PTASD*’ing a day in the Land of A*…

I’m not sure why there is very little discussion on PTASD outside the Land of A but I do know nobody is really talking about it. Perhaps it hasn’t been discovered yet. Or maybe it’s something that professionals would say has no basis in fact since there is no scientific data to substantiate it. I guess it’s a reasonable to assume that PTASD is just a figment of my imagination. But here in the Land of A, sometimes, maybe just a lot of times, PTASD feels very, very real.

If PTASD is real, I wonder if it is like an illness that one can recover from. Perhaps it is like an allergy that crops up seasonally or an illness such as a cold or flu that heals after a couple of days. Maybe it mirrors a chronic ailment with good and bad days but something that never quite goes away. Or maybe PTASD is simply my way of explaining the sometimes feeling of being bone weary tired from exposure to everyday events that are normal only in the Land of A.

My imagined or real PTASD started out simple enough. This morning barely awake, enough to do some plank exercises to work out the stiffness in my back, I was greeted by One-of-my-own’s bugle cry, “CAN WE HAVE A GOOD MORNING?!” Genuinely considerate of making sure I heard what he had to say, he had leaned over to position himself three inches from my ear. “I… S*A*I*D*…CAN WE HAVE A GOOD MORNING?”

It is appropriate to speak when one is spoken to and in this case, I have it easy. These days One-of-my-own will meticulously formulate a fitting scrip in which I am to answer. “Now you say…. (insert mom voice), Yes, let’s have a good day,” What’s really cool is that if I don’t exactly recite the script correctly, One-of-my-own will happily correct me until I’ve got it right. Even if that is a hundred times or more throughout the day. I think I couldn’t have a better teacher.

I explained calmly to One-of-my-own that we had a very busy day. His younger sister had Cross Country practice at 9:00 AM. In the middle of my morning workout, breakfast still needed to be made, several summer school lessons were to be finished, along with making time for an important meeting at 11:00 AM in which the person that I was to meet was coming to the house. In addition, I also had six or more items on my to-do list that needed my attention, of which I hoped to check off at least a couple of them as being completed.

“SAY, can we have a good day?!… Mom, can you answer my question? Mom, just say yes. (Insert mom voice), Yes, One-of-my-own, we can have a good day. Do you want me to take a shower? Just say yes, I want you to take a shower. MAN…. ! I FEEL CALMER today. Mom…I said.. Mom, what time is Mr. A coming over? HEY MOM! CAN WE HAVE A GOOD DAY TODAY?!!!! WHAT TIME IS SO-AND-SO COMING OVER!!!!??? This is the last time I’m going to say it….MOM, C*A*N W*E H*A*V*E A GOOD DAY?!!! …… *

How can I complain about the conversation that One-of-my-own is having? After all, his words are a mantra of positivity. He’s got a smile on his face, and his voice is booming with enthusiasm. So enthusiastic is his mantra, that two hours later, the mantra is still being verbally over and over’ed, has progressively gotten louder, and I’ve been graciously asked to take a bigger part in reciting the responses that he has prepared for me. So involved is his mantra, essentially grinding to a halt any forward motion of our daily routine, I’m starting to think One-of-my-own would do well as a film director in the way he is scrutinizing each and every word coming out of my mouth to make sure I say exactly what is on the script. I close my eyes imagining him holding up a clapperboard, adding in the verbal loops of “CUT!” or “TAKE 2017… Action, ok now let’s replay that scene… C*A*N WE HAVE A GOOD DAY!

For whatever the reason, I simply didn’t want to play by the rules of today’s version of normal events that happen only in the Land of A.  I didn’t want to join in the over-and-over that One-of-my-own yelled from the other side of the bathroom door while I was taking a shower. My brain was overloaded by the constant input of non-stop dialogue, volume on ultra-loud, when he followed me around every second of my workout verbally repeating the day’s mantra. I didn’t want to loop again and again with him as I walked to my car, he running to catch up with me, leaning over to carefully roar into my ear so I would be sure to hear him. Most definitely, I didn’t want to play along when Mr. A arrived for our meeting and One-of-my-own wanted to join in our meeting by asking if we could have a good day, and than asking if we could replay the morning by going over a varied version of his conversation of earlier. “Can we have a good day? What time is Mr. A coming over? M*A*N, I FEEL calm today!”

Slumping in my chair after the meeting that didn’t really get beyond the “Can we have a good day” loop with Mr. A, I thought of all the things I still needed to do. After being coached for hours by One-of-my-own on how to reply to the conversation over and over’s and in my imagined PTASD state, I was at a loss for how I was going to complete the rest of what I had to do that day. Meanwhile as One-of-my-own leaned over the table, still engaging me in his positivity mantra, I came to the conclusion that PTASD was definitely real and promptly self-diagnosed myself with it.

I gathered everybody together and we went out, the younger siblings on their bikes, while I ran with One-of-my-own. Surely this would get rid of my newly self-diagnosis of PTASD. However, that which happens often when running, One-of-my-own’s over-and-overing continued, not making for any, by this time, much needed down time. Amazingly talented, he is able to talk the whole way through our run, never once running out of breath. His exuberance at vocalizing during the run went a little bit like this. “MAN… CAN WE HAVE A GOOD DAY? What’s for breakfast? Mom, I said, what’s for breakfast? I need to retrace my steps. What time is Mr. A coming over? Let’s refresh this day and have the rest of the day a GOOD day! How come you’re not answering me? Ok, I’ll answer for you…(interjects mom voice), Yes One-of-my-own, let’s have a good day…”

Throughout the duration of the run and into late afternoon, I refused to play the over-and-overing game. I gloomily contemplated my self-diagnosis of PTASD. By this time I was one hundred percent sure I had it, there could be no mistake. Three fourths of my day had been a swirl of never-ending loops of verbalization ringing in my ears. I couldn’t make myself attend to anymore tasks I had planned for that day. Something was definitely wrong with me.

