The boys found their old places and people. I ran along my old route. We came back to the house and played and talked and they were being so sweet to each other, to me, and I thought about how much they’ve grown, how maybe this was how the trip would be: their comments, my laughter, our peaceful cuddles.

Lucky for you, I didn’t start writing then.

Soon enough they were picking and fighting. We went to Target, then Publix, where I approached the register and discovered I didn’t have my wallet. I hauled the boys outside and back in twice before realising I had left it in the Target cart. In the parking lot. One sweaty, yelly ride later, I found it right where it had been left. I flipped on my windshield wipers instead of my turn signal. I went to Trader Joe’s and very possibly caused a huge dent in someone’s car by not tucking our cart in properly–all I saw was one renegade cart bounding across the parking lot and into a Lexus. I gave them my information and prayed they wouldn’t use it. Then I headed back to the house with the boys, considering that I can feel crazy on any continent; that competence is a trait I feel in scant possession of and this is not likely to change soon, regardless of hemisphere; and, finally and most importantly, that grace is taking all of the events that would have formerly been to my shame and decreasing the amount of time between said event and self-forgiveness, and between that forgiveness and laughter. Grace is literally un-shaming me, and it only took me thirty-nine years to fall in love with it.

It’s amazing how much growing I’ve done.

On the way back from our adventure, TK asked me where his toy jeep was. I grimaced–there was no way in HELL I was going to show my face in that Publix again, un-shaming be damned–and told him I didn’t know. “Did you leave it at home?” I asked.

He considered the possibility. “No,” he finally replied, encapsulating the last three months in his response. “I left it at the Atlanta house.”

Into the Fold

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I know the world can turn in different ways
Most of the time, we’re simply hanging on
And under the signs of how we all behave
We might find the place that we belong

We’re gearing up for a trip back to the States, and it doesn’t feel right.

What a strange thing for me to think, let alone say, when this date on the calendar might as well have been a life raft in a stormy sea as we were preparing to move. The bright sure spot in an ocean of coming uncertainty. And so soon! And so soon. I anticipate the negative, as I always am adept at doing, and its possibility hangs over my head, drenches me in anxiety, keeps me awake.

Not to be negative.

There are, of course, all the benefits of this trip–time with family and friends chief among them–but they’re wrapped in the difficulties that come along with it: nearly forty hours on planes with small children (TWO OF WHOM ARE OURS), jet lag and sleep deprivation, The Kid’s yearly MRI under sedation the morning after the evening we land. These are certainties. Then there are the shadows that lurk around them: setbacks in adjustment, confusion over home, a prolonged feeling of displacement, of not feeling fully at home in either place. The shadows get me the most, because this is where so much of my personality lies and is at home itself: not in the sunny patches of easy social interaction and making-the-best-of-it self-help theology, but in the dark spots where grace always shows up but where I get the time wrong and arrive early, waiting for it.

And there’s the added complication: we’re making a home here.

Oh my God, what a few months it’s been. What a couple of weeks it’s been: Little Brother spouting out waterfalls of words, narrating life for us, padding into our room every morning in his footie pyjamas and giggling, jumping up and down as though he can’t believe this wonderful life into which he’s been dropped. Talking of changing nappies and cuppa tea and performances of ABC songs for everyone who will listen, making himself known to parents and schoolchildren and daycare staff and coffee shop owners and endearing himself to them all. And TK? Well, let me breathe a second.

Last week, one of the other mums asked me about the scar on his neck. He’s just gotten a haircut and the barber went a little shorter than I prefer, which of course turned out to be a gift, because now that scar is showing, and it is a gateway to our story–another point of entry for people to love him. The little redhead who is like The Niece, Australia Edition, she came up and mentioned it and showed me her own scar from a fall several years back. And it hit me: scars reveal sameness.

Last Friday we traveled en masse with the rest of TK’s class to a house across the street from the school, and as per usual, I arrived to the dark spot of my mind early: TK ventured inside to explore as per his usual, and my anxiety followed me inside after him, likely overflowing onto him, damn that shit, and I led him back outside over his protests as I worried for the millionth time about how he would “go” as they say here–how he would interact, if he would. And within seconds, the dark was flooded with light and his classmate had come outside with heaps of cars from his room: “Here, James. I brought you cars.” And I nearly cried with relief. As if that wasn’t enough–as if grace hadn’t made itself known with that fireworks display–the mum of the house appeared by my side with a bottle of champagne and passed me a glass, and we proceeded to stay thirty minutes longer than the allotted party time. LB playing inside with cars and kids and occasionally breaking into a dance as per his usual; TK moving from his cars to–are you there, Stephanie? It’s me, GOD–the trampoline with half his class, as is per not his usual. And I stood, glass in hand and various women beside me, engaging in conversation and hearing about how well James reads and how much the kids love him. And in this social setting, I glowed. So not per usual.

