The Man in the Grocery Line

Certain special needs are invisible, or really hard to spot. This can include Autism, in some people. That isn’t Bink’s reality, though. Anyone of the neurotypical persuasion who takes more than a minute to observe my adult daughter will understand that something’s up. The way she carries herself, her frequent self-talk and singing, her hands reaching for my hair and announcing frequently, to nobody in particular, “ Brown girl. Mommy is a girl. Brown girl hair” these things are among the give-aways.

When Bink and I go out in public, people’s reactions to her difference tend to fall into three categories:
1. People are nice, they glance a few times, and then look away, feigning indifference, because staring is not what a well-mannered person does.
2. People are nice, with a curiosity that sometimes crinkles the corners of their lips upward and radiates from their eyes.
3. People are caught up in their own affairs and genuinely do not notice.

In the course of twenty five years, I can count on one hand the number of times that strangers have said or done something truly unkind in reaction to Bink’s other-ness. I attribute this to growing and widespread awareness of Autism and other special needs. I’m also a rather understanding sort. In the face of possibly mean or ignorant behavior, I prefer to assume the other person has a headache, has had a really bad day, or has to pee and has been holding it too long.

Now that you’ve got all that background, let me set the scene for what happened last Sunday. Bink and I went to the market, as we often do. We work on several things there. She looks for items from our list, puts them in the cart, and scans them at the self-checkout. I’m selective about how much she takes on in any given visit, depending on time constraints, and her mood, and mine.

We’d set out with a pretty small list that day, but we ended up with about forty things, because our four felines like their stinky food in individual little cans. We found everything successfully and we headed to one of six self-check registers. Things were going well: she was happy, I was happy, there were no lines. I prompted her through the initial steps. Choose English as the preferred Ms Register voice. Let’s type in our phone number for those valuable gas points. Then I asked her to scan, and set myself up at the end of the belt and prepared to bag.

Bink began the process, picking up each item and looking for the funny lines and numbers that make the lady inside the register talk back. One dollar and sixteen cents. Sixty four cents. Savings: ten cents. And so on. The voice is slow and deliberate, and Bink’s actions usually match the pace. If she can’t find the code, she just turns the item in all different directions until Miss Register responds. She was doing a bang-up job this particular day, adding in her own random comments. “Brown giiiirrl. Two sides?” The three of us –Ms. R, Bink, and bagging Mom, were in a nice slow sync. All was well in the world.

From my vantage point as the bagger I noticed that a man had gotten in line behind us. As Bink did her thing, he seemed more and more…ummm..interested. That’s a polite, assume-the-best word to describe his countenance and demeanor. The more items she scanned, the more man-in-line was interested. As we were getting towards the final third of our checkout experience, he began to sigh loudly and move his body in a subtle dance of impatience. A few more minutes, a few more scanned items later, man-in-line leaned way over to his left and ducked slightly around Bink, almost like she was a shopping cart or a magazine display rack. He seemed eager to catch my attention.

I admit, I almost declined to meet his eyes. It sure seemed like he was not a happy man-in-line, and we were almost finished, and things had gone so well. Bink had scanned more items than she’d ever done before, I’m pretty sure. We thrive on these little triumphs. Anyway, I did meet man’s gaze, and it was then he spoke. “Really??” he asked. I detected a really big pinch of sarcasm.

Really?

Did I mention that there were not big lines at the SIX self-checkout lanes? That means man-in-line had five other places he could have gone to ring himself out.

There were so many things I could have said. In retrospect, the possibilities were tantalizing. I was taken off guard, though, by this man’s words. I’m also, as I think I mentioned, a rather kind sort. Most of the time. To most people. So here’s what I did. Here’s what I said. I stood up a little taller, put a big, genuine smile on my face, and said, “ Yes, she’s doing a GREAT job, isn’t she? “

Man-in-line kind of screwed up his face a little. He paused, and then he muttered, to the floor,” Yeah. Yeah.” Bink completed her scanning, I put our bagged items in the cart, and we left. Two happy women, out the door and home.

