Notes from a Parallel Universe

I’ve written a fair amount about life with my adult child. As I plod ever so slowly towards creating a book about the journey, it occurs to me that the pace at which I’m working on that is in sync with the overall pace and rhythm of our life together. Bink will turn 28 this weekend. I’m not one to fixate on the differences between her development and that of a “typical” young adult, but the anniversary of her birth seems to stir things up for me. From that churn this poem arose.

The View from Here

You say
you just caught glimpses
of your child
as he sped past toddlerhood,
towards those labels
that mean everything
and nothing: child, tween,
teen, young adult.

Glimpses, you say,
as if it all tornadoed past you
while I stood stupefied,
hands in pockets,
by the side of some dusty cow path,
a perpetual look of dull
surprise on my unremarkable face.

Truth is,
over here our lives
are nothing like that.

We have plodded along
like turtles in the too-hot sun,
she and I,

pausing every few feet
to rest, to allow her
a few attempts at integrating
the latest sensory assault,

which could have been a wind
shaking the branches too fast,
or the distant sound
of a jake brake on a downhill semi
from a highway half a mile away.

Her needs are special,
which means our shimmy
is your slow dance,
our milestones
seem like simple addition
to your kid’s calculus.

I’m used to it,
adept at appreciating
the kinds of beauty
that decorate this life
that chose me, and her.

It’s not the pace of it all
that leaves me sweaty
and gasping for breath.

It’s my head spinning
as your children date
and learn to drive,
go to college,
get married,
have babies,
buy a house,

flying so far from your nest
you can’t squint enough
to make out the tiny dot
their bodies make
as they soar onward,
commanding the skies.

–Melinda Coppola

Me and My Shadow Go to Market

It is May 2020,
still early in
The Covid Times.

We take ourselves to the market,
by which I mean
our whole selves,
me in my layers of
self-consciousness—
the run of the mill kind
that most of us don
without thought—

she baring all, as usual:
no pretense, nothing to hide.

The market rule
in the time of virus:
No touching anything, honey,
except yourself or Mom.

We’ve gotten good at this one,
practicing since mid-March,
and so we go,
in service to our shopping list,
following the one way arrows
like breadcrumbs,

and her singing beams
a Disney-flavored sunshine
up and down the aisles
even through her mask.

She pauses in front of the dairy section,
(which means I pause, too)
halts her sunbeaming mid-song,
and announces to the floor,
” Mommy it looks like I have to pee.”

No beats to skip,
for we are well prepared,
the purple handled pee jug
bagged and ready
in the backpack,

nestling up against
the toilet paper,
flanked by two packs
of antiseptic wipes,

and into the bathroom we go,
my shoulder managing doors,
finding a stall, hooking
pack to hang,

pulling out
that magnificent portable
receiver of pee
that makes all outings
seem possible,
conquerable.

We navigate this
like so many other things,
my thought out plan
for safety and practicality

backlit by the simplicity
of her needs,
which aren’t so much special
as they are honest,

the whole thing shined up
by my gratitude, in recent years,
that she can name the feelings,
usually in time to stay dry.

We are each engaged
in familiar activities:
she is peeing
and I am musing,

wondering
and marveling
at what the world could be
if we were all more like her:

free of innuendo,
honest to a fault,
unable to fathom
marching to any beat
but our own.

–Melinda Coppola

Medicament

Medicament

This morning’s waking,
tight and tender to the touch,
felt like neck ache,

and all along
the spine of this day
my heart climbed and slid,

ridge-riding
the grief and uncertainty
of these past months,

pushing up towards
bone-like pinnacles,
vertebraic protrusions
of more bad news—
illness and violence,
economic cancer,
people hating their neighbors—

and then
the intentional slide
over cushiony discs
hydrated with hope,

into valleys lush with
stories of great kindness,
dotted with golden gifts,
small sweet buds of peace
that can only bloom
with softened expectations.

Now at the tailbone
of a long sixteen hours,
no Downward Facing Dog
or Bridge Pose can save me
from this hunched pecking
at the keyboard,
almost desperate
to whiplash out a poem
or some semblance thereof.

How many ways
can we find
to harm each other?

and

Aren’t there an equal
number of ways
we can lift and hold,

tilt a hurting person
towards the light,
say

Look—
the way your cheek curves
towards your chin
is poetry.

And

You, over there—
talking to your cats
with your eyes alone,
see how they respond
by blinking back, slowly?

And

Old man, I’ve seen you
water your plants
with deep, unquestioned faith
that they’ll leaf and angle
towards the sun—

and isn’t that grace,

and aren’t we all,
every one of us,
a cure
for someone’s
unease?

