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Posts Tagged ‘Durga’s Toolbox’

Here’s another in my toolbox series of techniques that inspire me to live with joy, compassion and courage, as inspired by the Hindu goddess Durga  — my nominee for patron saint of special needs parents.

When it comes to raising kids with special needs, there are a lot of gatekeepers who get to be on our “team”– insurance company reps, city officials, special ed departments, healthcare providers, state agency eligibility screeners.

Cultivating trusting relationships with these folks is essential to me; not just because I believe in the old adage about catching more flies with sugar than with vinegar, but because treating people with respect and compassion and humanity is important to my integrity. Confrontation is so draining. Besides, it’s a great opportunity to pay off some old bad karma!

Though from time to time an impasse occurs and it is tempting to lose my temper in anger or fear. Often what’s going through my mind is those situations are questions like: “How can they expect my child to make progress with so little?” or “How dare they tell me what’s best for my child?” or even “This person seems to like my child a lot and they have a lot of expertise, but why doesn’t what they’re proposing feel right to me?”

Blurting out these questions, especially in a tone of mistrust, anger or rage can damage these relationships. In my experience, even calm-headed, straight-out debating — trying to convince the person whose opinion differs from mine why their position is “wrong” — doesn’t often work either. They often shut down, get defensive, dig their heels in deeper. It’s useful in these situations to have a go-to strategy that keeps the conversation productive.

In their popular and helpful book Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy – The Special Education Survival Guide, authors and advocates Pam and Pete Wright propose what they call “The Columbo Strategy”:

“Tell the School Staff that you are confused. You want to ask a stupid question.”

Remember Columbo? With his trademark cigar and his hand to his forehead, he’d give his suspects plenty of rope with which to hang themselves in the form of one “stupid question” (usually when his hand was on the door and he was about to leave). Always friendly, never confrontational, he’d play the seeming fool before tripping them up in their own lies.

Employing the Columbo Strategy, you can sometimes bring the team around without having a head-on confrontation. Telling educators and other helpful people that you have a stupid question usually brings out their desire to help and mentor. I must admit I’ve used this technique successfully in meetings to illicit an increase in resources without having to ask for it directly.

The problem for me with this technique is that it feels duplicitous and can make people feel “handled.” The key is to keep a curious, neutral tone and to actively listen to their answer.

In Zen Buddhism, this state of openness and curiosity is referred to as Beginner’s Mind. In this space, one has no preconceived answers, only an eagerness to learn. While this might seem like a powerless posture to assume in a negotiation for something as important as your own child’s needs, it can be exactly the opposite. It doesn’t create defensiveness in others because it is at its heart an open, inclusive, team-oriented state.

Beginner’s Mind can reveal a lot of illogical holes in systems. Asking “why?” over and over again, when it leads to responses like “Because that’s the way we always do it,” or “Because we don’t have a budget to do any more,” is an extremely effective tool, especially when you simply let such answers hang in the air.

There are no guarantees of course. Each situation calls for its own approach, but having a sincere beginner’s mind is never a bad starting place, in my experience.

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Another tool in my toolbox series that helps me live with joy, courage and compassion, as inspired by the Hindu goddess Durga.

In 10th grade business class, my teacher Mrs. Goldstein taught our class a model that promised to make us more successful in life. When faced with a difficult decision of whether or not to do something, she counciled us to execute the following strategy:

  1. At the top of a sheet of paper (this was the 1980’s, so no, there was not an app for that) write down the a potential course of action to address your problem. Below it, create two columns called “Pros” and “Cons,” and brainstorm what each of them could be.
  2. Review the list and after careful consideration, select the proper course of action.

Although I can’t say I (or many teenagers) went to the trouble of pulling out paper and pen when faced with a tricky decision, but the exercise captures the essence of a very Western approach to decision making. I put a lot of stock in what my intellect — my “head” —  had to say about things and had faith that sound reasoning and reflection alone would lead to a positive outcome. In the special needs worlds of evidence-based medicine and education, Data is King.

But there are other internal sources of information available to us. Marketing managers everywhere know that we unconsciously make decisions based on our emotions and then find intellectual reasons to justify our decisions. We often refer to our heart as being the seat of our emotional wisdom, as reflected expressions like “he followed his heart,” or “she has a lot of heart.” As a parent, my heart is often the governor for much of my behavior, both good and bad — affection and yelling to name just two. As a special needs parent, letting my heart take the reigns too often can lead to excessive worry or guilt and make my behavior very risk aversive.

Lately I’ve come to appreciate a third kind of intelligence as a complement to my head and my heart: my gut. Why? When I look at a situation through the lens of my intellect, I focus mostly on quantifiable facts, and my field of vision is fairly narrow. Looking through my heart, I often take the decision which will provide short-term relief of pain but may not provide a long-term solution. But when my gut is the lens with which I view a situation, suddenly I have access to all sorts of information — in addition to my head and heart wisdom, murky hunches based on connections with past experiences and insights that my intellectual memory can’t quite put its finger on get equal say. It’s as if my gut has superior peripheral vision, able to read and react to a complex situation quickly, the way a quarterback can read a play in progress and know exactly where to get the ball.

