taking the bull by the horns

 

I rode a mechanical bull last weekend. No, really. And you know what? I kicked some mechanical bull butt. 42 seconds I lasted on that thing. For those of you (my friend Kelly, you know who you are) who don’t believe me, I actually have this on video. Yes, I do fall down when I bowl, but I stayed on that dang bull for 42 seconds or so help me. Anyway, perhaps a little background is necessary?

My fabulous, wonderful, delightful little sister (technically step-sister, but who keeps track of such things?) is getting married this month. I am incredibly touched that she asked me to be her maid of honor, and as such, entrusted me with planning her bridal shower and hen party (call it a bachelorette if you must, but I love saying hen party). I’m the only bridal attendant, which made it all a bit more challenging (read expensive), but also gave me the freedom to make unilateral decisions. (Anyone who has ever been part of a contentious bridal party knows why I bother to mention this).

Not long ago, my sister had declared that she had to ride a mechanical bull before she died, which made it a lot easier to plan the party. I find it hard to believe that NYC has only one mechanical bull, but I found it and built an evening around making sure that my sister and all her friends got a shot at it.

It took me 24 hours to process it, but I realized later that riding the bull was very much like caring for Brooke. It was a great metaphor for parenting in general, but the pure extremity of it drew what felt like an undeniable parallel for the parent of a child with autism.

The bull would buck and drop and change directions without warning. It would move completely counter intuitively. There were these ecstatic moments when I felt the incredible high of knowing that I really ‘had’ it. I was in the groove. It was an amazing rush, feeling like I could hold on and follow this huge bucking machine – like I had unlocked the key to the puzzle – as though I had found a pattern in what had previously appeared to be utterly random. It felt wonderful.

Then, Bam! The bull would violently shift and change direction and the horns would nearly hit the mat and it was all I could do to hold on for dear life so as not to be bucked to the floor. I was constantly shifting my weight, trying to counterbalance myself to stay astride. I needed to figure out how to feint left when the bull went right and to lie back when it lunged forward. I was learning on the fly, making it up and constantly adjusting as I went along.

Like the constant dance that we all engage in as parents, riding the bull was alternately exciting, exhilarating, frustrating, defeating and empowering, and ultimately enlightening. I learned something about myself on that bull. I learned that I could do something completely beyond what I would have thought I could handle. I had the individual tools. I just needed to realize that they were in my shed and to use them differently than I’d ever thought to before. In the end, after 42 seconds, I hit the floor feeling simultaneously like I’d been in a car wreck and as though I were on top of the world. So much like the end of a day as a parent.

At the party, one of my sister’s friends very graciously thanked me for putting the festivities together. She looked at me with wide eyes and said, “It just amazes me how organized you are. How on earth do you do it? You are so together!” And then she got a little more serious, and as though there were no possibility that I could possibly say yes, she asked, ‘Do you ever get overwhelmed?’

I laughed out loud. A little too hard. I could see by the way the look on her face had changed that my nearly maniacal laugh was a little disconcerting. Was she kidding? I spend my life in Overwhelmedland. I’m there so often that I’ve created an entire language for the place. I often refer to the way that my brain functions these days as ‘triage mode’, which for those of you unfamiliar with the language of Overwhelmedland means quite simply that if it ain’t dying, it ain’t getting my attention. We also tend to rely on the old standard, ‘the wheels are comin off the wagon’ and its cousin ‘welcome to the yard sale that is my life.’ Another phrase we use quite a lot in Overwhelmedland is ‘looking for the ripcord’ – something I find myself doing more and more lately. By the way, have you seen it?

But it was obvious that the young woman asking the question was also trying to tell me that she too was overwhelmed. And I was so grateful for her honesty. It made me realize for the second time in as many days (I’ll get to the first time in a minute) that we, as people in general and women in particular, have this awful propensity to look at each other as the negative of our insecurities. The more scattered we feel, the more convinced we are that everyone else has it completely together. The tougher our relationships may be, the easier everyone else’s look. The worse the state of our finances, the more everyone else seems to be ‘getting ahead.’

It frustrates me to no end because I think half the problem is that we all put up these facades for each other and everyone else is buying em. It’s a load of bull (pun so not intended; I’m just not that girl.) but we all see what we perceive to be our deficits in relief in the rest of the world, and it is usually just not the case.

My cousin wrote a letter to the family recently in which she detailed her struggle with feeling like she was losing the fight to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’ She talked about how she had become obsessive about those darn Joneses and what they had and she didn’t. It is true that there is always someone who seems to have more, or seems to have it all together when we feel like we don’t. There’s always someone with a nicer house or car or who is going on fabulous trips when we are staying home.

However, I’ve got to tell you, as I told my cousin; I know an awful lot of Joneses and a closer look usually reveals a lot of cracks in the facade. I was thrilled to hear that her 6 year old was able to remind her (slap her upside the head?) of the fact that what matters are the love, the strength, the faith, the generosity, the integrity with which she and her family approach the world and each other.

But back to Overwhelmedland –

I felt some obligation to impart some advice to this young woman who was opening up to me at the hen party (seriously, it’s just fun to say). Like my sister, she is marrying soon, and is, by her own admission, terrified – not about the marriage, which she feels completely comfortable with, but about what she described as leaping into the awful abyss of ‘grown-up-hood’. She looked at me eagerly, knowing I’d obviously survived the leap, waiting for some tips for getting by. Since I’ve written my own Fodor’s guide to Overwhelmedland, I trotted out a couple of my tried and true traveling tips.