Then on Sunday, we went to a cookout at the house of an acquaintance and found ourselves surrounded by three other stories on the spectrum, like-mindedness and battle wounds on full display, and just like that we knew and were known. We ended the day on the beach with them all, wine in hands and children playing in various states of challenge and gift around us, as a cruise ship floated by, the sun set to golden glory, the waves lapped at our feet, and the gifts were almost too much.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” one mum said of her son’s diagnosis, and proceeded to tell me about the people it had brought into their life, the priorities it had reshaped, the adjustments it had allotted. There are moments when I could say something similar and moments when such a thought makes me run in the opposite direction and I know it’s okay if I live most days somewhere in between, the shadow and the light dancing around each other to create the most beautiful sunsets.

But there are days…there are days when the light undeniably blasts through and I have to throw my hands up in surrender to the greatness of it all that I never could have imagined.

TK running around church and the town centre, approaching strangers with a grin that invites them toward him, leading LB into his path so that they are the most miraculous pair, forcing our lives beyond their small margins and into the orbit of others. His confidence is growing and palpable: he is reading, and adding, and greeting, and growing, and oh how he is talking, and all of it glows in endless invitation, dropping us into a life full of wonder. He is comfortable here. And it shows.

And so we will head to one home, and then back to another, two autumns in less than a year with a summer and spring sprinkled in, and what is that if not a gift? Among the difficulties and the scars, so many gifts. Yesterday I drove TK home from the therapy centre, and he told me about a booboo to his finger–a battle wound. I mentioned healing, and threw in Jesus for good measure because we’re working on getting him up to Santa status at least, and he queried from the backseat: “What’s Jesus doing right now?”

“The dishes, probably,” I almost said, but decided to wait until he gets sarcasm a bit more, and finally settled on, “He’s taking care of you and loving you.” TK thought for a minute, then pointed at me. “That’s him!” he declared, grinning. “Mummy, you’re turning into Jesus!” And in a moment of pure joyful shock that never would have happened were it not for the way his beautiful brain works, I let the gift open right there in my lap: a grace that allows my son to see past the flaws and the anxiety and the mess and right into what grace and Easter and redemption and love are doing: changing my heart and me into more. Showing up with champagne and cars and unspeakable beauty.

Now, God help us on that flight.

Feels Like the First Time

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“Is that James?” I heard the stage-whisper behind me. “The one who…” the voice trailed off, or I stopped listening, or both, because I didn’t want to feel the impact of what would come next, even out of a child’s mouth. The one who…has autism? The one who…talks funny? The one who…is different?

I’ve heard it all before. I don’t need to hear it again, and I certainly don’t want to feel the barrage of emotions that come afterward: the fear over his future, the guilt over his past, the anxiety over his present. But I’ve promised myself I’d make space for all the feelings, all the grief and pain and joy, because…well, therapists recommend it. So there’s that. But I also know from experience that anything else is just a lie. And I did that long enough. Like, for almost thirty years. Living in a space of denial isn’t living it all, it’s just putting a pretty filter on things and not knowing who you are. So I waited until we got home, and we bathed the boys and put them to bed, and then I climbed into bed and felt it. Then The Husband climbed into bed and I told him about it. And a funny thing happened.

It wasn’t like the times before.

This time, I didn’t grasp at hope like a blind woman looking for light. This time, I thought it and said it: how it hurt, how it sucks, but also: what has changed. How far he’s come. How–and not that long ago, this may have been wishful thinking, but on this night it was real–how there’s a growing part of me that is so inexpressibly thankful he’s not like other kids. Because it means the differences are adding up to something you can’t filter out, and it’s beautiful.

And I know, in saying all this, that it’s a description and reflection of the corner we’ve turned. Lately he’s been asking so many questions, and the memories that pop up on my phone aren’t just reminders to me, but offerings to him: here you are before your x-ray two years ago, last year. Here you are in the hospital after they fixed your neck. Look at that hat you had to wear! He asks about the surgery, which broken bone it fixed. He sees his own tilted head, and watching him as he takes it in, I almost can’t catch my breath: it’s like watching the sun rise. He asks about the body parts he sees in his book: the skull and the brain, the bones and muscle, the kidneys and bladder and intestines, and as he provides a brief recap of the way I’ve told him the digestive system works, I think back to a year ago, when he was just stringing three words together; how a year before that, when there wasn’t a sound. He asks about feelings, what they mean, and tells me about his day at school: who got in trouble (or “told off,” here) and was sent to reflection time. He mentions his classmates by name. He is seeing them, and knowing them.

And they are knowing him.