“Mom, can I talk to you in private?” My thoughts were interrupted by the voice of my younger son and all my attention was suddenly focused on the earnestness of his expression, an ageless wisdom in his eyes. “Let me hang with my Bro,” he said. “He’ll be fine, you’ll see. We will have fun together. He’s my Bro, I love him and I will watch over him.”

Everything spiraled from slow motion to a grinding stop and time momentarily ceased in the Land of A. I considered the greatness in my younger son who had unwavering faith in the greatness in his older Bro, despite witnessing my intolerance for his need to over-and-over all day. I marveled at my younger son’s lack of judgment, the level of acceptance during the moments of his big Bro’s intense OCD verbal loops, and the unconditional love that he offered instead.

In the Land of A, where one’s career is basically 24/7, on-call for life, with little to none retirement benefits, breaks are rare. The evening breeze floated down the hillside cooling the warm summer air as it circled through the swaying tops of the pine trees in the forest all around the yard. Enough of a quiet moment in the summer night, it was the break I wish had been written as mandatory into my Land of A contract.

It fed my soul like the recent visit I had had with a friend visiting from Texas. Not a resident of the Land of A, she and I have common ground in a completely different and unrelated life journey that we both are on, that of being parents of children born to us through adoption. Listening to her story gave me validation that what I’m living is not always easy. That there are others who share similar or different life paths and that most of the times, when life gets tough, they are simply doing the best that they can, with what they’ve got in the very seconds that the tough happens.

Listening to the peaceful way the cool summer breeze made the trees move and talk in their own secret language, I realized how important it was to have that break.  Like a night that happens several days in the future when I unexpectedly find myself out on an evening run on my own. When I’m able to run in solitude and silence, alone with my thoughts, able to plug into the summer night sunset, like a battery on empty, desperately needing to be recharged.

My recently self-diagnosed PTASD melted away. Not completely but enough. The conversation with my younger son was the trigger that allowed me to mentally step back from my frustration in navigating the cyclone of One-of-my-own’s verbal loops that had swirled like a storm around me all day. The bone weariness I had been feeling had been fueled by a lack of acceptance and feeling of being uncomfortable with the latest never-ending rounds in which I was required to say or answer exactly what I was told to say or answer a thousand times a day.

It’s true that there seems to be nowhere in my house or even in the Land of A to punch a timecard, job done for the day. There are also no regulations in the Land of A that call for simply receiving a break. In such circumstances, it seems I must learn to outsmart the system. Twenty plus years, I’m still figuring out how to do that. For now, it’s the short amount of time that I sit on my front steps, my two golden retrievers flanking me on each side.

Somehow the rest of the evening will smooth out. A video game party will be arranged between One-of-my-Own and his siblings, followed by a giant family slumber party. “MOM, CAN WE HAVE A GREAT DAY? LET’S HAVE A GREAT DAY! CAN WE HAVE A GREAT DAY? WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO TOMORROW? M*A*N I FEEL CALM TODAY! Eventually everyone will be asleep and in the rare quiet I will pick up where I had left off on my latest writing project…

Sitting on the steps, not yet aware that the night will end as it does, I make a decision. I may or may not have PTASD and yes, there are many times I am bone weary. But my younger son’s actions reminded me of what I’ve forgotten this day, to be loving and non-judgmental towards One-of-my-Own. I hear the sounds of laughter from the siblings inside the house. I’m going to make a choice. I’m going to end this day great…

Break over, I get up, open the front door and walk back inside….

-Chris….

*PTASD- (definition- Post Traumatic Autism Syndrome)

*Land of A* (A stands for Autism)

Moviestar’in Costco

One-of-my-Own usually wears sunglasses when we stop into Costco. It helps to keep the other customers from being distracted from his near movie star status. This way they can keep on with their shopping without having to stop to ask for autographs. It also helps them to not run into other shoppers with their carts when they recognize his familiar crowd-stopping, amazingly strong and clear voice and turn around to stare.

Today however, it couldn’t be helped. One-of-my-Own was recognized.  It happened as I was rounding the corner of the refrigerator section and he was flying to the baked goods section looking for hoagie bread all the while talking his way through it. “Where is the hoagie bread? Are you sure we are going to have meatball sandwiches? But what about the pizza? Why can’t we have pizza? What? I’ve eaten it for the last two nights? What did you say again? Why can’t we have pizza? Where did you say the hoagie bread was again?”

“I just LOVE when you bring him in…”

In my mission of finding the Tillamook cheese that we are out of at home, the words catch my attention. Yes, somebody had spotted him. I was sure of it when I look up to see one of the Sample Ladies smiling at me.

“Thank you. Always good to hear when somebody says such kind words,” I smile back at her and roll my cart on. It’s best that way, I don’t want to draw too much attention or more of a crowd than was already starting to form, hoping to get a glimpse of One-of-my-Own.

He catches up with me on my way to the aisle that I’m sure contains the organic sweet and sour sauce I am looking for. In his exuberance, he takes giant strides to catch up, catapulting me frozen in mid-stride as he steps on the back of my flip-flop.

My flip-flop is stuck to the cement of Costco’s floor but my foot is not. Pain shoots through my foot as the front part of my flip-flop rips into my toes. I’m caught in mid-air, silently screaming all sorts of my go-to cuss words in times of stress. I’m pretty sure I’ve become famous in my own right as more people stop to stare.