–Melinda Coppola

Dragonflies

Image by Rona Kline

Image by Rona Kline

As I write this, my dear friend Marina lies dying in a lovely room inside the oldest house in an historic and pretty New Hampshire town. A wonderful woman who worked with her in the local general store has taken her into her home. Hospice has set her up well with a hospital bed that adjusts in many ways and keeps moving different parts of her body to prevent some of the pain associated with not being able to get out of bed.

A mere six months ago, Marina was celebrating the purchase of a little house in New Mexico, old stomping grounds for her. She envisioned growing old there while making her art and reconnecting with the culture in an area of the country she has long loved for its people and its wide, open skies. She planned to move there this month, just after celebrating her solo art show at The Newton Free Library the first week of June.

Covid 19 would likely have postponed the show, as it slowed or halted so many things. The pandemic burst into dominance at the same time that my friend had a scan that looked very suspect.

Her journey has been fraught with suffering and pain as the diagnoses and prognoses grew increasingly dark through the weeks. She has had deep sorrow, and also joy and gratitude and acceptance. I’ve written a bit about this already, and it isn’t actually what I’ve come here to the page to say.

We humans can be so apathetic about being incarnated. We act as if we have unlimited time, as if each day isn’t positively bursting with beauty and grace and opportunities to bring meaning and comfort to at least one other being.

Many of us are quite good at identifying what we don’t want and don’t like. We tend to focus on those things, and it can feel easier to blame the ensuing feelings on outside circumstances. We seem to expend enormous energy tearing each other down.

Though I am a great advocate of the practices of presence and loving kindness, I’m far from immune to the easy drop into anxiety and despair. I can make an impressive list of Everything That Sucks as fast as the next person. I can bemoan the ways in which Other People are directly contributing to the pain and suffering of the larger world and to my own little sphere as well. I can list twenty ways the shutdown has created enormous distress and anxiety for families like ours that include an individual with special needs.

The pandemic and cancer diagnoses are among the teachers that remind us how little control we actually have over many of the circumstances of our lives. Those same professorial forces can illustrate our superpowers. We all have them. Most days, I think, we can choose to do and to be in ways that can make an enormous difference to all living things—people and animals and trees and flowers. We can choose to be present with each other, to listen deeply and hold each being with respect and regard and learn great things that can alter the ways we treat each other and our earth.

Each life is precious. Life itself is an exquisite gift. Everyone has a story, everyone carries pain and joy. We are all works in progress, weaving tapestries of our memories and experiences. No two will look the same, and we have so much to teach each other.

My friend has stopped eating and drinking, and she is mostly nonresponsive now. I know that she’ll graduate into the great love that surrounds us and created us. She knows this, too. “Look for the dragonflies,” she told me a few weeks ago. A few days after that, “Look for dragonflies. Especially the unusual ones.”

Dragonflies represent transformation and adaptability and wisdom. They are associated with water, that magical, life-giving, shape shifter element that adapts to every container and circumstance. My friend has had one tattooed on her left arm for quite a long time, now. I didn’t tell her that I’ve never felt a strong pull towards them. I know that is about to change.

–Melinda Coppola
Post Script: Marina Powdermaker passed away in the first hour of Sunday, June 28, 2020. She was two months shy of her 59th birthday.

Little Big Thing

“Stay in awe of life. The little things are the big things. “ ― Richie Norton

“I’m cold.” Bink had just gotten up, a good hour later than she used to get up on any given pre-Covid Monday.

My eyes scanned her body, noting the hybrid pajamas I’d hastily grabbed for her to put on after her bath the evening before. The top, a pale pink waffle weave that had seen better days, was from a winter set. The sleeves had been cut shorter so they wouldn’t get wet when she washed her hands. She was sporting knee length summer-ish bottoms, made of a lighter weight fabric in a brighter shade of pink. They, too, were once part of a matched ensemble. Sets of things don’t stay together for long in our house. Her feet were bare.

“Hmmm,” I said. “You could put on a sweatshirt, and maybe some socks.”

Individuals with autism can have great difficulty with body awareness, which includes processing sensations and emotions. It’s only in the past few years that Bink has been able to identify a recent feeling or experience, and relay it to me within a few moments or even a few days. This happens sporadically, and I don’t take it for granted. Someday she won’t have me to instinctively understand her and help interpret her actions for a world that can’t. Though she will never live alone, and will always need help, any gains she can make in the self-care department will contribute to her comfort.

She trundled off towards her room, and a few minutes later I heard her addressing me as if I was right there with her. I sighed, feeling the familiar words rising in my throat. You need to come to where I am if you want me to hear you. I would have had to yell them down the hall, though, so I stuffed them back down into the room inside of me where I store frequently used sentences and expressions.