Is it possible, dear reader, that man-in-line, who appeared very typical in every way, had one of those less visible special needs? Maybe he had a whopping headache. Maybe he didn’t win the lottery last night—again. Who knows, and we never really do know, do we?

I wonder if compassion can be taught, or if it is an innate thing that lives in some hearts and not others. I wonder what could change if we all went a little out of our way to notice each other with a bit more kindness, to scrape up a little more patience, and to let those words fall more readily out of our mouths,” Good job. You’re doing a really good job.”

–Melinda Coppola

Autographing Autumn

I was walking, first field–
verdant, moist , glorious
carpet of greens,

and the woods edged closer,
with a beckoning trail,
and then the floor was pine needles,
punctuated with wily
old roots in no
pattern whatsoever.

Sky was rarified blue, bluer,
an artist’s glad canvas,
background perfection to

the leaves! Yellow and orange,
rusty brown, green,
pure gold, shimmering
against that ocean of sky.

A gradual descent
along the acceptably
man-made path ,
and then a turn revealed
more signs of us:

piles of stones and bits
of writing paper, a charm,
all left like an offering
atop a stump.

How interesting, humankind.

That we feel a need to sign everything,
as if
he, she, they, we
were in any way contributing artists,

as if we are desperate
to make ourselves known,
to say, in some small or grander way,
I am here.
I was here.

How is it that the leaves of oak and maple,
the chipmunks, the needles of pine,
are so willing to be here and then go,
in their time,

but we
who fancy ourselves smarter, more capable,
have so much difficulty
letting go?

–Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

 

In Times Like These: Silver Linings of Caregiving

THANK YOU, TEDIUM

 

In the midst of the interminable news;
all-bad-all-the-time,
chaos and tragedy,
aftermath and predictions,
close ups and sound bites
that feed worry
and starve hope,
invite helplessness,

inside this swirl,
this modern quotidian,
there is something else,
not exactly calm, but steadier ground,

and I, who have recently
allowed my own heart to rent space
to darkness and fear,
I’ve watched myself mistrust
this solid ground,
guessing it to be the eye
of the larger storm
which I’ve been naming
How Things Are Now.

This morning, my daughter’s needs
rose strong and clear,
as they often do,
and I turned my intention
towards her, and them,
felt cool, hard floor beneath my feet,
and there it all was before me
spread out like a map
for my frayed, lost senses:

The morning tea and
the reading of her dream,

the string of reassurances
against her fears of the day,

the mechanics of a smoothie,
first juice then fruit,
now let’s shield our faces from the splash
of berries into liquid,
now earplugs before blender,

morning pills and
pink shirt, yes,
let’s try the pants again,
this time with the tag in the back,
and oops! Your shoes found the wrong feet,
and can we make those laces nice and tight?

Packed lunch, yes,
the soup is salty,
the pickles tart, yes, yes

yes there will be late sleep on Saturday,
yes, Mom is a girl,
yes we will go out this afternoon,
yes you will have a snack,

and in the thick of this,
our rituals,
a slow, slow dance of repetition,
naming all the parts
of the day,

I almost fell to my knees,
silently thanking
God/Goddess/ That-Which-Makes-Stuff-Happen,
for the ordinary work of caregiving,
sweet tedium
tethering me to the here and now,
almost sacred in its simplicity.

Eyes on task at hand,
heart humming
with the love that fuels
this tending,
binding me to that which is real,
and necessary,
and lifesaving
and true.

 

-Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

 

STONE LOVIN’

Dear reader, is there something in the natural world that you are really drawn to? Birds, clouds, pine trees? Lightening storms? Is there something for which you have an unrelenting affection? For, me, it’s stones. Specifically, I’m drawn to stones that hail from the edges of the sea.