“I CAN’T FIND THE HOAGIES! Mom, are you alright? I am so sorry. Hey, let’s have pizza instead. Why can’t I have pizza again? i’ve only asked three times, can you answer me now?”

I’m able to choke out that I’m ok, it wasn’t One-of-my-Own’s fault and point him in another direction. As he flies off once more, i park my cart and put my head in my hands, waiting for my foot to stop hurting.

“Hi…”

I look up. A lady stands in front of me. Her face mirrors my own, her expression full of understanding, I get that we must be souls sisters somehow.

“I’m one of those moms,” she says to me. I don’t want them too but my eyes well up with tears and I take a deep breath and grab her hands. She goes on to explain that she knows how it is, that’s she is having one of those days. The kind where it takes one to the edge and one looks off into the abyss of the Land of A. She points over to her daughter, age 27, holding onto a cart nearby. We sit there in sisterhood, holding hands for a moment. As she walks away, I’m thankful she took the time to connect.

My foot is still hurting but I march on, collecting the rest of what’s on my to-buy list and make my way to the checker lines to pay. One-of-my-Own is still missing, looking for the hoagies, but I know he will find me. I can only hope he won’t be mobbed by his fans.

He appears as I get in line, flinging a bag of bagels into the cart, happy with his substitute choice since he can’t find any hoagie bread. “YOU WANT ME TO BUY YOU A MOCHA FREEZE? Sure mom, I will buy you a mocha freeze. Do you want me to get in line? Do you want me to get in line? What did you say? Ok, mom, I’m going to go get in line.”

He flies off, oblivious as the adoring crowd of shoppers watch him in wonder. They stare in envy at me, maybe because they can’t believe I am lucky to be a part of his life. I keep my cool, because sometimes it is hard to attract so much attention. With a smile I joke with one of my favorite checkers as he hands me the pen he knows I’m going to ask for.  I pay for my things, than head toward the food court, giving a friendly wave to those who are still looking One-of-my-Own’s way.

He finds me as I’m almost to the door. “MOM, HERE’S YOUR MOCHA FREEZE!. HERE take your change…” He shoves it at me but I ask if he could just hold onto it as I’ve got my hands full with the cart. It’s easy now. The crowd parts in a way that for some reason reminds me of the final scene out of Titanic (the movie). The one where Rose is young again and walking up the ship’s stairs to meet young Jack and all the fellow passengers are lined up watching with smiles on their faces.

For a busy Sunday at Costco, certainly a blessing as we walk out easily without having to dodge other customers and make our way back to the car. One-of-my-own happily helps me place the groceries in the back, hands me the mocha freeze before sitting down in the passengers seat. As I back out of the parking spot, I was glad to see that crowds haven’t gathered around the car. I’d been afraid that might happen. I glance over at One-of-my-Own who was still wearing the sunglasses, a smile on his face, content in the treasured moments when he is at peace in the Land of A.

His smile was enough,
I smiled as well….

-Chris…

It’s Summertime. Blue skies, warm weather, and the Pacific Northwest….

The perfect day for a road trip. It was an easy choice for me and I knew exactly where we would go. I completed my morning chores, filled water bottles, and packed my camera…

“But what about my illustrations?”  

As much as John knows I’m all for exploring and adventure and often load everyone in the car and go, he usually has to discuss, question, dialogue and process what we are going to do.

“What about “Sandman of Seaside?”

The name of our new children’s book, John has transferred his rough draft drawings to the computer and is currently working on editing and completing final copies for the story. I explained to him that if he wished, he could easily work on his illustrations in the evening when we got home.

“But what about our deadline?”

Taking his illustrations seriously, John has organized his work into a series of deadlines. His latest goal is to have his final drawings for “Sandman of Seaside” completed by the first week of August, sometime between the first and the fourth. I asked him again what he thought of working on his illustrations after our road trip?

“I’ve got an idea.”

John gathered several pieces of drawing paper and a pencil, explaining that he would work on illustrations for a third book I am currently writing instead of “Sandman of Seaside.” He suggested stopping at Starbucks in Sandpoint, the Idaho town he knows that I was planning on road tripping to. As it is often hard for John to move past what he is planning on doing when there is a sudden change in schedule, I was pleased that he was strategizing on how to do so.

“I’ll work on “Chesty and His Boy.”

Surprisingly that is exactly what he did. During our road trip, he talked about his ideas for the first page. It was such a nice day, I asked him to consider drawing at the beach park so his younger brothers could swim.. He didn’t like it but agreed to compromise. We would stop first at Starbucks than find a place to write and illustrate down by the lake.

“Do you like what I’ve drawn?”

Though it took two trips back to the car to retrieve what he had forgotten, first his paper and pencil, next the wooden board he had brought with him, a smooth surface to place his paper and draw on, John sat down and began to draw. A breeze cooled the afternoon, relief from the hot summer day. The lake with the mountains all around and the sky above were many layers of sun shined shades of blue. For a short time, we sat side by side, illustrating and writing in the quiet calm that nature sometimes brings. I watched him for the seconds that he was relaxed enough to be free from the OCD tics that make it so hard for him to formulate his thoughts and speak. A beautiful thing to see. I smiled and said….

“I love it…”

-Chris….

My daughter Dani likes to put books on hold at our neighborhood library. Lot’s of them…. Because of this I often receive email notices that the books have arrived and are waiting for her to pick up and check out.

Today she had a special one to show off to her brother John ….

