If you caught my last posting for Suburban Growing, you know that plastic has been much on my mind. How could it be otherwise, you might ask, when you live with a guy who is a plastic connoisseur? A guy who chops up plastic for an occupation – a mission – a passion? Too true, Owen and I are both passionate about plastic.
Ok, ask the next obvious question: how on earth have you, a plastic hater, allowed so much plastic into your son’s life anyway? Until the floor of your house is gritty and lumpy with chopped up bottles and dismembered toys, and dissected plastic bags swirl by a the ankles (hey, only on a bad day) as you pass through the room? Ah well, that is a very different kind of question, and the answer has something to do with fatigue and giving up in the face of the storm. Something any mom or dad gets.
Heck, until recently Owen’s morning bathtub could be swimming in plastic – multi-colored hard plastic shards, or shimmering plastic bag ribbons and banners. Sometimes there was hardly room for him in there, if the baskets went in too. Owen enjoys taking things to extremes. I had to pick plastic out of the drain regularly to keep the water moving.
But no more. After I listened to that pivotal NPR program about pervasive micro plastic pollution last November, I gathered steam to put my foot down. In a very nice way (of course!). It is one thing to allow a person to make a mess, but it’s another to hurt the environment and poison his body thereby. I may be a hippy, but I have limits.
I told Owen, “Plastic is great for cutting, but not for baths. Plastic in your bath will make you sick. Wooden things can go into the bath.” Owen was naturally not all in with this new regimen. Yet I have been amazed at how much he has accepted the new rule for plastics. He didn’t get mad. He didn’t stamp his feet. I was prepared for those things. Maybe designated chopping times and locations makes his life a little more interesting. I know that his life is boring to him, an issue of much greater concern. The other explanation is that Owen understands when I say “This will hurt you.” That would be wonderful.
Every morning he brings his plastic basketful of plastic into the bathroom, and every morning I say cheerfully (of course!) “Oh plastics are great for cutting, but they don’t go in the bath.” It is easy to be cheerful when Owen is co-operating with me, when I getting things my way. It is a great relief to get those piles of plastic out of the one most sensitive areas of Owen’s life. If only there were a way to get it out of our lives all together! Don’t worry buddy, no chance of that any time soon.
After putting my foot down, Owen and I took a trip to the local Goodwill, and perused the shelves for wooden objects. We had a good time. Owen loves wandering the Goodwill. Besides a wooden rolling pin, and a weird wooden and metal agility toy, I found a whole set of wooden alphabet blocks. Apart from being non-toxic to Owen and the waterways, the switch to wooden bath objects has yielded an unexpected benefit. Using some giant wooden letters I found at Target and the secondhand alphabet blocks I am taking a few minutes each day to talk to Owen about letters and their sounds while he is in his tub. Keeping it fun. Am I imagining it or does he seem to be listening?
You can’t do much to manipulate wooden alphabet blocks though, and manipulation is exactly what Owen loves about plastics (and aluminum cans too, if he can get one) To be able to act your will on something and alter it – the whole broken down to bits, ripped, chopped. Those large and brand new letters from Target are (were) more intriguing since they can be broken up. Now our E is an F, and the S has been deconstructed into two lower case “u”s. But I am not giving up – I sense cognitive receptivity in Owen that I do not remember sensing before. Maybe his brain is maturing, on its own maverick arc? Maybe if you are bored enough with your life when opportunity presents itself you respond? Could it be that standing up against plastics is the spark for an entirely new journey for me and Owen?
Or is it possible that by fixating on plastics so obsessively, Owen has been making that point all along? Look at this horrible stuff that I am dragging into the house, and piling in the corners, and finding in the fields and in the woods, and the parking lots! LOOK MOM! LOOK!! Isn’t this GROSS!?!
My sister already asked me way back at the beginning of the month what I am going to do about Owen this Christmas. She means, what am I going to do to stop Owen’s trying to stop Christmas from coming. From sneaking downstairs like he did last year, devouring every bit of Christmas stocking candy in the wee small hours of the morning, leaving a pile of papers a foot high and “a crumb that was even too small for a mouse.” His siblings were not amused. (Read about last Christmas Naughty – or – Nice -?)
Of course longtime readers know what we tried to do. We built a wonderful, beautiful, aesthetically elegant gate on the stairs! And then Owen learned to scale the darn banister in no time flat, skipping that gate entirely. (“Once More Into the Breach—!”)
We have to stop Grinchy from coming —BUT HOW?
We rallied of course. Like the Whos. We joined hands and remembered – after a dark despairing little walk in the woods to cool down and warm up – that Christmas happiness didn’t require a thoughtfully arranged, candy-laden Christmas stocking.
Still, even a carefree Who doesn’t want to go through that every holiday.
I have considered floor to ceiling cargo netting along the banister – but cargo netting in a foyer isn’t really my look. And stapling Owen to his bed, or locking him in his room would not be approved of, by me or anyone else (except in a few dark moments maybe). Meanwhile, Owen was busy as ever last night, shredding holiday cards, searching baskets, swiping food off the counter, chopping his sister’s ID card. Much as he loves brothers and sisters coming home, this doesn’t seem to calm him. The time-out chair was kept warm. Must be a lot of stress trying “be nice.” Apparently he can’t take it. How can we both love our Owen and protect our property? How to foil our marauding Christmas bandit?
