About a six weeks ago, I was running along the river pondering how life had been relatively smooth, as of late, mirroring the state of the water that was my companion on that run. In fact, the river was so smooth, I could see in it a perfect reflection of the trees that hang so gracefully over its banks. It was a breathtaking sight which allowed me to glimpse the beauty of creation twice. Since summer had ended, our family transitioned back to school almost effortlessly. In fact, it was probably the first time I could remember since my daughter’s diagnosis of ADHD with anxiety, added to the previously diagnosed Sensory Processing Disorder, that we had experienced such a peaceful and calm fall. Usually these changes to life triggered the worst of anxieties, leading to behaviors which became disruptive to any sense of normalcy we touched during less challenging times. But this year was different; so different that it was strange. I kept waiting for something to set off the chain of chaos that had become our new normal, but that something never came. I don’t know if it was the fact that this was her ninth year in her current school or that we finally figured out the perfect combination of meds. I don’t know if it was her incredibly knowledgeable and sensitive home room teacher who “gets” my girl and works well with her or the regular dosage of exercise and sweat that came as part of the package when she signed up to play volleyball. WHATEVER it was that could be attributed to these sweet, smooth, serene months of calm and peace; it was a most beautiful gift.
As the old idiom goes, all good things must come to an end. Volleyball season ended. High school placement tests were administered. Talk of next year’s plans were initiated. Then came the final straw: Shadow Day at her dream high school arrived. At first, when I picked her up after school, she seemed very excited about the day. She said that she participated in class and knew lots of the answers to the teachers’ questions. She mentioned that the high school kids affectionately referred to her as “Shadow” all throughout the day. She happily chatted about friends from last year’s 8th grade class with whom she was able to reconnect in the hallways and cafeteria. But mere hours later, the telltale signs reappeared. At first it was the hypersensitivity to touch. My right arm brushed up against her left arm in the car when I opened up the compartment between the seats. An explosive emotional response followed immediately, along with the physical retraction from the touch. Next came the need to balance out the unexpected sensory input by brushing the arm that wasn’t assaulted against my arm which remained between us. Quickly thereafter, she was throttled by a flooding of all things sensory. She slammed the radio off to stop the sound. She pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her eyes to shut out the onslaught of visual images that threatened to cut the thin thread of sanity to which she was clinging. To watch her in these moments is to witness a response of both fight and flight. It breaks my heart to see her suffering.
The smooth, serene waters are no longer. They are choppy and treacherous and threaten to drown her once again.The future is uncertain, unknown, uncontrollable. The secure position of stability, found after so many years of therapy and learning how to cope, has collapsed all too soon. The aftertaste that remains of the peace now lost makes this new chaos all the more bitter. Day after day, unmet expectations or unwanted sensations or unplanned events trigger the strife once again. I grasp to recall how we successfully navigated these days in the past. It feels as if I am a combat soldier, though once strong in battle, now utterly unprepared for the daily warfare.
In the midst of all this comes Advent, a time when I am supposed to prepare for the birth of a Savior on Christmas. As one who works in ministry, I am ever aware of the dichotomy that exists between what I am called to embrace and my life as it is in these days. How in the world can I prepare to invite the newborn babe into this utter turmoil, this MESS? When we prepared to invite her into the world, everything was ready and waiting. We took classes to learn how to care for her. We read books and devoured articles about how to be good parents. We painted her room and decorated it tastefully. We assembled the crib and equipped it with the softest bedding we could find. Everything was perfect and I felt ready.
In a feeble attempt to prepare for Christmas, I dug out an old Advent reflection book written by Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, O.F.M., Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent. Sometime during the end of the first week of Advent, I finally got around to opening it up. I figured I would try my hardest to prepare my heart for His birth like I did my house, for her birth. I would make everything neat and clean and perfect and ready. The very first page I read reminded me that my ways are NOT God’s ways, my thoughts are NOT God’s thoughts. It read,
Advent is not about a sentimental waiting for the Baby Jesus. Advent is a time to focus our expectation and anticipation on ‘the adult Christ, the Cosmic Christ’ who challenges us to empty ourselves, to lose ourselves and to surrender.”