When I entered her bedroom, which is pink on pink and accented with more pink, she was standing in front of the closet looking in. “Mommy I don’t see the sweatshirt.” I instantly understood that she was looking for a hooded, full- zip sweatshirt. After all, that’s the kind we’d both been wearing recently on our walks outside. Let’s wear sweatshirts, I’ve been saying, as much to myself as to Bink or Superguy, as we get ready for our strolls and our hikes.

I pointed to one of her many pink crewneck sweatshirts that she’s been wearing all winter and most of this cool spring. “These are also sweatshirts,” I said, knowing she knew this, too, in some currently inaccessible part of her brain.

We moved through our morning rituals, which go something like this:

Bink texts me a question. A typical question might be Why did ______________ (insert the name of a teacher she had back in, oh, 2001) say such-and such (she’ll repeat the words that were said to her, verbatim) in a block voice on a tears boy Friday? I create my best guess answer for that day and video it back to her. If she likes my answer, my tone of voice, or the image that goes along with the video, she’ll save it and watch it over and over. The questions can be quite repetitive, and my answers may be as well. When this is addressed, she’ll say, “I’m just trying to understand it.”

Next, she texts me a short statement, something like Mommy has pinkalicious hair. She’ll await my brief, verbal response—Yes I do! Or thank you.

She scrawls in her Dream Journal after that, and asks me to read it aloud. These entries might be just a short sentence or two, or they might be a few pages long. At times, they read like recalled dreams might, with odd events like swimming in dream halls or being told she must have a bowl of beads without holes for breakfast. More often, they seem to be just thoughts, usually of the song reference type that frequent her brain in awake hours. “The man sounded like Al Simmons and John Langstaff on Johnny’s Fiddle.”

Welcome to the magical mind of my daughter.

On this particular Monday, we’d gone through our morning triad. Typically (pre-Covid) she’d begin obsessing about some detail of her upcoming day or week that she was worried about, but in these long weeks of Shutdown when all her typical activities are cancelled, she mostly fixates on The Plan. Lunch, treat, where we will walk or hike, and dinner options. Instead, she said,” I was cold in the night.”

Fabulous. Another example of her blossoming ability to identify an experience she has and convey it in a way that others can understand, in a matter of hours or days as opposed to years! I took a good long moment to savor this, then turned to her and asked, ever so gently, “Hmmm. What can we do when we feel cold?”

Bink can tell you what day of the week your birthday will fall on in 2024. She can spot triplicate numbers on the license plate of a car that speeds by so fast I barely notice the color. She can recall the exact words and tone of voice used by anyone who’s ever scolded her, and can likely remember the day, month and year it happened, too.

The integration of other concepts that seem so basic to many of us, like knowing when to don and doff another layer of clothing or a second blanket, is much more challenging for her. The first step—identifying the discomfort— seems to be happening more often for Bink. Little victories like these seem even sweeter during this period of shutdown, with more time to notice them.

Time, Place, Classroom

WHEN

The world gets so noisy. Too many voices
straining, pushing past their natural limits to be heard. Our small ears can’t discern provenance or factuality. Reactions quicken, turning knee-jerk, protective.

WHERE

There is the place where trees thicken into extended families, root systems entwined beneath the earth. Look for the leafy canopy that forms an arch. You’ll know it when you arrive. There are plenty of seats to be had, and no prior coursework is required.

WHEN

Class begins just after the tree frogs cease their urgent croaking. If you prefer to tell time mechanically, it’s around 3am. The instructor will sweep in on a dark, cool breeze. Plan to sit awhile. Class ends at chorus call, when the winged ones stir and lift their beaks to sing the dawn into being.

WHAT

The velvet hour, the lull between cacophonies. Your professor is the apparent silence. You’ll be asked to get very still. Open all your senses, and train them towards the slightest movement or sound or scent. Your assignment: to glean the evidence of life happening all around you. It is in the soil beneath and the trees above. It’s in the air that hangs or wafts or hurries by. It hums steadily in the space you thought was filled with quiet.

Listening is sacred. Listening is a practice.

Listening is a sacred practice.

I marvel at the way it is possible to hear what we already know in someone’s else’s words, when we get quiet enough for long enough. When that happens, things can suddenly sound new and full of meaning and promise, and this is what we do for each other, when we show up and open our ears and hearts, the ears of our hearts. When we
press ourselves into the present exactly as we are, wounds and all, open to a new way of being and seeing.

Consider the way we can make a gift of our listening when we give our earnest attention to others, especially those whose lives are quite unlike our own. By truly receiving their words, we can be a mirror through which they can see their own humanity and beauty reflected. We can give each other new vision and energy and this, too, is what we’re here for, to show each other, again and again, what might be possible.

