The Changing Face of Perfection


What does it mean to be perfect? As the Christmas cards poured into and eventually overflowed my mailbox this year (the mail lady begrudgingly asked me if I knew everyone in the western hemisphere, as she once again put the mail wagon in park at the curb and made her way to my door with the things she couldn’t stuff in our regulation US mail box. I paid her off in a giant box of hazelnut fudge, so don’t feel too bad for her. We’re pals now.) I would stand and the kitchen counter, hoarding the Good Mail and loving tearing open the thick red, blue, green, and cream paper envelopes, hand addressed, calligraphied, stamped, labeled, whatevered… bringing the faces and tidings of loved ones the world over. Everyone picks their best faces for their cards— and every last one of them was perfect. Utterly perfect in all their beautiful, glorious imperfections.

For our own card, Bean was utterly uncooperative and refused to be in any photo without holding a giant stick, which for that day was his best friend. Don’t ask me. I don’t know. But my gloriously talented friend who makes magic with her camera had a stroke of brilliance when Bean refused to climb down from a giant tree in our front yard. Instead of fighting for some imagined ideal, she recognized the moment, and she had the rest of the family gather around the tree. She got a great shot. (that’s the picture at the bottom of the post that went out with our official Christmas card). But to me, even better than this ‘official’ shot twas this one… laden with story. I love the candid look on Jon’s face, and it’s the only photo where Bean is looking right at the camera- of course when almost no one else was, and we were all laughing. It’s us. Truly us.


So as I looked over the photos and greetings of my friends, I loved them for their humanity, for their humility, for the beauty of trying to get one, or two, or five, or nine kids to cooperate. For the emotions you can see in some faces, and the mussed cowlick that just wouldn’t lie down, the glares at a brother who just wouldn’t behave, and the resignation from the parents that, well, this is as good as it gets.

It’s true. “Perfect” such as it is, is a myth. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as I navigate our still new family and the life it holds. Each day, it seems is a flux and flow of beauty, laughter, frustration, patience, silliness, stretching, tears, glee, anger, sorrow, elation- all in microcosms as we move through and around each other, defaulting to “love” and it’s various, changing expressions of what that might mean in any given moment.

It can be learning to stand up for oneself, and doing so with support of parents and siblings. It can be learning to trust one’s own intuition. It can be learning to calm oneself down, and to finally find the deep inner resources you didn’t know you had. It can be flinging cookie dough at your sister and laughing hysterically as you spill cookie sugar all over the table. It can be buying presents for your family for the first time with your own earnings and understanding the deep joy that comes from doing for others. It can be holding a trembling hand and wiping tears that just couldn’t stay inside any longer. It can be stating with exuberance that one has four brothers and sisters, without needing to explain or caveat. It can be using a whole roll of wrapping paper with your brothers and presenting your handiwork with pride. It can be holding a stick in family photos and everyone rolling with it. It can be giggling with a sister far past bedtime, illuminated by the purple tinsel Christmas tree you set up in your own bedroom. It can be reaching out in the darkness to find a near, familiar and ever ready hand to hold yours. It can be finding your own hands, your own self, ready and able to hold you up in ways you never imagined possible.

I don’t know what it is where you are, but I know with certainty that it’s there.

It’s all around you, all around me, all around each of us every day. We just have to notice. There is no perfect moment you have to strive for- you’re living in it today, right this moment, now. This day, this family, these people, near or far, this life, this… this is as good as it gets. Even if life is hard, there is still love, there are still sublime moments to be noticed, found, and paused for…this is perfection. Messy, scowling, earthy, sunlit, beautiful, stained with tears of both pain and joy- encompassing it all. Beautiful perfect imperfection.

Happy New Year.


Life with Autism: Eligibility Meeting

Bean and his Hiding Hat

Bean. Hiding Hat, Heavy Blanket. Happy.