Ugh. this is exactly why I both love and hate reading Richard Rohr’s writings. His insights usually serve to cut to the core and reveal a smattering of my most prevalent character defects and flaws. Perfectionism. Need for control. Frustration with others’ disruptions of my plans. And the list goes on. The question that followed that particular day’s reflection led to a realization that still challenges me today. The realization is that deep within, I struggle to believe that God is to be found in the unrest, the disorder, the chaos, the emotional outbursts, the discord, the anxiety, the disrupted plans, the late arrivals, the overwhelming uncontrollable and messy moments that pepper my life. I am very uncomfortable with emptying myself, losing myself and surrendering. There, I admit it.
I left the time of prayer that day reminded that Jesus wasn’t born into serenity and sweet peace. Yeah, somehow I had conveniently forgotten about some of those little parts of the Gospel. Like when Mary was visited by an Angel and she was greatly troubled and she was told she was going to give birth to the Son of God. Oh and that small part about the fact that she wasn’t yet married, but was pregnant, which 2014 years ago was kind of a big deal, like a you-deserve-to-be-stoned-to-death big deal. And, guess what? I forgot that Joseph and Mary didn’t get their house all ready for Jesus with a fresh paint job, new furniture from Ikea and soft bedding. Nope. They were rushing around last minute, like my crazy family does regularly, looking for a place to birth him and all they could find was a stable. He was born into unrest, disorder, chaos, discord, disrupted plans, late arrivals, overwhelming, uncontrollable, messy life. I vowed right then to try to surrender to my life as it is and I asked God that somehow in the midst of our messiness, that He would provide an opportunity for us to serve someone in need this Christmas. From that day forward, my Advent mantras became, “Help me to find You in the mess” and as particularly stressful moments arise daily, “Into this mess I say, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
We have a tradition of cutting down our tree each year at a local Christmas Tree Farm run by the Benedictine monks. This year when we arrived at the farm, it was already about 3 p.m. With the winter solstice drawing near, our window of daylight was quickly waning. As we trudged through the wet and mucky fields, my daughter was the first to come upon a young family whose minivan had become lodged in thick, deep mud. Without a moment’s hesitation, she offered our family’s help and summoned us to assist her in gathering dry grasses and the occasional evergreen branch abandoned in the field. These were placed under the wheels of the vehicle and accomplished the goal of dislodging it from ensnarement. Her inventive solution had worked! We were proud of her and grateful to get back to the task at hand. When we had whittled our search for the 2014 Christmas Tree down to the last 2 finalists, our plans were again disrupted. The young family had been unable to find higher ground in the direction they had taken. When they turned around, they had become entrenched a second time. The evening was growing darker and our patience was wearing thinner. Our solutions weren’t as effective in this subsequent round of attempts. But my girl, she didn’t give up. Undeterred by the frustration, she kept gathering dry materials and bringing them to the minivan. Time after time, the wheels spun, even though we had secured the bundles of grasses to give the tires a surface to grab. As we tried to push the minivan from behind, both my husband and I slid backwards and subsequently, I fell down into the mess, catching myself just short of receiving a full mud bath. At that moment, it became clear to me. This was the answer to my prayer. God had provided us an opportunity as a family to serve someone in need. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to cry. I couldn’t even have imagined a more disruptive, unplanned, uncontrollable and utterly messy opportunity to serve than this.
With one final push, the van was freed for a second time and the family fled for dry land. The sun had set, we could no longer see well enough to reclaim our last 2 finalists, we were all covered in mud and exhausted. My girl’s big and generous heart was quickly overcome with the big crashing wave of realization that plans were now changed, nothing was like it usually is and we weren’t going home with a tree this night. Unrest, disorder, chaos, discord and uncontrollable, messy life continued as we made our way out of the field, stopping to attempt to comfort her as she collapsed on to the muddy ground, wailing in grief over unmet expectations and unfulfilled dreams. As I stood in the glow of the orange sunset on the horizon, waiting for her to gather her strength to carry on, I whispered into the cold night air, “I surrender Lord. I say “yes” to this mess.” Then deep in the quiet of my heart I heard a still, small voice whisper, “I AM in this mess, it is to be with you in this mess that I come.”
Though everything is imperfect, I am ready. O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
To learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder, visit STAR Institute: About SPD