I feel so very alive and content when I am walking on a stone strewn beach, or when I am crouching over them, admiring their myriad patterns and shapes, colors and textures. When I’m in communion with these rounded beauties, I have no age, no name, no agenda. I am not weighed down with layers of labels and hurry-ups and I’d-better-nots. The stones­­­­­­­—all colors, sizes, and shapes of them– touch a place deep inside me that feels like it’s been alive forever.  My relationship with them is simple and straightforward. I adore them, I respect them, I’m in awe of them. I also delight deeply and earnestly in my time with them, and…. I know them to be alive. They vibrate at a much slower rate than humans do, but they have life nonetheless.

I collect them, but only if they tell me they want to be gathered. My hands and eyes move towards the stones I am drawn to, and sometimes the vibration coming from a stone feels like a definitive NO, don’t take me. Not today. And so I don’t pick that one up, or if I already have I’ll place it gently back down with a silent thank you. Sometimes they are happy to be put into my bag or bucket, and other times it seems they are entirely neutral.

When I am on a beach that is home to stones, preferably in the early morning or late afternoon, I feel like I am surrounded by the most exquisite jewels the Earth has to offer. Who needs diamonds, when there are such gems as these, smoothed by time and water and wind and imbued with a wisdom I cannot adequately describe.

I have thousands of stones in my home and yard. When I have the time and feel the calling, I make art with them. Cairns, specifically—intentional stacks. Here again, the stones guide me in the process. Some want to go together, some are neutral. Some will make it quite clear they do not want to be placed on top of that rock, or in that cairn.

I used to just balance the stones, and I do have some cairns that live that way for a long time. About ten years ago, the thought of gluing them together came to me. I felt my way through that idea, and then brought it to the stones, not knowing how they would feel about being glued. Their radiated answer? Yes, glue is OK. A decade of our time seems to be like a few moments of theirs, and their languid vibrations do not react the way ours might. My deeper sense is that, if they are glued in a cairn and the time comes for them to be free again, the cairn will simply break apart.

My stone love brings me peace.  I’m grateful for their steady reminder that true strength and real balance can coexist in unlimited combinations of color, size and shape.

So, reader dear, what calls you out of doors, what helps you stay grounded when the ways of the peopled world feel oppressive or overwhelming? You can email me privately by replying to this blog, or you can leave a comment below or on Facebook. I do so love to hear from you.

Melinda Coppola

Yogabilities™: Peace as a civil right

Doesn’t everyone deserve to be peaceful?

 

When I tell people that one of my occupations is teaching Yoga, there are some common responses.

Oh, I love Yoga! I take it at the gym/the cool studio in the upscale shopping center down the street
or
I can’t do Yoga, I’m not flexible enough.
                          or, perhaps
I read an article about how many NFL players do Yoga.

When I tell people that one of my specialties is teaching adapted Yoga classes for individuals with special needs, there’s also a common response, variably worded but along the lines of:

               Oh, that is so wonderful that you do that for them.

Translation: you must be a saint. You are so self-sacrificing. That must be so hard.

Insert audible sigh here. I know this territory. As mother of a young woman with special needs, I’ve heard things like it all her life.
1. I don’t know how you do it.
2.
You have the patience of a saint.
3.
God gives special children to special people.

Those are well meaning comments, I know. And sure, it can be really hard, and I do happen to have super-sized patience. I also believe that each incarnated soul is special, and God//Goddess/Universal Life Force has a way of putting the right souls together to help us learn and grow in the ways we most need to. In other words, everyone—parent and child, with or without extra needs— is special, so therefore # 3 applies universally.

When someone would roll out the old “How do you do it?” in the past, I was often too tired to answer, or too taken aback, or too caught up wondering how the hell this person knows what it is I actually do with my kid, given that they maybe just met me.

As my daughter and I grew older, I’d more frequently have the right snappy response, which is “ She’s a blessing.” Short, true, succinct. These days I’ve added on a few new handy lines, also true,” If this were your child you’d do anything you could for her, too. You’d rise to it. You probably have moved a few mountains for your own kids, right?”

So, back to the Yoga teaching. I’ve been teaching my adapted classes, which I call Yogabilities™, for about 11 years now. Like most things in life, I’ve learned as I went along. I’m not a saint, it isn’t a sacrifice, and Yoga is not some special privilege that only belongs to the, umm, …so-called typical folks.