On Monday, the school handyman walked over to me with a box in his hands. Inside it was a model Chevrolet, still screwed into its stand, white and blue paint gleaming. “I’ve got more at home. I’ll bring them,” he said. The other kids gathered around, exclaiming. The next day, the girl named after a flower brought a sack of cars herself. “They were at my granny’s,” she said. “I knew James would like them.” On the way home that morning, H’s mom told me that they want to have him over for a playdate, and that they need to have popcorn and chocolate chip cookies because “those are James’s favourite.” That afternoon, his teacher told me that the other kids fight over who gets to walk with him to the playground. I emailed the mother of the boy in his class who’s looked out for him from day one, and when I saw her husband the next day he told me that she’d cried before she emailed me back to arrange a playdate.

Meanwhile, Little Brother sits in the waiting room with me at the therapy centre and approaches strangers who exclaim over his cuteness and teach him Chinese. His language is like an avalanche, building every day. He tells me when he’s sad or mad or happy, casually tosses out over lunch that “I love you, Mommy.” He tells me the feelings that I struggle to define to The Kid. We are parenting two different people. I am two different moms. It wasn’t what I planned. It’s hard as shit sometimes. It’s also pretty fantastic.

When the little redhead, one of two of them (three if you count me), comes out to me on the bench for reading, she tells me that the kid I sent to find her thought she wasn’t there. Like she was invisible or something. Oh girl, I think. I know THAT one. And I consider the threads that run through all of us, that make us more alike than different. How an email can make one mother cry while sending it, and another while reading it, for the same reason: this complicated, raw, pulsing love that tears us apart while it holds us together because it all comes from the same ultimate love: the one that has designs on all of us, weaving our stories together in ways we never expected or would have chosen. Never would I have wanted this to be the way TK would become so beloved. Never will I be the same because it is.

This love that is present perfect tense even as nothing is perfect but it, that transforms executions into coronations and death into life, that forces us past the first layer of ourselves and others, so that no matter how many times we relive it, each time is like the first. But different. But the same.

This love that is sitting with me as one of the other moms sees TK’s new car and tells him: “What a lucky boy you are!” And the me who would have bitterly laughed not long ago, internally reviewing all the scans and doctor visits and surgeries and therapies, she scampers off to a different space as I inhabit this one: this one where he is quite a lucky boy. This one where James? Oh, he’s the one who…has a brother who always asks after him, who won’t calm down until he knows he’s okay, who embraces him and gazes at him with wonder. He’s the one who…loves cars. And everyone knows it.

Unblinded by the Light

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I pick him up at 3 on Tuesdays and Fridays.

But only on those days. So far. That is when school ends, after all. But every other day, I pop into the office and sign him out with the same reason–therapy–even though that’s not the whole story. Sure, most days we actually do have therapy, but that’s not the sum of it. The reason I’m there at 1:40 instead of 3–the reason I get to peek into the window and watch him finishing lunch and am rewarded a secret smile, often with Little Brother barreling in ahead of me–is because after his first day, his teacher suggested that maybe we ease him into this, his kindergarten year in a mainstream school. I nodded, sadness sharing space with relief, because even with our early pickup, even with this “special” arrangement, we’re still so much further along than we were before we got here. We’re still in such a different class than we would be back in the States. This 5…it’s still our 10. And when we started, it was every day at 1:40. Now it’s just three of them.

So the journey continues, our non-linear progressions still progress. Still a story unfurling.

Last weekend we went to the local amusement park and purchased our annual passes and revisited all the spots we saw for the first time a few weeks ago. The growth in familiarity might have contributed to The Kid’s bravery, but it wasn’t the sum of it. He approached the ride with me–the one we didn’t get to try last time–and pulled me along. He waited slightly more patiently than last time. And this time, we climbed into the seat together. This time they pulled the safety bar down and we spun around the track, glee across both of our faces, and he checked the crowd to make sure his dad and brother were watching. That there were witnesses. And as soon as we pulled to a stop, he yanked my arm. “I want to go again!” he shouted. He would do it all over again, all the ups and downs, the terror and the joy. What bravery.

Would I?

These are the moments that mothers share with each other when they’ve dug deep in, when they’ve built trust and shared glances and laughs and tears, when they’ve huddled closely over drinks or phones and told each other the darkest things they’ve thought: that sometimes they dream of running away. All the best mothers I know have admitted it. Because–and here’s the thing–all the best mothers I know, know they’re not up to it. Because “it”–this raising of young hearts and minds–it’s a big fucking deal. And the best mothers I know, who are also the best people I know, know that they are not the best mothers. They’re just the ones called to the job who keep showing up. And some days, this must be enough. Because sometimes it’s all there is. So we show up at each other’s hard days, on each other’s last miles, and we bring water and wine and words, and we talk and listen and know that we’re in this together. And that some days we want to quit.

But some days…oh. Some days.

