D is for Dark (an alphabet of autism and grace)

Listen to your lives for the sound of him.
Search even in the dark for the light
and the love and the life
because they are there also,
and we are known each one by name.

Frederick Buechner

I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was foreshadowing in that dark autumn moment.

It was a bright and clear October day. After laughing at tree-climbing goats and taking photos with our faces in wooden cutouts of farm animals, we left the bright sunshine of the pumpkin patch for the hay maze. Unafraid, I went into the maze behind a gaggle of four and five-year-olds assigned to my care on my oldest daughter's preschool field trip.

How hard can this be if pre-kindergarteners are traipsing through it?

The very question should have given me pause.

It grew dark quickly, inky dark. The kids’ laughter faded to silence and I could not see my hand in front of my face. The musty smell of hay hung heavy in the thick air. My throat was dry and scratchy. Fear fissured in my chest. I reminded myself this maze was for children on a field trip. It was fun, right?

I panicked anyway. Maybe because I was already short of breath in the last weeks of pregnancy. Maybe just because it was so dark, rough with hay, and full of disorienting deadends. I stopped to listen. Maybe I could gauge the nearest voices and turn back. I looked back but saw no more light behind than up ahead. Even the sky was made of hay.

I gingerly felt my way along the hay wall, packed high and tied tightly. Their roughness caught my fingers like splintered wood without a grain to smooth the way. In my panic, I had the crazy thought I just might have this baby girl lost in a dark hay maze in a pumpkin patch with tree-climbing goats.

I pressed on, stumbling out of the suffocating hay maze to rambunctious kids, laughing around an old apple press, baskets of Honeycrisp at their feet. My face must have gone ghostly white, pupils dilated black as deep space. I know my hands were clenched because as I entered the circle of happy children, I felt the tingling of blood returning to my fingertips and face. No one seemed to notice, but I had tasted that metallic rush of fear in a midnight blue and lonesome place.

That memory hints at the darkness that engulfed me a few years later when I met autism face-to-face in my sweet third child.

Oh, but when all the skies go dark and silent, and maybe our hearts too, that is when we find ourselves at the intersection of bewilderment and terrifying surrender. Here we have a choice of roads to take. They say, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness”. It sounds so simple, but when I arrived at that crossroads, all of my matches were wet.

Everything I thought I knew simply did not hold up, at least not as I currently knew it. I thought I was strong and resourceful. I thought I had a working knowledge or some kind of a handle on effective parenting. I thought we had good aims for our family to be wholehearted. I thought Mike and I made a good team. I thought God was blessing our hard work as we poured into our little family.

The funny thing is all of that was true. And yet, not nearly enough for this dark maze.

By the time we met autism in our family, a decade of marriage, four kids, and two miscarriages had been tough teachers in their own right. Now, I could see that sometimes hard-work does not pay off with results you had prayed for, sometimes life doesn’t turn out how you saw it in your mind’s eye. Sometimes the lights just go out and your matches are soaked.

Meeting autism felt like one of those dark dead-ends in the hay maze, frustrating, frightening and disorienting. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure of my way.

Autism has this way of engulfing you in total darkness. It is not the only way the lights go out, of course. You may have met the dark on a different rough path. But it was my way, and in such a tender place, in the exact place where I had invested so much love. Bt the time he was five, our dear sweet boy with his dimpled smile and bright eyes had faded into clinical depression, mood disorder, and autism. I didnt even know such diagnoses existed for small children.

I felt the light flickering and fading in my own blue eyes.

In Mac’s early childhood, our days were filled with explosive tantrums and fierce refusals around basic things: the slightest touch to his shoulder, mealtimes, bedtimes, and pretty much everything about school, church life, friendships, running simple errands and visits to Grandma’s house. This was not the childhood we had dreamed of, prayed for, and worked towards for any of our children. Despite our best efforts, our family life was anything but tranquil and sweet.

I had to have more to see by, more to stand on, more to navigate under dark and starless skies.

I suppose what I am telling you, and reminding myself, is this - we simply cannot avoid darkness. When we can't see our hand in front of our face. When we can't find our way out of the hay maze. When darkness rises in a wave of panic, rattling our bones and challenging all we hold dear, then we cry out for a new and sturdier way. The way of resilience.

I simply wanted to find my way out rather than my way through. I didn't know in my darkest night I might meet the fullness of God.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by black times. They are fearsome. Your dark skies might be autism like mine or some other heartbreak (God knows there are many), but whatever it is, we need stars. We need sky. We need the One who harnessed the darkness with leather reins and rode it over the earth.

Even while I feel my way along life's dark roads, before I am through it, I know the darkness I meet is under God's feet. And the stars above flung from His hand.

He counts the number of the stars;
He calls them all by name.

Do you remember the first time someone pointed out the stars in the sky that make up the Big Dipper?

First, the night had to be clear and sky fully dark. Then among the canopy of stars, you needed to follow a pointing arm to pluck out a series of shining points that form that pouring ladle. It was always a joy when I could finally discern the shape hidden in the night sky.

But where do those stars go under cloud cover? How do we find that ladle when the stars seem to go out?

That is what this whole grace alphabet is about. That is why "D is for Dark" is part of my new language of life and faith.

I am finding new stars in the sky, ones I know God calls by name. I believe He calls me and my child by our own names. He knows us personally and individually, which is a big deal. He comes to us down here in our particular story, and He comes in a body. His is a body that not only sees but touches, tastes, listens, and sniffs. Somehow it is both a timeless and a time-clad body. That is important when the sky goes dark and we lose our ability to see with our eyes.

Now, we must find other ways of seeing. We must cultivate seeing with the eyes of our heart both spiritually and practically.

Practically, seeing with the eyes of my heart means using all of my senses to find a new way through the maze: touch, smell, sound, taste and time.

During the darkest periods of navigating autism, I did a few things that might help you with your dark skies. I asked a praying woman to meet with me one-on-one and let me cry my eyes out, I called my mama on the phone ALOT, I ran up and down the long steep hill near my home, I dug into lamenting Scripture and poured my heart out to God, I planted boxwoods, sweet potato vine and ajuga in my yard, I painted my kitchen a buttery yellow, I drove to the Oregon coast once-a-year to hear waves, smell salty wind, dig shells out of the sand, and take a massive nap.

These were stars for me in my starless sky.

Really, there are no nights without stars, though I'm the first to admit we do experience them as such. On our starless nights, stars do still shine. And a loving hand strung them there. We just have to learn to see them. We have to find a brand new sky.

Oh dear friend, let's remind each other with a few poetic words from this Foo Fighters song,

I, I'm a new day rising
I'm a brand new sky
To hang the stars upon tonight

Dave Grohl, Times like These

This songwriter, writing after his bandmate overdosed on heroin, had his own starless night. No matter who we are, our dark skies can be a point of connection, transformation, and light.

And because I know Jesus experienced his own starless night, He is the brand new sky I see. On Him I hang my stars tonight.