Years ago, when I was in college (ok, so that was many, many years ago, but I don’t think we need to harp on that) I came upon essentially the same piece of advice in two different forms that I have found to be invaluable on my journeys through (and more importantly OUT OF) Overwhelmedland.

The first time I came upon this advice was when I had called my father from college. I was convinced that the world was imminently crashing down on my head. It was one of my first trips to Overwhelmedland and I found myself in the middle of the unfamiliar terrain without a map or local currency or any working knowledge of the language or customs. So, as I have so often in my life when I’ve felt lost, I called upon one of the most rational, capable, generous people in my life – my Dad. As I have so many times since, I asked for his help. And as he always does, he came through with loving, supportive guidance tinged with long practiced and well honed sarcasm. (This was the man who gave me a card on my 21st birthday that said on the front ‘at 21 life just begins’ and inside said ‘to suck.’)

Dad’s advice was deceptively simple, but I’ve used it time and time again over the many (ok, many, many) years since he first dispensed it to me. He said, ‘Take it one step at a time, kiddo. Break it all down into small, manageable pieces and attack one task at a time. If you step back and look at the big picture when you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re screwed. It’s all about baby steps. One task at a time. Take it one task at a time.”

I’ve since added another step to that process, which is the celebration of the completion of each task. I try to remember to take a moment to say, “I did it. I accomplished something. I checked something off my list, or at least one of my umpteen lists. But I did it. I got one step closer to getting out of this place.”

The other, very similar piece of advice came from a speaker I heard at school that same year. In a rare exhibition of studiousness, I actually showed up, voluntarily, at a talk given by an Indian chief who had been asked to speak on campus. Truth be told, I was hardly the kid who would typically be found in the classroom even when I was assigned to be there, and certainly not one who would show up for extra edification without credit.

But when I saw the title of the chief’s talk, I was compelled to go listen to him. It was called ‘Moving Mountains.’ and I HAD to find out how an Indian chief would approach that topic. It’s funny, but when I initially heard him speak, I was actually somewhat disappointed. I took my disappointment as proof positive that my previous approach to these things (letting them happen while I was out with my friends or doing something vital like, oh, say sleeping till noon) had been just fine. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

He told the story of his ancestors who had been forced into unforgiving terrain and were desperately (not desperately as in, “I desperately need a new pair of shoes to go with this dress, but desperately as in life and death) seeking a place to settle. He told of the tribal chief who found his people at the foot of a mountain, their only hope for survival on the other side. He told us how the chief sought guidance from a Shaman. The chief told the Shaman, “My people are doomed. For the only way out of these desperate straits would be to move a mountain. And one cannot move a mountain.”

The Shaman corrected him. “One certainly can move a mountain,” he said. “How can that be?” the tribal chief wondered. “We are so small and the mountain is so large. There is no way that we could possibly pick it up. We are so weak and it so strong. There is no way that we could possibly push it. We are humbled by the great mountain, there is no way we could possibly go over it.”

The Shaman said to the chief, “You must look away from the mountain and turn your eyes to your hands. With your hands, you will move the mountain.” With that, he dug his fingers deep into the soil and laid the mound of dirt into the chief’s hands. He had taken the first step toward moving that mountain, one handful of dirt at a time.

Years later (yup, many, many years later) I still rely on the Indian chief’s words. I’m not sure when it was that I recognized the value of them, the weight of them, the desperation (somewhere in between the shoes and the life and death kind) with which I would seek them so many times over throughout my life. But eventually I did. And all these years later, they resonate with me when I feel like I am confronted by a mountain.

So no matter what it is that makes up your mountain, You CAN move it. Whether it’s an overwhelming week at the office, a relationship that needs work, a child that needs help, a pile of papers, or, let’s just say for argument’s sake, a month in which you must do your best to:

plan and execute birthday parties for both of your daughters (you know how one of them went), plan and host a bridal shower for 36 and a hen party for 24 for your sister (who you adore), prepare for your daughter’s initial transition meeting to kindergarten, review and negotiate a proposed IEP that is supposed to somehow be designed to cover the present, the summer and the beginning of next year, all while managing your anxiety (ok, terror) about her moving on to elementary school, write and deliver a speech for your sister’s wedding, try to predict and translate into a social story the events of an entire weekend of wedding festivities in an attempt to prepare your autistic daughter to walk down the aisle as a flower girl without shrieking and running away, accepting the fact that it’s ok if she shrieks and runs away, knowing full well there’s a damn good chance that she’ll shriek and run away, campaign in your town for funds that you know are the only hope of maintaining the level of services that all our children need and deserve, and that will protect a fire station that you know your town will not be safe without, and to save the jobs of so many wonderful, dedicated people that work so hard for your children every day, show up at work every day hungry and aggressive and focused so that I (oops, you) can keep your job in an increasingly competitive environment, all while finding time to be a mom and a wife and a daughter and a friend and a sister and oh, to periodically breathe.

Oh, sorry, did I get carried away? I left out a lot, I swear. But now you know why I laughed so hard when my sister’s friend asked if I ever get overwhelmed. Uh, yeah, I’ve been there. But if I can ride a bull, I’m thinking I can move the dang mountain, if only one handful at a time.

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3 thoughts on “taking the bull by the horns

  1. I love this. Overwhelmedland.
    Great imagery with riding the bull, and moving that dang mountain.
    Thanks for the words…and infinite wisdom.
    Gonna go move some mountains, now.
    Peace to you…

  2. Jess,

    I found your blog from Luau’s facebook page. It’s just excellent. I sent it on to Catlin as well – she is finishing up her masters SLP program and reading about the parental challenges you write about are helpful to her. And of coures, we love to know and support our friend anyway we can.

    Mr. Hareesh

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