Last night, TK was asking me more. Asking me about everything, like he’s been doing lately, and over a fifteen-minute conversation (THE BOY WASN’T SPEAKING A WORD FIFTEEN MONTHS AGO), it came out that someone in his class had gotten into a fight with another kid and the first kid had gotten in trouble and sent to the office. And the fact that he told me this? Okay, the fact that he gave me enough information for me to surmise this? This is what miracles are, people. He asked, and I answered, and I asked, and he answered, and piece by piece we unraveled the mystery together. And after the litany of questions and answers and not a small amount of frustration on my part over what it takes to communicate sometimes, this fleeting thought happened:

Maybe I’m actually made for this.

This dual life, this grief and joy and upheaval and peace and these questions and answers and these traffic-laden trips to therapy with shits in the backseat and apologies afterward (mine) and moments on the couch talking about other kids having to go to reflection time, and he and I finally, FINALLY speaking the same language? Maybe the arduous moments and the easy ones and the ugly and beautiful fit me better than I even know. Maybe the fact that it took over four years for him to say what LB says so easily now–“I love you, Mommy”–is what makes it matter so much more to hear from both of them. Maybe the trust we’ve built together that has brought them to saying it is what makes everything matter. The sum of it held in those words which are so much more than just those words.

Because our grief and joy and upheaval and peace and questions and answers are so much heartier and thicker and heavier than they would have been were it not for those dark and digging moments. Those backseat shits.

And in church on Sunday, as I sit by myself in the pew while TH takes them to kids’ church, the light is streaming through an upper window and right onto my lap, where the words are printed on a sheet of paper. I think about how TK is so sensitive to light, how it’s good he’s across the way, how he’s right where he should be. Because this light, it’s nearly blinding me, hitting me like it is. This light that feels like it’s making the words so hard to see, even while it’s exactly the thing that’s making me see them.

Will Write for Attention

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It’s not often one has an existential crisis in the checkout lane of a Swedish furniture store in the suburbs of Sydney–I think–but it happened to me, and very recently. In the twenty minutes (that felt like an eternity) that I spent behind the cart holding my two young children and a mountain of decorative crap, I came to question every #blessed gift and decision that got me to this exact point in the universe: to this store, to this country, to these children, to this marriage, to this God.

How’s that for a Saturday afternoon?

Read the rest over at Mockingbird!

My Favo(u)rite Things

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“What does relax mean?” The Kid asked me, the latest in a series of questions about words: sad, hungry, angry. He wasn’t feeling well and I told him we should take it easy. Relax. Naturally, he wanted a description. I faltered, trying to find new words to describe old ones. Or was it old ones to describe new?

He’s asking so many questions, and talking about feelings, and these are two areas targeted by therapy that used to be weaknesses. Now, they are part of the daily dialogue.

The next day we were forced to rest. To relax. After a Saturday full of Peppa Pig and popcorn, cinema and mall, indoor playground and outdoor running, TK woke up in the middle of the night and ran to our room, then promptly vomited all over the bed, the second child to do so in a week. I went to the dry cleaner to pick up the duvet (doona here) that Little Brother had soiled last week and traded it for TK’s barf job. We skipped church. We lay around on couches and beds and watched videos. We wandered into town and ate brunch. Well, the rest of us did. We ambled over to the library, where I heard, “JAMES!” and turned to see one of TK’s classmates speeding toward us as he usually does Monday through Friday. Today, out of his uniform and with his family, he recommended books he thought TK would like. TK and LB fawned over his baby brother as they do during the week. The Husband and I talked to their parents about New Zealand. It wasn’t a typical Sunday–I missed the stained glass and the people, the singing and prayers, the ferry and restaurant–but it was a good one; I got laziness and the library, other people and different restaurants, and family.

I am always so quick–I believe the technical term is immediate–to fight against a change in plans, an adjustment to the routine. Whereas here in Sydney, our move has left us constantly doing just that: accepting the new in place of the old. Instead of fighting it, I have to accept it. Not only accept it, but call it home before I’m ready, before it feels like that. When the truth is that we are between homes, hovering constantly within the tension of missing one home and adjusting to another; traveling the nonlinear paths of depression and anxiety and home-making, where one day I can’t imagine being anywhere else and the next, I don’t know where I am exactly, or where I belong.

This past weekend, we were forced to rest. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve changed sheets and folded laundry, how much diarrhoea (it has an O here! How appropriate!) I’ve scrubbed from carpets and mopped from floors. What I can tell you, honestly, is that I’m not getting any happier about it. I’m not smiling beatifically up at the heavens as my hands touch live shit. What I’m doing, what I’m quite good at, is, in these mopping moments, engaging in a tournament of The Resentment Games, which is like The Hunger Games but more violent. I’m groaning against the role that my X chromosomes seem to shuttle me into: the default janitor and errand-runner and laundress and caretaker. I’m straining against what so often feel like shackles, then battling the guilt that comes with such feelings. Such ingratitude.