“WAIT! Do they REALLY have Bean and Pocket at the LIBRARY?”

John yelled as he walked through the glass doors leading into the main room of the library. Dani was waiting on the other side holding a copy of Bean and Pocket that she had reserved as a surprise for John.

“I can’t BELIEVE Bean and Pocket is at the library!”

Several librarians immediately looked our way at John’s excited exclamation with raised eyebrows but kindly refrained from asking us to use our library voices. I however thought it best to remind John that with all due respect, we should speak quietly.

“I’m REALLY excited… IT’S here…!”

John whispered loudly. Several people looked up from books they were reading to find out what the commotion was about. The expressions on the faces of the librarians watching us turned to curiosity when I whipped out my camera to take a couple quick photos.

“Bean and Pocket is AT the LIBRARY!”

John’s smile lit up his face as he spoke. He had forgotten to whisper and the raised volume of his voice drew more curious stares. Dani proceeded to check out her stack of books, Bean and Pocket placed carefully on the top, her way of letting John know she loved him.

“IT’S a LIBRARY book!”

John said in awe. It was closing time at the library. One of the librarians locked the door behind us as we left the building. We stopped so I could take a couple more photos than off we walked to the car. John sat in the front seat, his blue eyes twinkling, a smile still on his face. It was easy to see that he was greatly pleased that our book had made it’s way to the library. I pulled out of the parking lot, the little yellow book sitting in John’s lap…

“BEAN AND POCKET was at the library…”

-Chris

*Bean and Pocket

sold on Amazon.com 

For most people who do not happen to live in the *Land of A there may be a “Take for Granted” life style of seemingly easy to navigate days in which ordinary family events are enjoyed with little strife..

Take for example, a family hike planned on a weekend morning. All will cheerfully or not, wake up, take a shower, and brush their teeth. They will complete household chores such as making sure the dogs are fed, dishes done, and breakfast served. Any complaints, disagreements or mild temper tantrums may be normal but resolved sometime in the near future. Maybe they all will go about filling their water bottles instead of forgetting, than grab for their backpacks and shoes and head out to the family truckster, ready for the morning of adventure.

In the *Land of A, a vortex usually reigns supreme. Steps must be strictly adhered to in order not to slip right on over into the chaos of the abyss that unless one has mountain climbing skills, can barely manage the climb out of.

So it is that in this vortex leading to the abyss, maybe a hundred times or more one must verbally circle and do laps with one-of-my-own. Sort of like the trail race last weekend that had a mile or two, of six to twelve inches of heavy clay mud that one had to muck, not run through.

The first verbal laps may include the phrases, “Do you want me to take a shower?” and “Just say yes.” Shower and bathroom time will usually take three to ten times that of any sort of normal time and effort. One must also consider negotiating a daily peace treaty on the whole roll of toilet paper that will inevitably be used. Please don’t do it but if so, “I”m begging,”…. Please flush often as to not chronically clog the toilet or trigger that overflow that is destined to happen.

Everybody else is ready. But here’s the tricky part. One-of-my-own has not eaten. I’ve got it all figured out. Yes I do. Because I’ve lived a long time in the *Land of A and have plan A, plan B, and plan C always on my mind. Breakfast is going to be served “to go”, so we can get on our way. Right?…. hmmm..

Plan A today doesn’t really avoid the verbal circles and laps that must be completed before one-of-my-own can walk out the door. “What’s for breakfast?” “I SAID…. what’s for breakfast?” “MAN, I feel calm today!” “Can we have a good day?” “Let’s have a good day.” Add in a couple more similar phrases and we may spin in circles for another twenty minutes or more before one-of-my-own can jump off the verbal lap of loops and move on with his day.

Sprinting for the family truckster doesn’t work in the efforts to get on with the adventure. Defeated, one sinks into the seat, with head down on the wheel as another verbal loop erupts. “Can we have a good day guys?” “What’s for breakfast?” “Do you want me to take a shower?” This could potentially be the theme song of the ride up the mountain.

Maybe this wouldn’t be a bad thing. For sure, everyone wants to have a good day. But have I mentioned that in the *Land of A, one-of-my-own has a strong and vibrant voice with a volume only of extra loud? It may be that passing the family truckster in the *Land of A, one may think the whole family is rocking out, the volume is that loud. One might also wonder that sometimes a passenger or two may be wearing headphones to muffle the theme song. All I’ve got to say is, that unless one’s lived in the *Land of A, what looks strange may not be as strange as it seems.

The family hike happened. There is something to be said for finding perspective and peace on a mountain somewhere in the *Land of A. There was a cool breeze with the scent of fir trees and summer flowers. Blue skies framed the bright sun as it grew warmer. The trail was overgrown in spots, with trees to crawl underneath and the remnants of dying spring streams to hop over. All that and more with the sounds of birds flying overhead and the wind blowing in the trees, nature created opportunity for healing.

I found myself listening to one-of-my-own with an element of presence that eludes me in the everyday life in the *Land of A. As we hiked the trail uphill to the fire lookout tower, the verbal loops ceased to be an issue of stress even though one-of-my-own kept at it. “How long are we going to be gone?” “Where are we going?” “MAN, it’s hot out here…” “Can we have a good day?”

Somewhere in the chaos of the abyss I found myself climbing out. Looking into the clear blue eyes of one-of-my-own, I know to be true that in the vortex of it all, it is my level of presence, love and understanding with him that needs to be addressed.

Again…

 

 

 

And Again…

It is the toughest lesson I have ever had to learn and I flunk way more than I get it right.