In our times, everyone has stress, most people have anxiety, and I’ll drop and give you twenty push-ups right this minute if you can find someone in your daily life who does not contend with poor sleep patterns, inability to focus, lousy posture, stiffness, or difficulty with balance. Everyone can benefit from Yoga.

Further, people with special needs have more stress than many. Society often treats them like children all their lives, limiting access and choices and self-determination and robbing people of a very basic human right—dignity. So, if anyone is more amazing than anyone else, it is my Yogabilities™ students and their peers. They deal with challenges we can only half imagine, and many do it with humor, patience and grace.

I love working with these particular students because, cliché as it sounds, they teach me as much as I teach them. There is no pretense as we sit together and breathe, practice being present, and share strategies for coping with anxious and unpleasant feelings and situations. We all seem to accept each other rather unconditionally. My experience with my own daughter serves as a constant reminder to release any rigid agenda, meet each person as they are, and go with the flow. Moreover, these students and I seem to co-create an energetic space where each person can feel welcomed and safe. In that container, I’ve seen magic happen.

On those Yogabilities™ afternoons or evenings when I am particularly tired and would like to just stay home and catch up with laundry or check out with an HGTV home show, I cue up a mantra from my daily life and let it nudge me into place: I GET TO, as in

I get to be her mother
I get to go teach Yogabilities™.
I get to spend time with some of the most interesting people I know.

So yeah, I get to share my knowledge of Yoga with people with special needs. Some of them are saintly for putting up with the rest of us. I don’t know how they do it. God must have created the circumstances whereby they can teach me the stuff that really matters. It’s so wonderful that they do this for me.

–Melinda Coppola
www.SpectrumYoga.net

Welcome to Autismville

 

Shimmering minnow leaves

AUTISMVILLE

I can’t tell you
it is an unpleasant thing
to live in the quirky neighborhood,
on the far side of the river,
a good ways from the thickest part
of the frantic throng.

Here, we are daily looking up,
fixating and stimming
on green minnow leaves
that shimmer against the waters of the sky.

Here we have our own customs;
the daily waking song,
the recitation of dreams,
the morning questions and videotaped answer
for her to play back over and over,
the reassurances:
Yes, there will be snack. Yes, Mom is a girl.
Yes, there will be girl hair when we leave.

The life we’ve grown into,
first she and I and then he
who married into this confluence
of ordered disorder,
this life has authentic charm.

We go slow, we don’t try to measure up.
Our victories are sweeter
for how long they take to manifest
and mysterious
for how quickly they can disappear.

I can’t say it’s tragic in this virtual village,
this parallel universe
peopled with other singular folk
who understand the need for things
like space and processing time,
patience and velvet compassion,
smooth voices, soft dolls,
sweet routine and
more spice in everything.

We have magic here, I tell you.
Songs that play in color,
voices with texture,
folks who spin and swing and
hum and sing.

And the leaves! The glorious
minnow leaves,
dancing upstream,
between the clouds,
and laughing.

Melinda Coppola

 

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Important Things

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Almost 8 am, a Wednesday
on a highway east
of where most live, a man
slowed his big semi
to an almost halt.

8 am attracts the big crowds
on a weekday, busy highway east
of where most live
yet west of work, and they,
trafficking in Important Stuff To Do,
lit up angry this bright morning,
forced to slow and stop behind a man
with a farting jake brake,
big rig lumbering to a crawl.

A dozen horns shrieked, indignant.
At least as many middle fingers
hopped to attention, and words
too coarse for this poem
hurtled from sneering mouths,
all that vitriol pointed towards a man
on the crisp cusp of 8 am
on a highway east
of where most live.

Crowds wild, rig halted,
fingers flying, sharp curses
thrown like spears towards
a Wednesday man at 8 am
who stole precious moments
from the angry commuters
to save the lives of seven turkeys;
two big ones and five littles,
who deigned to cross
the 8 am river of cars
driven by important people
with Such Important Things To Do.

–Melinda Coppola