Spoiler alert: it’s not going to change. Not completely, at least. Not enough. Because there’s this thing called the flesh, and it pits itself against higher things like the spirit, and I’m told we only exchange the former for the latter in totality once we’re on the other side of eternity. And besides all that, allow me to say it again and again: I will never enjoy mopping up liquid shit.

I don’t think this makes me a monster. I’m pretty sure it makes me normal.

When we arrived at speech therapy last week, after a fecally-charged twenty-minute drive because TK seems to (like a man) hold his poo until he’s at home these days (home being…well, me most of the time), I had just huffed him down to the bathroom at the end of the hall, cleaned him up, and fought with him about it on all fronts. And this was a normal poo, pre-gastric explosions. We walked back up the hall together and into the waiting room, where his home therapist was waiting. I told her what had happened, and she gave me a look that said she had been there, then some words that assured me she had. “It’s funny what they’ll save for mum, isn’t it?” she asked. “What moments being a mum makes you available to–the good and the bad–because they’ll only do some things for you.” I sent him down the hall with her and waited, thinking about what she had said over the next hour. Thinking about all the things, good and bad, that this extra X chromosome makes me available for.

I feel like Carrie in Paris so much of the time, falling in literal and metaphorical ways, literal and metaphorical shit. Life is hard on a good day; throw in a large-scale relocation soaked currently in diarrhoea and it feels nearly impossible. But there is the rest that we are given, and sometimes forced into. There is the cafe where I take turns getting muffins with TK and LB. There is the fact that we have a dry cleaner now, and that I know where all the good bathrooms around town are. We have a library and a toy store. We know the village well enough to wander together, as a family. We have Netflix, and that has two of my favourite recent shows, and I have Missing Richard Simmons, and this all bring me joy.

I have every other Tuesday reading with TK and the kids and his class, and while it is tedious as hell, there are the moments: when Z, the one who brings toys he knows TK will like, imitated me reading “bird” for him with an American accent. Or when H, TK’s friend from the library, spotted a turkey in the school yard and chased it for five minutes, screaming “CHICKEN!” Or when E, TK’s friend who came for a playdate last week, giggled at a picture of a car and said, “James should get this book. He LOVES cars.” He is known here. We are all becoming known here.

There is the old being replaced by the new, and the new becoming old until its newness pops up in fragments rather than sheaths, and while even fragments can upend me, I am not torn apart. There are reasonable pours of wine and there are runs along the beach and there are the other, countless, gifts of grace, in which what is taken away is never stolen but is creating a space for more. More, an old thing that always feels new.

Climb Every Mountain (Except All of Them)

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I know, honey, and you’re so good at trying.

I am a goal-oriented person. This is, of course, a #humblebrag, because who doesn’t want to sound like they have plans and achieve them? But what I’m saying is that I’m a goal-oriented person to my detriment. As in, take a harmless or even positive thing and twist it into a nightmare. Because here’s a funny story: I’m a goal-oriented person, then I had kids and they shat all over the goals I had for them and myself. They just showed up, pooped everywhere (literally and figuratively), and shredded my carefully-curated lists with their tiny hands, then did a dance of triumph during which they knocked over the remainder of my plans and dreams, and left the room laughing.

That may not have actually happened. But sometimes it feels like it did. Like it does. And it is one of the most awful and wonderful things to ever happen to me.

Left to my own devices (which I am NOT, #grace), I treat life as a project. And I include “people” in “life.” I treat my family as a project. I treat an across-the-world move as a project. I treat making dinner as a project. I treat my children as a project. I had so many plans for them, y’all. And none of them included a spectrum diagnosis, or potty-training at age five, or being hit in the face by the little one because he thinks it’s funny. My children, before I had them, were the most well-behaved little angels (robots) you’d ever seen, and didn’t complicate my life a bit! In fact, they put away all the dishes after dinner! They certainly never attacked each other in the shopping cart at the IKEA checkout until I nearly had a panic attack/aneurysm.

I’m rolling with the punches, though, you know? When life knocks me down, I get back up. When the going gets tough, I get going.

Except…not. I’m tired. I’m living in a foreign country ten thousand miles from everything we know. I battle anxiety and depression. My older son faces his own challenges, and my younger son…is two. Often terribly so. Some days, the goals I used to have feel more like the punchline to a mean joke and the only realistic goal is to make it to bed without drop-kicking anyone. So they’re changing, those goals. And so am I. And not, I repeat, NOT, by trying harder.

