Starting Points

As promised a while ago, I’m still here and will continue to post.

Posting will be a bit intermittent for a while yet, I think. We are, in some sense, trying to rebuild our lives a bit. And at a new starting point, I’m thinking about any number of starting points. This post is bit of reflection on that idea.

Starting Point, the First – Crisis

For those who’ve read the blog for a while, you’re aware that my son, Secular Jew, Jr., (let’s just use SJJ here for now) is autistic. (If you’ve not been reading for a while, you now know.) Over the last couple of months, we’ve seen a number of setbacks for SJJ–dramatic aggression, lost coping skills, lost communication skills–that in retrospect appear somewhat tied to medication issues, but that also seem to have been building for the last year or so until reaching a breaking point in late April. He’s been hospitalized in inpatient treatment centers twice in the last month, with the total inpatient plus waiting-in-the-ER time coming to about two weeks. The last of the two stays overlapped with his tenth birthday.

It’s been a horrifyingly difficult time for us–for him, unable to get across his needs and sometimes being ragingly angry, and for us, unable to do what parents are supposed to be able to do: to fix it. And the gap in services–medical, mental health, therapeutic, etc.–has been frightening and frustrating and enraging and depressing, because there are so few resources for parents dealing with autistic children in their extremes. Fortunately, we had enough support and resources to start to get back on track. Lots more behavioral therapy coverage has been approved by our insurance company, a new doctor is involved, and family was in town to help absorb some of the emotional blows of an earlier-than-expected release from the second inpatient facility. (And I’m beginning to wonder whether my insurance card will just spontaneously combust at some point from overuse.)

In short: we’re at a new starting point. Full-time therapy, no public school, no summer camp, a new schedule, and new challenges.

Starting Point, the Second – Identity

But putting SJJ into hospitals twice, with very limited visiting hours (generally an hour per day) during those visits, allowed Mrs. Secular Jew (MSJ) and I time we ordinarily would not have. And so, I had time to consider my own starting points.

The first time I had to consider these was when we checked SJJ into the first hospital. Hospitals ask about your religious preferences when you are treated inpatient, so they can (if you want) match you with a chaplain. Both hospitals just had an open box with religious preference–you write it in.

So, what would I put? (Somehow, though I insist to MSJ that just because I’m a lawyer doesn’t mean I’m good with paperwork. My job is more involved with tearing paperwork to shreds than with filling it in. Yet still, I do most of the paperwork.) None? Humanist? Jewish? Something else?

My decision: “Jewish (humanistic).” And I declined chaplaincy services. To my knowledge, there aren’t many humanistic Jews in the Indianapolis area, and I know who the Jewish chaplains in the area are and just didn’t feel like I would want their services. And SJJ, who has limited communication skills, wouldn’t get much from chaplaincy services in any case.

Mishnah Berurah - halakhic text (photo of book)

Mishnah Berurah

Did I write what I wrote because that was the easiest thing to do? Probably–the likelihood of it just confusing chaplaincy staff and encouraging them to let us be drove some of that decision. But the answer reinforced for me that, wherever I end up, I know where I start: with Jewish sources.

Starting Point, the Third –  Coping

Continuing on, it turns out that when your home life is oriented almost entirely around raising a special-needs child, you actually don’t know what to do with yourself when that child is gone. Or at least, we didn’t. So combined with the fears and concerns we had, all centered on a child who has suddenly changed in a dramatically negative way, we were faced with a vacuum in the conduct of our daily lives.

So we went out to dinner. We visited SJJ every chance we had. But when you’re accustomed to waking up to find that your child is in bed with you (again!), and wake up in a different state, it’s very disorienting. And it’s guilt-inducing to intentionally do things that are fun, because it’s not what you think you should be doing at that moment–even though you know you need the break.

I was in some ways almost paralyzed into anxiety and introversion by all this change. Decisions just didn’t matter, and I didn’t have a lot of interest in making decisions anyway–our son wasn’t home, and we were both exhausted. Yet I was waking up several hours before I needed to leave for work.

This is where I reached another starting point. I had to remake a daily routine that would at least begin to fill in gaps. I didn’t really know what to do with that time in a way that wouldn’t leave me perseverating on the troubles we faced–that our happy, funny kid had turned almost overnight into a desperately unhappy, angry, raging, violent person.

And so I did something I hadn’t done in years. I laid tefillin.

Tefillin, siddur, and tallis fringe

Tefillin, siddur, and tallis fringe

“Wait!,” you might say. “You did what!?” (At least, if you’re a secularist/humanist/Yiddishist/etc.) So, let me explain.

I needed some kind of thing that would structure the day. That thing was usually helping get SJJ ready for school in the morning, but that wasn’t happening. I was up several hours early. And I needed a way to use the time to get my head screwed on right so that I could do the work of the day. I needed quiet; not the quiet that came with a suddenly empty house, but a reorienting quiet where I could work out my own “stuff.”

Meditation Room Window - stained glass nature image

Meditation Room Window

The building I work in has a meditation room. It’s labeled that way. I know, I know, it’s a chapel, right? But no crosses, or stars, or crescents. Some secular artwork? Yes. There are Bibles and Psalm books on some shelves in the back. But there are no religious services conducted there, other than the occasional employee-organized Bible study or prayer circle. Our employer does nothing in that space; a private organization separate from my employer maintains the room.

In short, it’s a quiet, warm room with some chairs. It’s not often used early in the day.

And I start from a Jewish point. It’s what I know and where I’m comfortable. So I constructed a weekday ritual around laying tefillin in the morning. I sometimes used a siddur, but engaged in a significant pick-and-choose process: I’d say one thing, omit another, change another, to express what I wanted to express. Or I would study something–part of the weekly Torah reading, or some halakhic text in Hebrew–to still my mind and transition from the trouble of home to the focus of work.

What I wanted to express was just the hope that we would be reunited with enough improvements to move forward. I didn’t ask anyone or anything supernatural to intervene, and I didn’t expect it. I still don’t. I didn’t pray. I still don’t.

But I needed a thing to do, and I needed a place to do it. I still love the core liturgical texts as poetry. I love Hebrew. And so doing something that would look to an observer like a very “traditional” Jewish thing to do–after all, tefillin were found at Qumran!–was what came naturally.

Starting Point, the Fourth – Moving Forward

Where does this all leave me now? Laying tefillin and studying a Jewish text–part of the siddur, or the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch yomi, or Mishnah Berurah yomitmost weekdays has become kind of centering for me. Even on days when I don’t lay tefillin, which has taken up a kind of “worry beads” meaning for me, I study one or both of the daily Kitzur or Mishnah Berurah in Hebrew. They’ve had no normative effect on me–I don’t do anything different, and many times I recoil at what the texts say about treatment of non-Jews. And, as before, I continue to try to read the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew, as well.

What am I not doing? I’m not praying. I’m not keeping kosher, observing Shabbat in a halakhic manner, or observing yom tov. When I’m burned out, I’ll stop without guilt, because what I’m doing isn’t something I perceive as being commanded in any way. It’s a balm.

MSJ and I talk about my new practice as “davvening,” since that’s what it looks like to the outsider. But it’s not what’s happening on the inside–and, if you look closely, you see that it’s not what’s happening on the outside. But it makes me feel better, and it lets me stay connected to parts of Jewish culture and history that resonate for me emotionally, though not intellectually or normatively.

And that’s what I need right now as a starting point.

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