The *Land of A will forever be the one of the hardest places I have ever lived in. I don’t think that can be changed. But if I could ever master that lesson of being present, it might get just a little bit easier.

I hear one-of-my-own say, “I love you Mom. Can we get chocolate chip cookies for Dad today. I want to do something for him…. I love him.”

“Can we have a good day?”

                   

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Chris                                                        

*A stands for Autism)

 

It would seem I’ve been living in the *Land of A forever or at least since that very real day many years ago, in a doctor’s office examination room when a doctor who will remain nameless verbally punched me in the gut with the words, “YEEEEEEP… your son DEFINITELY has AUTISM!” The rest of what he said was a blur, “bla bla bla…. nothing you can do about it…. AIT? No no, no that doesn’t work, blah blah blah, join a support group….. You want to try a gluten casein diet, well no that doesn’t work…. blah blah blah… you know….you’re going to be lucky if you can teach him to pull his pants up…. blah blah blah, eventually you will have to be thinking of a group home…………………………blah blah blah….”

That day…. well, it felt like someone had just shoved my son and I out of a flying airplane and we fell unprotected and all alone, to the ground… HARD… Crash, boom, bang, down to the ground we did hit, and with no point to lay there, I got up and started running… and I’ve never stopped yet…

Fast forward or not… 20 odd years later. when one finds themselves a permanent resident in the Land of A, it does no good to imagine the what if’s… I wouldn’t dare. I’ve a mind to be realistic. so trudging through the day to day in the Land of A where I have long since found at a eyes’s blink each second can potentially be the good, the bad, and the ugly, I celebrate the sometimes, the ever so small moments of brilliance, the wonder, the joy, the good times.

Today… my amazing and ever so loving younger one-of-my-own makes a simple comment. He and I are talking about a space camp he is to attend in a couple of weeks. how exciting, how he will get there, what will he do, and that he has to have a parent or guardian escort him since it is an over and back trip to Seattle. Very thoughtfully he says to me ever so innocently. “You know, if my brother didn’t have autism, he would be able to drive me over. or maybe by now he would have a girlfriend (because after all he is almost 23), and he and his girlfriend could drive me over. and oh what fun we would have….”

I’m ashamed because right than and there a huge belly sob rumbled from me, tears boiled out of my eyes, and my hands started to shake. and I imagined the what if….

Through my tears, and when I could finally catch my breath, I told my younger one-of-my-own, that of course how wonderful that would be and how his big bro would have done just that because he loves his little bro so… I imagined the what if….

20 minutes later, and to be honest, really the whole time I wrote this out… i sobbed at times, tears still rolling, hands still shaking…

……But i’m done now, and what needed to get out, escaped for a bit, in a way reminding me of the clouds of hot steam that explode up into the air from the paper mill a couple of miles a way. a patch has been placed back on the invisible wound that most of the times, I forget I still must have. I’m still living in the Land of A and it’s time to get back to running.

….Yet i’m still thinking
Can’t seem to help it right now….
—-What if…..?

-Chris,

(*Jan 16, 2017 Facebook status update)

 

“With Whom am I Speaking….”

I knew who it was. Many years had gone by since Maura had been John’s Occupational Therapist. More years had passed since we’ve spoken on the phone. But every so often, as in maybe once a year, we will run into Maura and catch up on each other’s life adventures.

Today was that day…

She was hesitant on the phone wondering if she had our number correct. I wondered why she was calling and smiled when her soft spoken voice asked if John might do her a favor. Would he please autograph her copy of “Bean and Pocket?”

Yes, he’d love to…

Maura shared with us that her daughter Olivia, who grew up to be a schoolteacher recently read “Bean and Pocket” to her class. Olivia explained to her class how she has known John since they were young children. Maybe she told them a little about Autism and what that means to a child or the families of children who live with it. Maybe there was class discussion on the sometimes insurmountable difficulties and the sometimes rare but terribly precious moments of celebration that Autism brings to life.

I hope so…

Today brought with it a visit from an old friend. More than that, a chance to celebrate John’s illustrations with somebody that was there during a time when John lived almost exclusively in the *Land of A. Nervous and yet so excited, John sat down to autograph his “Bean and Pocket.” Proudly John showed the person who had worked so hard to help him use his hands and find his voice, his new illustrations that he is currently working on for our new book, “Sandman of Seaside.”

Thank you….

Chris….

(“Bean and Pocket” can be purchased on Amazon)

*(”A” stands for Autism)

 “It’s Easy to Find…”

(The Coiled Dragon)

 “It’s easy to find…”

Jimmy explained as he gave directions on how to find the Great Wall. He pointed out where to go on a simple water-colored drawing that served as a map in the front room of The Great Wall Box House. The last thing I wanted was to get lost in China so I listened carefully, intent on memorizing the way, my eyes not leaving the map as he spoke.

After asking a few more questions of Jimmy, he must have felt it best to personally show us the way. His offer wasn’t something I was going to refuse so we all left together out the front door. Dani ran ahead as is her restless manner. Jake was content, walking alongside Jimmy as they spoken animatedly to each other in Chinese.

I walked behind them, examining my camera to make sure it was in working order. Satisfied that it was, I began to look around, not wanting to miss out on all there was to see in Gubeikou, the small village we were staying in.