I’ve been trying to get The Kid off his sippy cup for years. He is even less a fan of change than I am, so all my efforts were to no avail: letting him shop with me for a new cup (I want that one! SO I CAN NEVER USE IT), picking out cups with his favourite characters splashed all over them, hiding his sippy. Then, a week ago Sunday, he dropped his cup on the ground by Mosman Bay. In slow motion, I saw it bounce on the sidewalk then arc through the air and land in the water. I turned to The Husband, panic in my eyes. “His cup!” I yelled. “HIS CUP!”

TH kind of shrugged, threw his hands up. I mean, the cup was ten feet below us and bobbing away. Nothing could be done–which is exactly when most important things happen (and maybe should be the name of my memoirs). By that evening, TK was drinking out of a grown-up water bottle, and not due for a second to all my efforts. Later that week, he informed me one morning that he did not want to wear a pull-up to school. He hasn’t worn one during the day since. Has he pissed his pants since then? You betcha. Has he shat them? Um, does a bear do so in the woods? But much like Pat and Tiffany in the closing moments of Silver Linings Playbook, I will take what everyone else (including my pre-kid self) calls a “5” and look at it as a 10, because This Is Us/Progress, and it is a triumph. Just like the forty-five minutes of Moana that we made it through at the theatre a couple of weekends ago. Or the moment last week, when TK and Little Brother and I were walking down Spit Road to TK’s school and his classmate’s mom slowed their car down so we could greet each other, then outside his classroom she told me about how her son spends time in the mornings picking out toys to bring to school, turning them over in his hand and murmuring, “I bet James would like this one.” There’s the girl at his table who spontaneously hugged him goodbye yesterday. There’s the boy in the other kindergarten class who also has a shadow therapist and whose mom I ran into the other day, and we shared their nearly identical histories with each other. There is the self-labeled “Team James” group of therapists who really see him, who love him.

There are the moments when LB hits me and I want to scream, to hide under the bed, to engage in a vengeful game of “Why are you hitting yourself?” with him, then I realise that I have enough air in my lungs to take a breath, and enough sanity left in the tank to see what’s going on, and I give him the attention he so desperately aches for, and we are both changed by it.

It’s not every time, but it’s getting to be more of them. And none of it is what I had planned. That’s what makes it a gift: I didn’t earn it.

I’ve been drinking too much lately. I cut myself some slack after we moved because I needed to. There were little wars on all fronts and survival was the endgame. But now we’re all calming down and, you know, air in my lungs and sanity in my tank and all, and I can finally look around and really see: see the answered prayers, the grace on all fronts that’s actually fighting the wars, that is bigger than they are. And I can see how I’ve allowed wine to go from a gift to a form of replacement therapy. My glasses were getting bigger and more frequent, and the bottles were taking fewer nights to disappear. My problem isn’t a physical dependence; it’s an unwillingness to stop overindulging. We went out on Saturday night and before we left, I was already dreading my Sunday hangover as if it was something unavoidable. I haven’t been enjoying wine, I’ve been using it. And I don’t want to turn it from a gift into oxygen; I don’t want to twist something meant to be beautiful into something ugly; I don’t want it to become an object of resentment for me or my kids. I don’t want it to “get me through the day” any more than I want caffeine to be the only reason I stay awake, or Likes on Facebook to be my touchstone of self-worth.

Grace does not demand that I make arbitrary, sweeping changes that don’t hold true to how I’m made; it shows up in my life less as the humanly-skewed ideas behind accountability partners and altar calls and more as someone sitting beside me, saying “Me too.” Its kindness is what changes me rather than my own self-will could, or a demand for publicly-advertised Service for the Kingdom ever would. Grace is quiet. It doesn’t lead to me smashing all my good (average) wine into the rubbish bin in some misdirected and loud attempt to earn my way back into its…well, good graces. Here is what grace does: it provides reasons to mourn and celebrate together, with or without wine. It shatters my old goals and gives me a new reality. When it denies, it does so to make room for greater gifts. And it fills the space that, until recently, I was demanding wine fill, and softens the edges that I was trying to get wine to soften, and it pours me a smaller glass than the night before so that I can really taste it this time. Then it leads me to the couch on our deck while TH chases TK and LB, their shrieks no longer keeping me from a bottle but now showing up as bigger and more beautiful than it, while the sun sets here and rises ten thousand miles away, and both places are home. Cups always overflowing.

Fix Me?

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“How else but through a broken heart…”

We have a new rug.

This shouldn’t be as momentous as it feels. After all, a rug was not ever the root of my problems. A rug doesn’t cause or cure depression. But a smelly rug that haunts every entrance into your home, that mocks you every time you sit on the couch, that grows stronger through every storm and bout of stifling humidity…well, that’s not nothing. And it’s not pretty. And I have always been funny about smells. So, finally, I texted The Husband last week: “WE HAVE TO GET RID OF THIS STANK RUG.” He agreed, if only because he was sick of hearing about it. So on Saturday, we got a new rug and immediately brought it to its new home, where it sits now, not smelling a bit. My rose-scented diffusers finally have their time to shine, and all feels right with the world.