On Wednesday, we had the triennial Eligibility Meeting with the school district for Bean’s upcoming IEP. For those not as saturated in Special Education speak and acronyms as we are, this means every three years, an entire team tests and reassesses your kid to determine if there is continuing need based on disability for and Individual Education Plan. The Eligibility Meeting is a big deal- present will be your child’s teachers (regular classroom – CEd, special education -SpEd, and autism specialist – AS), the school administrator (usually the principal and vice-principal), a district social worker, a psychologist, the district autism liaison, the district speech and language pathologist – SLP, and the district special education coordinator. Yeah, it’s a big table, and the next three years of your child’s education is contingent on what those reports find.

This is the meeting that sets my emotions and fears on edge. IEP’s are the nuts and bolts of how we’re going to help the kid- the Eligibility Meeting is a panel of experts who have been testing and observing your kid, who have statistics, and percentages and recommendations, all laid bare on multi-page black and white stapled and collated reports. On one had, you want to hear how good your child is doing, and maybe— just maybe— they won’t need services anymore. On the other— it’s terrifying to imagine that support net being taken from your child, if the team sees things differently than you do as a parent.

I wasn’t really worried about Bean’s eligibility. We’re now nine-plus years into this journey, and while he’s doing well in so many areas, autism never goes away. Autism isn’t fixed or cured. Ever.

Understanding this academically, knowing this is a fact physiologically and medically, spending hours and hours in SpEd classes at upper college levels, being informed and well-read and intellectually understanding this concept… doesn’t prepare you for the gut-punch of reality.

Bean has autism. He was diagnosed at two and a half, and immediately started a preschool program with intense early intervention, occupational and physical therapy. He went to that school for children with autism for three years, and was then mainstreamed into a typical classroom with an aide. He’s considered a profound success of early intervention and the pathways that intervention therapy can create in young, plastic brains.

The arcs of his scores and the graphs and bell curves of his mind haven’t changed. Of course he’s more mature now, and his language skills, motor coordination and ability to express himself have all matured with him… but adjusted for his age, the reports continue to tell the same story. He’s brilliant— he scored a perfect 100% on the standardized Virginia state test, and his IQ is…high. But his ability to process sensory information, his ability to communicate and reciprocate, his ability to read social cues and navigate interpersonal relations and cope with emotions are still reproductions of the same bell curves.

Even being well educated, I had somehow hoped, just maybe, there would be a change. This is the bitter part. I know better. I know there isn’t anything wrong with him, and this is just how his brain came. And yet, there in the enormous meeting room, with charts projected on the overhead screen and with a team of teachers and specialists, hot tears sprang to my eyes, and gave lie to the notion that I had fully dealt with this all already. Hope springs eternal, perhaps, but without even knowing it, I had been hoping for the wrong thing. And I know better.

Don’t get me wrong. There is tremendous reason to hope. But the hope lies in educating others about autism. The hope lies in a team of specialists and educators who understand this, and who are willing to go to heroic lengths to make life as good as it can be for a little boy with a different way of interacting with the world. Hope lies in the fact that a boy with autism is understood now to be brilliant, and not a throw-away child. Hope lies in the general growing awareness that autism isn’t a discipline problem or caused by a vaccine or something a mother did while pregnant. Hope lies is there being colleges and companies who see the value in the autistic brain and what it can accomplish. Hope lies in Bean’s bright future, not in spite of his autism, but, just perhaps, because of it.

He doesn’t need to be anything beyond who and what he is. The tears? Those were about me, and my own human fragility and foibles. And that doesn’t help my kid at all. Thank you to all the people out there who devote their lives and educations to Special Education programs and to loving, teaching, and supporting children like Bean.

Wednesday night, he sat first-cello in his 5th grade orchestra concert. He was terrified beforehand, faced his fears, and was jubilant afterwards. Then he came home and put on his silencing ear-muffs, hiding-hat, and heavy blanket. And life goes on.


Recipe: Easy Weeknight Chicken Mole

cq5dam.web.266.354Mole is awesome sauce. Mole can be intimidating. Mole really just means “sauce” and in Mexico, mole encompasses a wide range of different flavor profiles. Outside of Mexico, it usually means mole poblano, which is a thick chili-based sauce with as many as 30 ingredients, and can take days to make. Home cooks can be intimidated by unfamiliar ingredients and the daunting task of a sauce taking so long. Enter, Weeknight Chicken Mole. This recipe originates with my sister-in-law, and is very forgiving of adjustments to personal taste. For a quick weeknight meal, make the sauce, serve it over a rotisserie chicken on a cheesy, warmed corn tortilla, and top with cilantro or some crumbly queso fresco.