To be honest, I had hoped to be well into our hike by now. My original plan had been to get up before dawn so that we could see the sunrise on The Great Wall. But when my alarm had gone off, I just couldn’t will myself out of bed that early. My mind had been ready but my body had thought otherwise. So I waited until Dani and Jake were awake. Once they were, the three of us quickly packed our backpacks with food and water, the binoculars and our cameras and headed on our way.
Deep blue sky rimmed the top of the buildings and walls that formed the small courtyard that our hostel room door opened out to. It was cold outside, the air fresh and clean, with the faint but delicious smell of smoke from the night before. I was loving the fact that we had bypassed Beijing and it’s gray overhead pollution of yesterday for the choice of being in the mountains instead.

Winding our way through narrow alleys, I listened as the loud honking of caged geese mingled with the sounds of hammers and electric saws. It sounded as if the village was going through a giant remodel but what we saw was a bit different. Workers were busy with what appeared to be adding on rather than repairing old and dilapidated looking buildings.

We passed people that stared at us curiously. Others stood in small crowds visiting with each other while watching the workers. Occasionally we also passed groups of three or four men gathered on the sides of the street around makeshift tables, smoking cigarettes while playing Mahjong and drinking tea.

There was a temple on a mountain that overlooked the village. Once we reached it, Jimmy again explained the way to the Wall. It seemed that there were two sets of stairs, one to the left, one to the right, with both sets ultimately leading up the mountain. We were to look for a person with tickets to buy in exchange for our access to the Wall. If nobody was around, we were not to worry, just continue on our way. Sooner or later, we would meet someone that would collect the fee.

In a similar manner, Jimmy also explained the way in which we were to exit off the Wall. Evidently there were two sets of stairways, the gray or the white, each descending back into the valley on different routes. Either set of stairs would eventually lead back to the the small village.

We thanked Jimmy and he left to return to the house. Not seeing anyone who was selling tickets, we climbed the first and only set of stairs that we noticed and hesitantly began walking. There really wasn’t a trail so we trudged up the dusty slope hoping we were on the right track.

Stretched away and high above the valley to the left of where we were hiking were layers upon layers of craggy blue mountains. Laced and draped, something that stretches the imagination to no end as to how it’s builders may have constructed it, we saw at last, the Great Wall of China. It threaded its way upward through the mountains, formidable in it’s size and and the steep elevation gain that promised to be a difficult hike. With a large valley positioned between the Wall and where we were hiking, I soon realized we were hiking away from it.

I wasn’t sure what to think as we hiked in the opposite direction except to assume we would circle around at some point. But that’s not the way it happened. The trail we were on looped along the side of a ridge in a different direction altogether. After a while we began to see crumbled chunks of ruin. It was hard to imagine that what we were seeing might be actual segments of the Great Wall.

The sad thing was, that is exactly what the chunks of ruin were. As hard as it was to believe at first, it did make sense. After all, we were to hike the Wild Wall, the section of the wall that had not been restored. After following several faint traces of trail to dead ends, with debate and discussion on which grassy path to continue on, we had found the Wall at last.

I won’t lie. I was thrilled. Completely in my element, I could have hiked forever or at least all day. Dani and Jake, not so much. The cold air of earlier had warmed considerably and continued to rise in temperature. Dani was still wearing her down jacket, with four other layers of clothing underneath. She didn’t see any reasons to shed any of those layers even though it was obvious she was getting uncomfortable in the heat.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t very long before Jake began to ask if we were done hiking yet. Reassuring him that we were going to be hiking for a while, he than asked when it was exactly, we would be done hiking. He felt compelled to repeat this question over and over. Knowing running for Jake was like kryptonite to Superman, I thought maybe he was viewing today’s hike in the same way. Encouraging Dani to get her camera out and take photos while giving Jake a visual of exactly where we were to stop and turn around in our hike helped and we continued on our way.

As we hiked, the crumbled segments turned into a continuous trail of wall. Watchtower after watchtower began to appear, small in the distance at first, growing larger as we hiked closer. We all felt the same sense of accomplishment every time we reached a new one and excitement on how long it would take to get to the next one.
Hiking the Wall where it perched on top of one particular mountain ridge like a king’s crown, Jake was the first to spot a figure on top of a watchtower, the next in line from the one that we were climbing. In the distance, the figure held out his arms to the sky, standing still as if he was a statue. He stayed put as we drew closer.

The man was waiting for us when we reached the tower. Silent and alone, he reminded me of the Wall with his dark weathered face, framed by a blue stocking cap on his head. He smiled a welcome as he smoked a cigarette. Dani spoke to him in Chinese and we soon found out he was the Wall Keeper. We would pay him for tickets to continue our hike on The Wall.

He told us we only had to buy two tickets instead of three for a total of fifty yuan, approximately seven dollars total. I gave him the money and than we sat down with him while eating a snack. With great interest he spoke with Dani and Jake and I could tell he was trying to wrap his brain around the idea of two Asian children having a Caucasian mom.

The Wall Keeper told us basically the same thing that Jimmy had told us earlier. He pointed to the watchtower further up the mountain that would be the turnaround point in our hike because of the military base somewhere in the mountains. He than pointed out the two stairways in the distance, one white, one gray, both leading away from the Wall. Either one of which would take us down the mountainside to where we could follow along the river and find our way back to the village.

As we hiked on, it occurred to all of us that we still had a long way to go to the last watchtower. I wondered if we should just take one of the staircases and work our way back to the village. Dani, Jake, and I discussed this possibility but quickly dismissed the idea. We all agreed we weren’t stopping short of our goal without at least trying to get there first.

This decision was one that would be tested as the day went on. It was apparent why the area we were hiking was called the Wild Wall. Except in rare occasions, the Wall had been left in it’s natural state. Broken and hard to find, sometimes narrow with sheer drop-offs, steep stairways, and watchtowers that sometimes look no more than in the last stages of ruin, hiking was often times dangerous going.