I mean…ish. Because this was an example of a problem with a solution. Something that could be fixed.

But things have been going better, generally. The cupcake and wine spending has slightly dipped, and that’s always a highly-correlated indicator of well-being around here. (Chocolate spending has gone up, but that’s because Easter candy is on display and who can just walk right by that?! I DON’T HAVE A HEART OF STONE, PEOPLE.) The Kid and Little Brother are thriving in their respective school environments: LB dominates the playground and morning tea when it’s anything bread-based, and TK…I mean, that guy. A brief pause for that.

We got a standard report from the school on his progress, and dude is killing it. Once again, points for the Australian school system, which works with parents and welcomes collaboration in the form of shadow therapists so that TK and kids like him have the chance to learn alongside their mainstreamed peers, because that guy? Is smart. So we’ve got some plumbing issues; sue him. The last time I shat my own pants wasn’t too long ago, truth be told. But he churns out his worksheets all, “Duh. Which words start with D? I can do this in my sleep.” He brings his reading books home and flies through them, grin on his face. He plays “shop” at recess alongside the other kids and hands out “change.” He’s finding his place, is the thing. And the report, it told us that he’s mastering fluency of language, which just over a year ago would have propelled me to the moon and back. Now it’s part of our daily lives, these words spilling from him, Aussie ones sprinkled unexpectedly in, like last week when he told me, “Mum. MUM! You’re just giving me a little cuddle.”

It doesn’t cure depression. Apparently, that’s not how brain chemistry works? But it ain’t nothing.

I sat at an outdoor cafe a couple of weeks ago with a new friend, someone who has two sons as well, one of whom is similar to TK. And we commiserated over the guilt, the constant questions we ask ourselves, the medical histories and the doctors and diagnoses. We talked about their weaknesses and strengths, and how hard it was sometimes to tell the difference. How some of the things we may be trying to “fix”–the very fact that we’re geared to target and correct–may need to remain. May make them who they are, who they’re meant to be.

I don’t know what the answers are. What I do know is that so many of the things that make TK different are the same things that draw others to him, make them embrace him, make him feel safe to them. The other mums in his class have told their kids to look out for him–I suspected this before and now know it as fact–using words like shy. The kindness here is quiet yet present, subtle and not asking to be noticed or given anything in return. It has been a gift, a fresh breeze blowing through each day, each morning drop-off where we are met with smiles and welcomes, and it’s enough to make this introvert show up a few minutes early to enjoy it all.

Something real is happening here.

It’s the expectations that kill us. Our vision of how it should be, and our subsequent efforts to twist and squeeze everything into that always-smaller vision than what is actually planned–ordained. I went to a counsellor last week (THAT’S HOW YOU SPELL IT HERE, GET OFF MY BACK, MY COMPUTER IS AUSTRALIAN NOW) and after I told her my story she remarked that I looked pretty held-together for someone with my reported struggles. Maybe it was a compliment? It felt like she was asking to be slapped. I’ll give it another try next week, maybe show up with shitty pants and raccoon eyes and no bra. But really…what is a depressed person supposed to look like? What is a smart kid supposed to look like? What is learning and socialising and becoming supposed to look like?

I suspect some of my depression, in addition to the brain chemistry, is fuelled by my own expectations: the thought that I should feel further along at this point, that things should seem more like home. When, wonderfully, home is happening all around us, even when someone honks at my driving skills or I have to pay for parking because I forgot my receipt and really THE SIGNS SHOULD BE BIGGER THAT TELL YOU THAT.

Maybe we should give each other and ourselves a fucking break, man.

I was reading this old story the other day, and to be honest it left me a little pissed off that Thomas was thereafter described as Doubting. All the other guys got a nearly immediate appearance; he had to wait eight days. Eight days. But in those eight days, despite doubts, he stayed. He stayed, despite the doubts and brokenness and uncertainty. And when the moment came, it wasn’t with a curse. It was with grace. With a different and deeper experience than all the rest had. He not only saw, he felt. And all because of the thing we regard negatively. It ended up being the gateway to the gift.

Little Brother is spilling out words too, so conversant that it boggles my mind to keep up with him, chirping away in the backseat. He has his own place at TK’s school, standing on the steps of the classroom and performing a rendition of the ABC song that contains more than a few mispronunciations. The books say you should re-pronounce the words for them correctly. Okay, sure, maybe. But sometimes I just laugh while everyone else applauds and he grins, and later when we’re alone I’ll say them with him, the words “wrong” for now but somehow even more wonderfully…right.

