This morning we drove almost an hour to take my nephew to his karate class in Conyers, Georgia. My sister does it every single Saturday. Afterwards, they go to Chick-Fil-A. When we got to Chick-Fil-A this afternoon it had been so busy that they had extra employees standing outside to take the cars’ orders before they even got to the window. The two teenagers standing outside with clipboards waved to my sister and said hello to Blaise. Blaise said My Angela! He likes to make things his. Police officers, cars, train sets, iPads. Angela, the smaller girl, looked flattered and said that it was good to see them again. My Chick-Fil-A! My Jenny!
Rituals are important. Especially for my nephew Blaise, who, aside from having Prader Willi Syndrome, is autistic. He relies on structure and ritual. Screw with his day and he has a serious meltdown. He does not handle stress well. (Nor do I, for that matter.)
On the wall of the karate studio was a sign announcing the Little Dragons, which I thought was a cute name for the karate kids. My sister told me that was only what they called the “typical” kids’ class.
Little Dragons. Little fire breathing monsters. And, the class with special needs kids like my nephew? What can we call them? I asked. Ameri-Kans.
My sister has these goats at her house. I’m not sure why because they don’t make milk or goat cheese from their goats. One of them is named Billy (as dubbed my younger nephew Maddock). The goats hang out in the front yard and you have to be extra careful when you open the gate that you don’t let the goats out.
I know, I know. Who let the goats out?
But it’s true. They get out and it’s a big hassle. Blaise had a meltdown when we got home because he wanted to sit in my sister’s car with his iPad all by himself. I had caught him out there in her truck, digging on the floor and under the seat (looking for food?) and brought him back inside where he proceeded to kick and scream and cry. He finally calmed down and agreed to go sit outside on his rocking chair with his iPad. I watched him go out the front door (not closing it behind him, thus letting the goats out) and proceed to go straight for my sister’s car again. This time it was locked. He started to howl and the goats ran farther away.
In that moment I thought surely he was a little fire breathing monster as well as an Ameri-Kan. He was using his dragon-like lungs.
Come here, goats! Come here, Billy. Goats! Come back goats! I yelled, but they kept on chewing grass and eating trash. Blaise was still sitting in the dirt crying.
I had no idea how to get goats back. It didn’t stop me from trying.
Why do you even have goats? I ran inside and asked, all flustered and tired from chasing goats. She said that she didn’t know. Then she started to cry.
By this point Blaise had come inside the house to eat an apple but since it was a green apple and not a red apple he had thrown it across the room and starting bawling. He knocked a cup of coffee all over the clean laundry and banged his head on the table.
I don’t know why we have fucking goats!
There’s a lock on the refrigerator so Blaise can’t get into it but sometimes people forget to lock it or they leave food out. If it gets too quiet it usually means Blaise is in the kitchen unsupervised. This is very dangerous and very hard to monitor. You have to be constantly vigilant.
I had touched my head. When I feel stress I convince myself that my hair is falling out. It felt like it was all still there so I ran outside and called for Blaise and the goats and and now also the dogs who had also gotten out. Come on Billy and Timber and Daisy and other Goat! And Blaise!
The level of stress one person can handle is so personal.
My nephew has a rare disorder called Prader Willi Syndrome where he never feels full. He literally can crawl on the floor of a car and look for old French fries because he feels like he is starving. To death. A hunger we can never understand unless we have known it, and most of us haven’t, and luckily, never will. He can turn his face blue and his world upside down because he wants to sit in a parked car in a driveway and eat a red apple, not a green one. This can feel the same as someone else having an anxiety attack because they checked their bank balance and it said zero. Or someone else who found out their husband has cancer. Or someone else who can’t do a yoga pose in a room full of bendy bodies. It’s all relative, built upon layers of history and anatomy and fatigue and support and chemicals in the brain.
It’s also dependent on how many goats you have.
You have two goats but all you ever do is run after them. You chase them down the dirt path with a stick and try and get them back in the front yard. Sometimes you have seven goats. Sometimes, you have two goats but they help you. You make goat cheese and feed your family and they never ever run through the gate. They are good little goats.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you have no goats. There is nothing to chase.
I like goats. I do. (I think.) One of them is kind of mean, but the little one, Billy, is nice enough. I just don’t understand why they have these goats except that it adds to the laundry list of stress. Goats gone wild!
My sister finally chased them long enough that they came back. All is well. For the moment. Blaise puts his beloved puzzles together and his younger brother Maddock watches Toy Story and I sit here writing. Thinking about where my own goats went.
What stress have I piled in my front yard? What have I let run rampant while I chased it at the same exact time?
I understand why ritual helps prevent stress.
I know where the goats are. We are still going to Chick-Fil-A after karate, as usual. I will give you lavender oil at the end of class, as I always do. And all is safe in the world. The apples are red. The coffee is unspilt. There is an order to things.
Even though my nephews special needs karate class is called Ameri-Kan, I prefer to think of them as Little Dragons just like the “typical” kids get called. Ameri-Kans doesn’t sound as powerful. When I sat watching them do their Kee-yah kicks this morning I realized how graceful martial arts are. Such grace deserves a fitting name.
I watched the little dragons clap at themselves and look over to make sure they parents were watching and I realized that right there, in that moment, there was no stress in the world.
That the goats were home safe in the front yard. That Blaise was sliding his socks across the floor before kicking yelling Kee-yah. That the Chick-Fil-A girls knew within 20 minutes or so we’d pull up. The world was quiet. Nobody was banging their head or running with a stick or upset or lost. There is a grace in that. In the safety of a moment.
Then the moment ends and the sky opens up and it pours.
We can’t judge someone else’s stress as if we know what it’s like to be in their tiny hungry bodies. We can’t roll our eyes at someone who has a pair of useless goats. We can’t tssk tssk at someone who can’t seem to handle the day as if its pressing down on them was simply too much to bear and staying in bed under dark down was the only option.
How can we?
We are not shoveling goat shit in their front yard. We are not equipped to take on someone else’s stress like it’s an outfit we might be able to fit in if we lost a couple pounds. We have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be the person with a son with Prader Willi Syndrome or to actually be the son with Prader Willi nor do we know what it’s like to be the goat chaser or the goat itself.
What we know is this. My life. My stress. My own piles of goat shit. What we can do is only one thing: offer love and compassion.
That does not mean to judge someone’s wailing at a red apple or running after barnyard animals. Nor does it mean taking it on, (as if that is even possible in the first place). As if by doing so they will be emptied as such and become miraculously stress-free. It means that we have the courage to stand by as lovingly as we can and say How can I support you?
Let them tell you. Then listen very very closely to the quiet that precedes it. That’s Grace.
The breath they take after they realize that they are not alone will sound like the first breath they have let out in a long time. When they finally take that breath they will realize, as will you, that it is one of the only things in life that can be counted on. The grace inherent in compassion. In knowing that someone will say I understand you wanted the red apple.
There may be no red apples anywhere in the world and the goats may never come back, but, if you’ve got even one person that says I get it, well, that’s Grace.