Listening is a sacred practice.

–Melinda Coppola

.

When all this is over…

WHEN THIS IS OVER

Bring bread,
chewy and warm,
wrapped in that red
checkered tablecloth
that always sings
picnic,

which is short for
happy family,
easy friendships,
peace and plenty
in our town
state
country
planet.

We never went on one,
a picnic,
not once in all our
together years

even though we had that red
checkered cloth,
and enough love
and hope
and time.

Bring bread, baby,
while we can still bake
and chew,
while we can still be
alive together,

while earth still
hosts the wheat, the rye,
the farmer, so trusting,
sowing seeds.

–Melinda Coppola

The Wisdom of Clouds

“ You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.”

Pema Chodron

CIRRUS

You are wisp, feet rarely touching dirt. Your gaze cannot be met. They call it lazy eye, but we know better. How could anyone expect you to hone a vision when you straddle a few different dimensions most of the time? Those who get impatient with you should try doing that pose and see how fuzzy every little thing appears. Focus is one constant in your Rolodex of epithets.

CUMULUS

Fascinate me again, you multi-layered being. When I have you figured as a mountain of fluff, pretty yet inconsequential, I can blink real slow and you flash-forward darker, heavier. If you were embodied you’d be a person of substance, radiating a hefty beauty. I want to think I could hold you, but when I try, you move right through me. Or is it me, moving through you?

STRATUS

Stay low to the ground. Earth is delighted to allow you to bounce off her surfaces. You told me, once upon a time, that it is better to shower bits of yourself across the whole of life. Don’t wait until you see a form you can slip inside. When you have a little energy, toss it up into the sky and let your offerings partner with Brother Wind. It’s a hop, a skip, and a jump to eternity if you travel this way.

NIMBUS

You made me cry. Or rather, you evoked tears in me. You were snake charmer, and man, could you wheedle and cajole that ropey trail of wetness from my eyes and heart and soul.

It wasn’t all sad. Despite what you said, life never is. I believe in tears of joy

even now.
even now.

A single day is at once ephemeral and eternal. It’s all in how you cast your view.

–Melinda Coppola

Prospecting for Grace

Praise

The faithful sun,
generously stirring
energies of Earth
and atmosphere,
coaxing every green thing
towards the rising
song of spring.

Parents
walking with their children
outside, smiling
and laughing, nodding
at neighbors
out washing their cars.

Quieted streets
yielding their usual
ruthless noise
to melodious birdsong,
squirrels rustling in the brush,
the wind whistling
in the still bare branches.

Moon, conducting
the rise and fall
of seas everywhere,
the call and response,
organic and lyrical,
in all bodies of water,
even ours.

Every incremental sign
that goodness and hope
are alive and well,
seeding us with patience
through this reckoning time—

There I’ll set my gaze,
invite my pen to praise
all that.
Praise all that.

–Melinda Coppola

The Uninvited Guests

What a time! We are seeing and hearing wide ranging effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on, it seems, every populated part of our planet.

In our corner of the world, Bink’s autism and accompanying dependence on schedules has collided headfirst with current realities. Every activity in her life, from her weekday program to her favored leisure activities, has been cancelled. Much of the structure she counts on has fallen away. Anxiety and perseveration, already frequent visitors in our home, have announced their return. They brought lots of luggage, too, apparently planning to stay awhile.

Will we get through it? Of course. Many have far worse situations. This is, however, a particular kind of challenge for Bink and others like her. She asks many questions, and fully expects me to have the answers.

Longing

to help you know
in your bones, child,
in your bones,
this will pass.

This will pass and
I’m longing
to have you know
we will again be free
to dip in and out
of those beloved scrawls
on your wall calendar—

horse riding,
and art class,
the candy and craft stores,
restaurants,
swimming at the Y,
and your weekly volunteer job
neatening the bins
at the toy store,
pricing stuffed animals.

You will
once again
return to your day program
where you may even welcome
those groups
you do not love.

I know in my bones,
which are just older versions
of your own,
that this will pass by,

all things do,
and we will re-rise,
rise again,
grateful and eager
to push forth into the
too-loud world,

carrying earplugs
and fidget toys,
your soft pink ball
of yarn.

Until then,
my frightened
full grown child,

I will be here,
right here,
to answer your questions,
daily, hourly,

No,
this won’t for last 100 days.
No,
this won’t be for your whole life.

Yes, we’ll go out walking
today
and tomorrow,
and every day.

No
this won’t be forever,
No
I don’t know the day,
the hour
it will end.

Yes,
the power will stay on,

this will pass.
I’m longing
to help you know
this will end.

—Melinda Coppola