I know that the best bet will probably always be distraction – in the spirit of the family I heard of who used motion activated water (fountain and sprinklers) to distract their runner. If their child bolted out the front door, that moving water captured him, and redirected his attention to the front yard, buying mom and dad a few more minutes to locate him. If I create a barrier, I know that Owen will focus his energies on how to thwart my efforts to control him, displaying strength or agility we didn’t know he had.
This in itself is pretty cool, and I wish I weren’t so tired from getting up every morning with him at 6am that my brain cells are compromised. I’d like to figure out how to employ this phenomenon usefully to make his life richer and more interesting. It’s good to have a reason to fight! Imagine how interesting life would be if we all had to climb down a cargo net to breakfast each morning.
I must stop Owen from descending – But how?
Perhaps hang his stocking at the end of his bed for him to pilfer and explore? Or is that too obvious. Hmm. Maybe it should be dangling casually from the top of the bathroom medicine cabinet?… Or not quite out of reach, on the floor? Just through the bars of the temporary pressure gate in the hall – because there’s no doubt a temporary gate is going to be required across the hallway outside his door. This temporary barrier in place, he still could access the hall bathroom, and check up on his siblings, but not make it to the stairs. Nor incidentally could he reach his dad’s and my room. That does sound good. Usually I want Owen to be able to come and get me when he needs me at night. But maybe not for the short number of sleeping hours on Christmas eve.
And maybe the distraction method does not just apply to Owen – last week we celebrated Edward’s birthday with an evening out. Dinner with mulled wine, and a play – a wonderful theatricalization in words, sing, and dance of Melville’s Moby Dick. It transported us to a different dimension. We came home relaxed. Light. Strengthened.
Respite for long term caregivers is distraction. Caregivers will still have to face their challenges again tomorrow, but strengthened by a break we can face with humor and patience what we might otherwise grit our teeth and “get through.” Our loved ones don’t just need our hands – they need our hearts. They need our attention. And giving attention is by far the hardest thing.
And so I find that this post is really an acknowledgement: Thank you. Thank you Emma, for an evening out. Thank you Kathie, for walking and talking with Owen twice a week, week after week! And thank you folks at New Horizons, Stephen and Damian, James the van driver, and director Ron Vaughn – for the gift of your attention to some special people, including our Owen.What a Christmas present, every day.
“And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight,
He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light! –“
Last Saturday morning Rascal our Australian Shepherd crashed open the door to my upstairs studio, apparently to roust me from peacefully writing. He didn’t flop down on the floor with his usual “I am so fed up with being ignored” doggy sigh. He stood dead center in the doorway, looking at me with his one blind old doggy eye. Trouble. I just knew it was Owen. I was being summoned.
I had left Owen in a warm bath in a warm room, earlier that morning. Too early, since he rises at crack of dawn every day of the week. I gave him a plate of snacks and he brought along some favored plastic bottles, plus his arsenal of plastic toy guns, which to Owen are more like objets d’art. A crowded but contented bath. Seemed to me like a good moment for some Saturday morning writing, while Edward snored peacefully recovering from his busy week.
But naked Owen had ditched his tub, and was downstairs. Into things. Oh well. I thanked Rascal, and called Owen up and began to help him dress, when the two pieces of shopping card in his hand stopped me. Oh. No.
Racing downstairs, I found my purse sitting on the chair beside the phone, right where I had left it–but under a fluttering mound of papers. I dived into them, flipping through the mound of folded bills and tickets that fluttered to the floor. “What did I do to make you do this?” I asked of Owen, God, and the universe as I searched back and forth through flyers and grocery receipts. “Didn’t I run a nice warm bath? and get you a plate of snacks this morning?– WHERE are those credit cards? where are ANY cards?–Don’t I constantly wash your clothes?! Cook your food?! –No cards at all – I clean up your stuff! – tidy house! – daily make your bed up clean and fresh!!” There were no cards in Owen’s collection drawer – no cards on the kitchen counters. “Edward!! help!” I howled as I carried on my interior rant and prayer–“Is this pay backs Owen? for going out with Dad last night? leaving you home with a sitter?good grief–- Please not the driver’s license!let me not have to hassle with MVA– Or am I reading in unnecessary motives? Is the sheer delight of hacking up enough incentive all by itself?”
Edward found them. A fat handful of chopped cards in the bottom of the little trash basket in the study. Credit cards, ID cards, bank cards, gift cards, health savings account card, insurance cards. Bonanza. All chopped into large pieces. No– not all. Owen left me my driver’s ID and one credit card intact. Maybe Mom’s face on the driver’s license was enough to protect that one. Some prayers were answered. He must have been working fast though – no time for mutilation. But, his bloodlust not yet assuaged, every little plastic card on Edward’s key ring was cropped too. Later on we found a few recently potted up hosta plants un-potted, and languishing under a bush, beside their empty pots. Wow. He really needed to send a message.