One way I my gut shares its wisdom with me is by acting as a little voice or a milli-second of nearly imperceptable hesitation. “Don’t put your keys there or you’ll forget them,” the voice says, or “Don’t hit the ‘send’ button just yet on this email.” The challenge, of course, in this crazybusy life of mine, is to not drown that tiny voice out with distraction and mindlessness. I don’t know how many times I’ve made a mistake — from harmless ones like dropping a glass to more costly ones like trusting the wrong person — and realized that I knew all along it was going to happen but I was in too much of a rush to listen. When I am grounded in my body and present in the moment, the voice is amplified. Pausing and taking a breath, I can reconnect with this voice and ask for its guidance. Perhaps people who seem to have extra-sensory abilities are simply able to crank up the volume of this voice.

I won’t stop using my head or my heart; in fact I think my gut instinct works as well as it does precisely because my head and heart have so much experience. No need to throw the baby out with the bath water. I simply appreciate having another channel of information, one that is often dead on and incredibly quick. But don’t take my word for it — trust your own gut. I’d love to hear your thoughts…or feelings…or instincts.

P.S. In recent years, the research coming out regarding the Enteric Nervous System (the one hundred million neurons embedded in our gastro-intestinal lining) now referred to as “the second brain,” is pretty fascinating. In the same vein but coming from a completely different tradition, many mind-body schools of thought like ones who use energy fields or chakras, consider the solar plexus to be the seat of personal power and will. There’s a lot to explore here if you’re interested.

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Here’s the third in the belabored series on tools that inspire me as a special needs parent to live with joy, courage and compassion, as inspired by the Hindi goddess Durga.

I am not a naturally athletic person. Lest you get the impression from the post’s title that I am one of those people with a vexing bottomless well of physical energy, aptitude or endurance, (though my favorite is Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger’s character on Parks and Recreation) I must assure you that I am a clutz.

I was a good student in my youth. I felt secure and comfortable in the realm of my mind but completely at a loss when I paid any attention to my body. Growing up I barely completed a season of any sport, most often quitting after the first few lessons or games. My athletic prowess extended to the occasional aerobics class or a night out at the bowling alley every decade or so. I learned to swim and ride a bike years after friends my age did. Oh, I did play softball one season, though it ended with a broken nose and the assistant coach sarcastically yelling, “Look what I got!” on the single occasion I managed to catch a ball during a game.

In my late 20’s I accidentally cultivated a slow-jog habit. I say accidentally because I really can’t otherwise explain how I found myself pulling on my sneakers and jogging while trying to hold steady a very skippy portable CD player during many of the summers of the late 90s. The object was to simply move my body, not push myself too hard – which I was very good at.

Once parenthood hit though, the sheer physical exhaustion and a sleep-deprivation induced fogginess punted that shaky practice right out the window. Finding time to exercise meant getting up early. Sleep was what my body needed there was no way I’d miss a minute of it. Besides, I hardly had enough time or energy to go to the bathroom; why would I squander precious energy on running a loop around my neighborhood when I needed it to unload the dishwasher?

At some point in the last few years though, the sneakers found their way out of the closet and I am just as surprised as you are to find out that I have a pretty decent jogging habit again. I’ve even done a few 5ks in the last year or so, run through the last two winters and I’ve probably doubled my speed – I can run much faster now that I’ve upgraded to an iPod.

What has come as a surprise is the pleasure not rekindling the slow jog ability, but of pushing my body really hard. As I crank up the volume of that perfect heart-thumping track, I’m almost always able to run faster and farther than I believed possible, and with that success comes the insight I am quite possibly mentally and emotionally stronger than I believe. I push myself by choice out on that sidewalk so that when I’m faced with a surprise obstacle in my everyday life, I already have experience of ignoring the voice in my head that tells me, “You have to stop, you can’t do this.” I don’t know how it’s possible that this is the same voice, but it is.

Another gratifying by-product of voluntary exhaustion is the way it can simply shut off my incessant mental chatter and calm my anxiety. Though my mind continually seeks out things to obsess about as long as it’s awake, it does take a little break in the hours after a good, hard workout. I have worked through and integrated some experiences more effectively by simply moving my body than I ever could by thinking about them. Sometimes the body knows how to handle that which the heart and mind simply cannot process. It took an apparently smart girl a surprisingly long time to learn that.

I don’t need to be a jock. I’ll always have my curves and my clumsiness. But I do have a new appreciation for my body’s wisdom, its value and its strength. And now when life throws me a curveball, I might just be able to catch it without breaking something.

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Here’s the second in what will certainly be a belabored series on tools that inspire me as a special needs parent to live with joy, courage and compassion, as inspired by the Hindi goddess Durga.

As the Big Brother Big Sister Donation truck drove off with several enormous bags of my stuff yesterday, I realized that I’ve a developed a bit of an addiction over the past few months to the delicious rush of the feeling of spaciousness – physical, mental, psychological and spiritual – that comes from picking an area of my home and then giving a ruthless “buh-bye” to anything I don’t love, need or want contained within it. After decluttering a drawer, a shelf or a closet, I can return for days to gaze at the generous capaciousness, not just the controlled order of the things, but the blank space between the things that reside there.

