The back of a church parking lot is about as unremarkable as a location can be, but when I pass it, I remember a moment of brokenness that I still haven’t shaken off completely.
It happened sometime in May of 2011. About six months earlier, we had gotten the diagnosis. Autism. I think I had known it for many months before the doctor told us, but the word, the reality, reverberated constantly. Even as I was able to sleep again, even as we found hope in supportive therapists and interventions – I saw how far he had to go in a world that seemed like too much for him. I put on a brave face, but I was afraid all the time.
In an effort to do something for myself, I signed up for a month-long fitness boot camp. The very first day I attended, the trainer had us run laps around that church parking lot. There were five of us… and I was last. Well, last except for a woman at least 20 years my senior who I suspected would be passing me if her knee wasn’t injured. As I saw the gap between me and the athletes in front of me widen, I was overcome with tears that grew into sobs.
The blessing and curse of loving literature is that every moment becomes larger than itself. Reason would have said: You’re out of shape, so of course you’re last. You can get better. Keep trying. But my sensitive, symbol-seeking mind saw a deeper meaning: This is just like my boy’s whole life is going to be. He’s always going to be so far behind everyone else. He’s starting there now, and the gap is only going to widen. What can I do? How can I save him? In a fleeting moment of strength and necessity, I realized sobs weren’t all that helpful from a cardiovascular standpoint, so I cut it out and pressed on. I finished last. But I finished…
…but I also didn’t see the boot camp through to the end of the month. I could deal with the grueling physical challenge of it all, but the heaviness of being last, particularly in the context of Monkey’s recent diagnosis, was too much to bear. So I proceeded with my coping mechanism of choice: pushing down the feelings that might swallow me whole and moving ahead with day-to-day life.
Since leaving the teaching profession for stay-at-home motherhood, I’m realizing that approaching my struggles by bulldozing through life’s to do list without dealing with my emotions may seem productive, but there’s an unhappiness, an ever-present fear that stays even as I mark through tasks I’ve completed. While being a full-time mommy is by no means easy, the gig offers a less-cluttered task list, and it’s given me time to see some things about myself. This holiday season and all its craziness have hastened the realization that I’ve been a slave to measuring results for a very long time. When I was a student, I could determine my merit with report cards, transcripts, and essay scores. But once professional life hit, the metrics weren’t so clear. I just found myself thinking this way: I should lose weight, or I need to do this at work to grow professionally, or, after looking at friends’ Facebook pages, I should be as _______________ as _______________ (organized; crafty with my kids; outgoing; the list of adjectives I “needed” to emulate is infinite). The literature-lover in me thought of these words from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man:
“It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization that everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself… [but] my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own.”
I had run myself ragged pursuing “success” at work, interviewing for positions I never got (thank God) but went after, in small part, because they were steps up, signs that I was climbing the ladder and getting “better” (even if maybe I was already a good teacher to begin with). I have beat myself up for years for not looking a certain way, being a certain size… no peace there. And really, as fruitless as trying to measure up is for me, it’s a toxic pursuit for my family. My sweet family – whatever “normal” is, we aren’t. If I’m always looking at where Monkey “should” or “needs” to be, I’m going to be anxious and stressed out for the rest of my life. If my girl sees a mommy who always beats herself up for not being good enough, I’m setting her up on the same path of fear and stress. If I’m shell-shocked emotionally, I’m not the wife and partner my husband needs and deserves. Constantly being afraid of measuring up – what good is that for me? For my family? It’s no way to live, that’s for certain.
Psalm 34:14 says we are to “seek peace and pursue it.” This is my New Year’s Resolution. Not to lose weight, or to read more books, or de-clutter the house, or any myriad of items on my to do list. I just want to pursue peace in each endeavor by choosing to do what makes me feel more peace. On a family level, pursuing peace means that I quit trying to fit our square pegs into round holes. I am nobody but myself, and we are nobody but Mr. Robs, me, Monkey, and Cat, so screw the curated Pinterest life – we’re going to make our own way of doing things and create our own awesome traditions. 🙂 And on a personal level, pursuing peace means I try to make the choices that feel like I’m doing what’s right for me… and not because it makes someone else happy or means that I lose x pounds, read y books, make z Pinterest projects, etc.
Maybe this “a ha” moment is sticking, because I’m facing an old fear: boot camp. On January 5, I started a four-week boot camp called Camp Gladiator. (It’s worth mentioning that it is from 5-6 a.m. and that the temperature has not been higher than 35 degrees any time I’ve gone. DEDICATION… or INSANITY? Well, that’s a whole other blog post, I suppose.) I know it’s not coincidence that on New Year’s Day, this verse jumped out at me while scrolling (what else?) my Pinterest feed:
“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” ~Hebrews 12:1 ESV
This verse has become my mantra during boot camp 2.0, particularly when I’m in the back of the pack during a run, or struggling to do a fifth rep of an exercise when someone next to me is cranking through the movement like an Olympic athlete. I’m not the skinniest or the strongest or the fastest out there. But you know what I am? OUT THERE, at 5 a.m., in near- or below-freezing temperatures, enduring, getting a little stronger every single time I try. It’s not easy at the time, and I’m for dang sure hurting later on, but there are moments of exhilaration, because dang it, I’m out there giving it 100%.
And I guess that’s where I’m seeing boot camp as a metaphor for life. For my boy, school is boot camp. The way I feel about burpees, he feels about sitting still, or reading out loud when he is just OVER it, or speaking to others when it doesn’t come naturally at all. I see him struggle – and yes, it still breaks my heart. But I also see his elation when he does something new and we just heap praise on him – his smile is priceless. His pride and ours in even the smallest of wins – well, by God, if autism has taught me anything, it’s that every victory is sweet, however “minor” it may seem.
For me, boot camp is… well, it’s boot camp, yes. But instead of telling myself I’m lame when I can only jump rope 10 times before I trip on the rope, I just think, okay – so this time jump eleven. (But, side note, did I miss the day in P.E. when you learn how to jump rope like Rocky Balboa? What the what?) And I hope that as I continue to go, I grow stronger and feel proud of each small improvement. Baby steps. My pace. My journey – no one else’s. Progress, not perfection.
So, in 2015, my little family will focus on running our race. We’ll persevere through tough times, because they’ll come, and we’ll celebrate our successes. And with that I pray I’ll feel the peace that comes from facing a challenge head-on and giving my best effort. Because ultimate victory comes not from making a certain time or meeting a certain standard, but from trying, taking step after step in the right direction.