But what, exactly, would that message be? What, and also Why?
Pointless questions, Wystan.
Something has to be done.
Besides helpless outrage.
And tightness in the chest.
Because I grew up in a home where such a breach of etiquette as chopping up your mother and father’s credit cards almost certainly would have resulted in outbursts of rage and corporal punishment, I have a strong urge to yell and spank or smack to let Owen know that he really REALLY REALLY can’t do this kind of thing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! My primal self wants to solve this problem as I have seen it solved, and the primal part of all humans that responds to the law of “an eye for an eye” tells me that this might just drive the message home.
Years and years of experience I have taught me otherwise. Yelling and hitting doesn’t communicate much to Owen except “oh oh storm warning! hide your head she’s angry again.” And the better, higher part of my mind believes that violence is not actually the best solution to any problem.
BUT WHAT THEN ?yell my thumping pulse and beating heart of the caveman part of myself. THERE HAS TO BE A CONSEQUENCE!!
Yes I think wearily. There will have to be a consequence. But what? Situations like this tax my creative thinking, in my role as police officer, judge, jury, and warden. Edward supports me, we work as a team, but the weight of “what to do” and the implementation of it rests heavily on my shoulders.
Whatever the “consequence,” it’s not likely to stop Owen from doing this again. The only way to do that is to hide my purse. First of all, he doesn’t understand the crime. Not really. We let him cut up bottles — but then not bottles that “belong to someone else.” What does that mean? He will be praised for grabbing plastic bottles out of the woods, but if he grabs up someone’s soda at lunch and pours it out on the floor, or makes a move to hook the driver’s tempting green bottle on his way out of the van in the afternoon, he will be seriously scolded. But what’s the difference between this piece of plastic and that one? I am pretty sure that Owen knows that he is not to go into my purse, but he has no real idea why – and the fact that it is forbidden only increases the appeal. What he wants to do, he does of couse, and whenever he possibly can.
In the end, I confronted Owen and kept my temper, letting just words out come through my mouth, mostly not yelling, and not hitting except for one thwack on the top of his head. For this I am grateful, I thank the Lord, and I credit respite: getting out with Edward the night before for some couple time, and getting my writing time in that morning, even though this made it possible for Owen to sneak out of his bath at all. Getting respite is critical to caregivers, keeping us elastic, able to bounce instead of crack under pressure.
We “grounded” Owen to his room for an hour that morning, since that was something different to try to get through to him. I have hidden the scissors (again). I told him no scissors for three days. You have your plastic to cut – those are YOUR things. You cannot cut MY things. No scissors if you cut MY things.
Still I know that “MY,” (such an important word in human vocabulary), is hardly meaningful to Owen at all. He doesn’t do pronouns. “MINE” and “YOURS” aren’t concrete words. They are abstract. What does “mine” look like? Owen lives in a very innocent, very small, very physical world, of which he is the star and center player. He likes people, but his relationship to them is distant – he can only vaguely connect to their doings, their thoughts, or their wishes. He has less concept of “property” than a two year old child, although I continuously talk to him about it. He knows “I like this” and “I LOVE THIS!” or “I want” and “I WANT” but I doubt these feelings are framed in words, and a constant for him is near inability to express any of those desires to anyone else. He will say “no fank you,” or push my hand away, to indicate the opposite.
Strangely though, sometimes Owen is very sensitive to others’ emotions, and at unexpected times he will suddenly lovingly woozle someone (sometimes a near stranger) just when they need it. Just not their property I guess. His innocence is really ignorance, that also sometimes seems wise.
* * *
Looking back on Saturday’s Shark Attack from the vantage point of my writer’s desk, I see now that the cause was almost certainly connected to doing the “Art Walk” at Bronwyn’s school the Thursday prior. Walking into art galleries with Owen is an act of unbelievable bravery – kind of like juggling eggs. I managed it that evening by directing Owen toward the little pile of student artists’ business cards at every stop. He liked that a lot. Even with two hands full, selecting another and anoth– (“Hey! Just ONE, Owen!”), he managed to work them, folding them into origami-ish disarray. I am always struck by how quick and deft those hands can be, other times so limp and powerless. And again other times how powerfully destructive! Once he cut into a construction helmet with shears…
Anyway, it’s always hard for Owen to let go of an obsessive interest. And it’s hard for him to see any kind of boundaries. I suppose I lit a fire and should have been on the watch for it to keep on burning. Handing him little cardboard cards, reminds him how very much he likes the nicer plastic ones – and inspired on a Saturday when his mom’s back is turned, the adventure of going to hunt up some up for himself is an irresistible challenge. The appeal of being in trouble is almost irresistible anyway. The worst thing in life is being ignored.
PS – Thanks Rascal, my blind old dog. Although I cannot ask you about it, I have to guess that you heard Owee cackling hysterically as he chopped (heh-heh-heh!), and you must know as well as I do what that means. You put two and two together, and I am still impressed that you came to get me.