Alone Until I’m with You

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There has been some…concern. Which I expected; you can’t write a whole post about how depressed you are without the people who care, and about whom you care, checking up in one way or another.

But there have also been improvements. And, maybe more importantly, there has been communication. Identification. Messages sent along invisible wires, appearing as voices and words, saying–as CS Lewis knew they would–“What! You too?” Which is the whole point, isn’t it? Our seeing each other, finally. Finding our way home together, even as we are led there with each step.

Let’s just be honest: the heat hasn’t fucking helped. You want to get down to brass tacks and that’s where you start. I mean, who wouldn’t be down, at least a bit, walking around in drenched underwear? Showing up with a perpetual sheen on the upper lip? These are not good looks on the best of days. But this is life in the bottom hemisphere in February…so I am told. (I am also told that this has been one of the hottest summers on record. BETTER BE.) But there’s been a lifting of that lately, in between rain storms, and the effect is palpable. For me, weather is a trigger, I suppose. Most focus on the dull grey of winter and its biting cold, and yeah–that can suck. But summer, in its sneaky, sunny way, can be just as painful for a contrarian like myself. And I have never found an anti-perspirant that lives up to its name. So there’s the practical side of it.

There are also the cloudier, murkier, more complicated and insidious territories of hormones, emotion, post-pregnancy and post-relocation life. Of…well, life, period. Which always seems to be changing, whether your address is or not. You would think that this would make me press in, voluntarily and desperately, into what never changes. Which is actually a Who. Into the unfailing grace offered there. But I forget. I always, always forget.

Grace doesn’t. It never leaves, even when I do.

There are some, by the way–and I don’t know, maybe you’re one of them? If so, welcome, and hope you don’t mind the profanity; it’s a permanent part of the decor–who are politely frightened by such extremes of emotion. Who would rather avoid that drama altogether. And there are days when I would, too. Those days would best be filed under the heading “Denial,” because on those days I try to pretend I have it all together and things are easier or better than they are. But here’s the thing, which I can say as I’m now seeing glimmers of light around and ahead: I kind of like being this way. (Remind me of this the next time things go pear-shaped. So…tomorrow. Depression and anxiety are so annoyingly non-linear.) I don’t know how well I would wear evenness anyway. I like that I see bruises in sunsets, that the colour spectrum is vivid and piercing for me. I like that I feel things deeply, even when they hurt. I like that walking around with open wounds is making me more aware of others’, and making me a safe space for them to talk about it. I like the particular brand of community that is built among those who used to feel alone. I like living with my whole heart.

But damn, is it hard. And I have to say “I’m sorry” a lot, which I hate.

I like that my weaknesses are also my strengths, like two sides of a coin that is never enough on its own, but always sends me back to grace. That presses me into it. Which is what I and one of mine were talking about over email, I think, recently: how I feel like I’m being pressed uncomfortably down into that never-changing love that won’t let me escape it, no matter how many hatches I try to locate. I first felt it on the track of my old gym back in Atlanta: a nearly-physical sense of pressure upon me, and the recognition of it matching that pressure I feel on my hands every week when I open them to receive the blessing, after the bread and wine. And now, she wrote about how our children teach us about grace, and how this season is making way for another one. I thought about that, and about what I’d told her about feeling pressed into love, and how depression–that word–it sounds like the opposite of press. About how it all, though, is delivering me deeper into the pressed love that never lets up.

I don’t know. I’m still working on that one.

Anyway, there’s this: we already know The Kid could read, but now he’s showing other people, at school, and every night he demands to read the bedtime story, so that Goodnight Moon is now recited to us, TH and I looking at each other over two smaller heads and it is always a balm, no matter the day. There is the way Little Brother tries to read now too, how he’s recognising some words, how he wants to be like his brother. There’s the way TK loves babies, how it connects us to people everywhere, from his schoolyard and his classmates’ little siblings to the strangers on the ferry, and our playdate this week is with a girl in the class whose two-year-old little sister asks after him.

There’s the haircut and colour I got on Friday that, not for nothing, helped me feel lighter in more ways than one. There is grace in salons–don’t you ever doubt it. There are the cooler evenings on the beach with picnic dinners not on the sand with the birds (WE’RE LEARNING!) but on the grass in the shade of a tree, and the walks along the water after. There is the chair from IKEA, a piece of redemption from an awful afternoon of tantrums and humiliation, and now that TH put it together it sits in our bedroom and whenever I plop down on it, two little bodies always end up beside me. There are the little things that help sew you back up after the little things that started to undo you.

There was the moment at the salon when a motorcade full of sirens drove by, helicopters overhead, and they said Netanyahu was in town, and I thought about how one of the hardest things about being here is the feeling of disconnection. And here history is happening outside the window–I LOVE HISTORY!–heads all turned right, and I realise: I am not disconnected. I am just connected differently.