We came to a big sign in Chinese, awkwardly translated into English. It was easy enough to understand that it meant danger. We took the detour indicated and bypassed the watchtower in question. The next watchtower almost brought an end to our hike and I questioned why there wasn’t a danger sign posted there as well.

The extra steep stairs, the only entrance to the tower and continued hike on the wall, were precarious at best. Jake scrambled up ahead, disappearing over the edge of the arched doorway, looking back with a wide grin on his face. Not to be outdone, Dani quickly climbed up after him. They both made it look easy but I still hesitated before following them. Gingerly making my way up the broken steps, I was relieved when I too, was safely over the edge, and standing beside Jake and Dani inside the tower.

Two remaining watch towers left to the turnaround point, we hiked uphill to the stairs of the first one. A big tower, the inside was heavily littered with trash. I remembered that Jimmy had explained that people often camped in or around the towers and that this must be one of them. Two of the walls were relatively intact while the other two were more than halfway gone, crumbled away in the passing of hundreds of years since it’s creation.

The second tower was so close to the first, it was easy to see the huge sheet of metal that sealed off the entrance to it. After we walked around the second tower just to make sure there was no way to pass through it, we retraced our steps and climbed back into the big tower to explore it a bit more.

The section of the Wall we had been hiking and which we now viewed from both sides of the tower was called the Coiled Dragon. It was easy to understand why as we sat in the ancient watchtower taking it all in. The Wall uncoiled from the direction in which we had hiked, on and away into the mountains on the far side. Not hard to imagine that it could go on forever, I was in awe of its sheer power and majestic beauty.

We stayed for a while, mostly sitting in thoughtful silence, aware that this was a place we might only see once in our lifetime. Eventually though, it was time to return to the village. We hiked back to the gray stairs that Jake picked as the way to return and the path quickly led us down to the valley below. Soon the Wall was no longer in sight, hiding behind the mountains it belonged to. Leaving it didn’t take away the gratitude that I felt in being able to share with my children the opportunity to see such an incredible part of China’s history. Thankful, at peace, and excited as well, I looked forward for the tomorrow that would bring with it another opportunity to explore the beauty of the Great Wall…..

-Chris-

photo credit: Dani Fraser

Joe’s Place

(The Great Wall Box House)

There was a golden square of light down the hill, framed by a set of solid wooden doors. The doors hadn’t been closed and locked for the night because we were expected, and they were waiting for us.

I let out a sigh as I heaved my backpack one last time for this part of our journey and slung it over my shoulder. Sleepily, Dani and Jake did the same. We silently wrestled with handles that twisted in our hands as the wheels of our second backpack-slash-suitcases, bumped and bounced behind us down the dirt path. The golden light growing bigger as we walked closer, a finish line that felt as good in crossing as what I imagined an Ultra race finish line must feel for any runner brave enough to run.

I’ll have to admit, when our driver first pulled up to what seemed like the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, I had a uneasy sense of trepidation. Trust issues are like my extra set of contacts. For years, I’ve been packing them along for the just in case. Two hours of a drive in a dark landscape to somewhere in the nowhere after a many hour flight, I was shell shocked by the passing traffic of beat-up work trucks with Character writings all over them. I was back in China and a really long way from home. And as much as I thought I was oozing independence and had this journey all under control, the reality of it was, this trip depended also on the help that others were to offer along the way…

The night air had a cold bite to it and it was hard to stop shivering, let alone stop the chattering of my teeth. So when our driver Pong, opened a modern version of a front door that was set inside the building a couple of feet from the wooden outer doors, it was a relief to feel the warmth of the front room that went along with the golden light.

Joe was behind a large tea table with two other men sitting on stools, sipping tea in their quiet companionship. I put my backpack down, and slid onto an empty stool, Dani and Jake doing the same. My brain was fast shutting down after twenty-four hours and more of no sleep except the head-bobbing, cat-napping that had occurred on the plane. But I knew I had several important arrangements that needed to be checked off my list for the next part of my trip in two days. And Joe, in our variety pack of internet conversations, (Facebook, WeChat, and phone calls), a few weeks prior, had offered to help with what needed to be done.

The room we were in was a contrast of new
blended with the old building that I had observed it to be from the outside. Walls of honey colored wood reflected the light and warmth of the room and there was a faint smoky smell of what I assumed must be someone’s outdoor campfire or maybe a wood stove. This made perfect sense to me because the air outside felt like the cold that the night brings to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest where the warmth of a campfire or stove would be more than welcome.

Joe’s Zen-like manner quickly put me at ease as he introduced his friends, and offered hot tea in a little glass cup that I drank in two gulps. With concern he explained that because of Qingming Festival, train tickets to Guangzhou were almost completely full for the following Tuesday, the day we needed to travel. He had managed to find three seats on a very early train and advised me to buy them that night. Joe and his friends didn’t understand why I couldn’t purchase my tickets via WeChat. I didn’t understand the why and how that could even be done at all. To make it all simple, Joe’s young friend Jimmy, who became our new friend in the following days, made the purchase for us.

photo credit: Dani Fraser

Relieved and oh so ready to meet with some sleep, I thanked Joe as he had Jimmy show us the way out a narrow side door by the tea table, out to a small courtyard. Too dark to see much, the smoke smell was stronger in the courtyard. In an odd way, it mingled with the cold mountain air. Surprisingly clean and fresh, I drew in a deep breath before ducking past Jimmy who held the door to our room open for us.