Years ago as an art history student, I attended a lecture by an artist who said her aesthetic had completely changed after she became a mother. The delightful sense of control she felt when looking at a pure, unadulterated stretch of her kitchen counter or silverware precisely nestled in its dividers shaped her own work over time. Her canvases, once full of heaving Baroque forms and manic Rococo swirls, now revealed becalmed expanses of open landscape. At the time I was a pre-Raphaelite devotee, enchanted by claustrophobic layers of symbol and allusion. Her revision to her own artistic output seemed a little, well…sterile. Twenty years later, let me just say this: Lady, I totally get you.

So why this 180? After spending most of my twenties and thirties earning money to acquire things and a house to display them in, lately I have a real appreciation of having less stuff. Having less stuff means having less stuff to pick up, clean, nag others to put away, resent others for when they don’t. Less stuff to distract. Less stuff to cramp my style during my dance parties with the kids. Less stuff to block the sunlight from pouring into the room.

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” said English art critic and designed John Ruskin. Using Ruskin as my de-cluttering buddy has sometimes left me with remarkably little to work with. I got rid of so many undesirable, odd-ball plates and glasses that for several months I couldn’t fill the dishwasher before needing to run it. Maybe I took things a little too far, but so far there’s nothing I’ve regretted parting with.

Having less stuff gives ample opportunity for two other valuable practices for me as a special needs parent.

The first is trust – trust that I can let go of things I don’t need right at this moment, and the Universe will provide for me if and when I need it again. Practicing get rid of things that I “just might need some day” with the faith that something better will come along later on is a great antidote to the Terror of Scarcity which can cripple me at times.

The other practice de-cluttering helps me with is letting go. With each thing placed in the “Donate” box, I practice letting go of the need to cling to any one thing. I practice letting go of the need to fill every little nook and cranny in my home and my mind with shiny distractions. I practice letting go of what others think I should like and enjoy. I practice letting go of who I was and who I wanted to be as embodied by countless unfinished projects and long-ignored stuff, making room instead for dancing, sunlight and the person who I have become.

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As promised in yesterday’s post, I would love to share some the contents of my Durga toolbox that help me as a parent of a child with special needs stay joyful, courageous and compassionate on my path through life.

To recognize the value of my first tool, you must understand that I live in one of the most densely populated cities in the US. It’s hipster, urban, organic, ironic geeky, smart and innovative. Think Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein brilliant comedy Portlandia (check out the hilarious opening sequence), but for real – Rock, Paper, Scissors tournaments, roller derby leagues, coffee shop patrons tying up tables for hours while typing on antique
typewriters, waitresses wearing fake mustaches for their entire shift with a straight face. (Yes, these are all things that I swear I have seen first hand in my own neighborhood.)

But green it is not. I don’t mean green as in eco-friendly, because the city prides itself on high walk-ability and the upcoming single-stream recycling program. I mean green as in actual trees, green as in chlorophyll, the
necessary ingredient to transform carbon dioxide into oxygen through photosynthesis. I mean green as in the opposite of grey and black, the colors of concrete and asphalt. Green as in things not covered in vinyl siding or
surrounded by chain link fences.

I love how cities invite and cultivate weirdness. But after a while this lack of green does a number on my nervous system and my sense of perspective, and I get a little neurotic. And neurotic is not helpful if I want to lead a
joyful, compassionate and courageous life. If I spend too much time on pavement I stop seeing the joy and focus too much on the challenges. I irritate easily, I forget to be grateful, and I get tense and annoyed.

My husband is Swedish, as in being from Sweden. Besides having a penchant for ABBA (for real) and an innate ability to assemble IKEA furniture (and have fun while doing it), he also comes from a proud people who seem born to spend time in nature. Swedes don’t just have summer houses in the country; they have tiny little summer shack out in the woods for when the summer house gets too crowded.

My husband has taught me the value of getting out in the woods to combat urban fatigue.  Surrounded by a few trees, my twitchiness subsides. My breathing deepens and slows. My delight in simple pleasures returns. So most weekends, my husband and I take the kids out of the concrete jungle for a little communing with Mother Nature.

Because our kids are not physically able to hike for long stretches, we’ve developed a raison d’être for these outings: the nature picnic. To say that we rock the nature picnic is an understatement, if you’ll allow for some bragging here. We have separate thermoses for coffee, milk and hot chocolate, thin foam pads to sit on, nesting cups that take up little space in our backpack (I’ll try to find a link some time), a nature guide, a ready supply of wet wipes, and one golden package of our ubiquitous Maria cookies. Year round, we can be found sitting on a fallen tree trunk or a large rock dunking our cookies and listening to the sounds of birds and squirrels.

The coffee tastes better than anything our hipster baristas could craft, the kids are entertained looking for pine cones and sticks, and there is absolutely nothing to do. That is, nothing but settle back into myself, and be gently reminded by Mother Nature that the world is full of an endless supply of things to marvel at, helping me recharge, heal and become whole again.

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