Our room had hardwood floors and there were several Asian antique-looking dressers that reminded me of the fact that we really were in China. But the very best part were two twin beds pushed together with snow-white, puffy down comforters. Jake sailed his way to jump on the bed, leaving his things in a heap in the middle of the floor. Dani was more careful, placing her backpacks in a corner, before leaping her own way to bounce at his side. Jimmy showed us how to use the heater, than said goodnight and we were left to ourselves.

Exclamations from the kids on how amazing our room was, the lights were quickly turned off and they were fast asleep. I crawled under the comforter and closed my eyes to the dark of the room. As tired as I was, in the funny way that seems to happen, my mind revved up, staving off the sleep I would have gladly welcomed.

I thought about how stressed I had been in the weeks prior to traveling. It had woken me up in the middle of many nights, sometimes to the point of keeping me up for hours at a time. But the minute I had walked out of my house and stepped onto the first flight of this trip, I had gone into a state of auto-pilot calmness.  I wondered about that and thought of the reasons why.

Sure thing, I had been unsettled when our driver was gone-missing when we landed in Beijing. But there truly had been a light shining on us when a lady approached to ask if we needed help. She was able to locate our driver and keep in contact with him until he found us.

Pong had that same light in his presence. Even though it was late, he was thoughtful in his offer to stop if we were hungry so that we might find something to eat. He was patient in my questions as to why he would live in Gubeikou, the village that we were on our way to.  His answers of clear blue skies and beautiful mountains, and concern for the ever increasing pollutants of our Earth, reflections of what I held to be of great importance as well.

Than there was Joe who gave us one of his best rooms at no extra charge because we had arrived late in the night. Inviting us to sit at his table, he had included us as if we were already a part of his circle of friends, and not the three strangers that we really were, having barely just walked in the door ten minutes before.

photo credit: Dani Fraser

The same light just kept shining through the people we were meeting, the places we were going. Somewhere outside and very close, was the Great Wall of China. I was excited for the morning and the adventure it would bring. In the silence of the late night I was also at peace, thankful that I could feel so safe in a place so far away from my home. Instinctively I knew we were staying with good people and that we were exactly where we were supposed to be. As the peace in knowing this eased my mind to rest, it was with trust that I finally
fell asleep….

-Chris…

 

 

 

 

 “Are you sure you want to book those tickets…?”

The question caused me to pause as an internal debate stirred in myself on how to answer. So much of me wanted to say, “Hold off. Wait… At least a day or two, maybe a week. Come to think about it… how about forever?” I wanted to be absolutely sure I could pull it together, that I actually had a concrete travel plan, one that would be undeniably safe.

But that was the problem, and I knew it. If I hesitated, or decided to not go forward with what I wanted to do, my disappointment in myself would be endless. A lifetime of playing it safe, this trip back to China was complicated. So much more than the really big of why I was going, another huge piece was personal redemption for the years I basically had spent avoiding life because of fear of the unknown and risk of failure.

Inside of me was the Adventurer. I knew this was finally the time I needed to experience the possibility of being out of my comfort level. If the unexpected happened, this would be the opportunity to strategize on my own, how to overcome what it is was that made me afraid. Booking those tickets was the test to see if I was going to allow that to happen.

The travel agent asking me the question was patiently waiting for my answer. The places I was planning on going, the excitement of this once in a lifetime adventure contrasting with the thousand and one things that could go wrong were a constant thought pattern running through my brain, an internal picture-slide show that just wouldn’t shut off.

China was to be a backpack, hostel-staying adventure. Flights were to destinations that were off the beaten track and there would be no guide. I knew from my google research that plenty of adventurers had done this before. However, for the really big of why I was traveling, it was not the norm of travel that was expected and to be honest, several people advised me not to do so. I even had someone state that I wouldn’t be allowed to stay in a location that was on my itinerary. I really don’t like when someone tells me that I can’t. I wanted to be like the adventurers that could.

If only I had known that when we arrived in Beijing, the internet on my phone no longer felt the need to work, leaving me with no means of which to contact our driver who was to meet us that night. Ironically, or not, when he did finally find us, he somehow misplaced his car and we spent a good forty minutes touring the parking garage searching for it.

Several days after that, in the farm village of JiuXian, my son was hit by a moped, crashed into by his sister, and later, wiped out on his own as we were biking through the countryside. He was fine with all that but not so much when we ended up ironing our wet sheets that night in our hostel in an attempt to dry them before bed. I’m not sure what was up with those sheets because they were wet the next night too.

I didn’t have a clue that as a result of traveling during QingMing festival, China’s equivalent of Memorial Day, there would be no available seats left on the bullet train that I was planning on taking to Guangzhou. Luckily there were three tickets left on the Get Up at Four O’clock in the Morning Train. Unlucky that the lady ticket master had no interest in handing over our tickets even though they were paid for.

I think it would have been nice to know beforehand, how to handle the situation when a taxi driver drove us back to Guangzhou after an afternoon in Zhongshan. Halfway through the ride, he began driving in such a way, that I thought it most likely he had multiple health issues. With his left leg and arm jumping all around, resulting in a swerving, lurching, stop and go driving pattern, and his unresponsiveness to my asking him if he was ok, I thought it likely we all might die that night.

But I hadn’t known and even if I had, I realize that I still would have answered as I did. Because each and every day in China was exactly what I had hoped for in planning the trip in the first place. I had allowed myself to be the risk-taker. In facing the trip in all of it’s challenges, and rewards, the adventure unfolded with a richly layered experience and an opportunity for myself and my children who traveled with me to live it well….

Knowing the travel agent was still waiting for my answer, I replied without hesitation,

“Book the tickets…”