Easy Weeknight Chicken Mole

  • 2 Tbsp Olive Oil, or enough to cover the bottom of a heavy stock pot.
  • 2 large or 3 small onions, diced
  • 5 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 2 Tbsp unsweet cocoa powder
  • 3/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp fresh black pepper
  • salt to taste
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 3 Tbsp peanut (or other nut) butter (but regular ol’ creamy peanut butter works fine!)
  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1 chipotle chili in adobo sauce (a smoked jalapeño, found with other canned chilis in most major markets)
  • 1 rotisserie chicken, cut up and skin removed
  • Yellow corn tortillas
  • grated cheese
  • cilantro or sour cream for garnish
  1. In a heavy stock pot, heat oil over medium-high heat and add onions, cooking until soft- about 5 minutes. Place garlic, chili powder, cocoa and cinnamon in a bowl to the side. When onions are soft and starting to color, add spices all at once, stirring continually for about 30 seconds until fragrant. Add broth and bring back to simmer.
  2. Add peanut (or other nut) butter, tomato paste, raisins and chipotle pepper with whatever adobo sauce is on it. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 10-20 minutes. While sauce is simmering, prep chicken, and place corn tortillas sprinkled with cheese on a baking sheet into a warm oven to melt.
  3. With a stick-blender, puree the mole sauce on the stovetop. If you don’t have a stick-blender, you can leave it bumpy, or run it carefully through a blender in small batches to achieve the traditional smoother texture. Be careful with hot liquids in a blender- or use your food processor.
  4. Add the chicken to the sauce in the stockpot. Turn and stir to coat all the pieces, and serve on over the plated, warmed, melty cheese tortillas. Top with cilantro, queso fresco or a drizzle of sour cream. Also always good: rice and beans.

And there you have it. It’s actually kind of shocking how good this tastes for something so quick and easily made from your pantry and a rotisserie chicken. Return and report how you like it! Thanks to my sister-in-law, Erin, for sharing this one.

Catching Up

It’s probably not possible to catch all the way up. December is half over. The days are flying by, the halls are (totally and utterly) decked, and all the running around is done. What’s left on my plate now is the good stuff… the baking, the reading, the knitting, the hanging out with the kids, the taking cookies to neighbors, the snuggling by the fire, and the deep peace and satisfaction of the coming Christmas eve— my favorite night of the year, every year, worlds without end.

Thanksgiving was a whirlwind, but a deeply satisfying and good whirlwind. We had family in from out of state, and the house was overflowing with kids and chaos and goodness. After all the years of our quiet, small family, having the rafters ringing with kids laughing and toddlers underfoot, while pots bubble on the stove with delicious recipes is all so deeply satisfying. I keep finding myself pausing, holding my breath for a moment or two. This is such a good life.


I managed to hold off decorating for Christmas until after dinner on Thanksgiving. There was a moment or two I felt like The Doctor on the verge of regeneration, I was trying so hard to hold in the gleeful joy of being excited for Christmas. I did it though. Barely. We got our first tree on Friday after Thanksgiving, and I will not admit how many trees there are in the house. Nope.


We’ve all been knitting— though I admit I have only made seven pair of socks this year, and only a few other things.


The boys were thrilled to help Jon put the lights on the house. What is it about a boy and getting on the roof? It doesn’t seem to matter how old they are, there is simply something about being on TOP of a house that an XY chromosome cannot resist. I declared the outside the realm of the men, and they made all the decisions about lights, and I believe their plans are for more inflatable things after the Christmas sales kick in. I will refrain from comment or opinion. I will. So help me…


And that pretty much brings me up to date. The kids have their Christmas concerts, tuba and cello, representing. I’m working on a new recipe to share, and Mo has asked me to make her a dragon head out of paper maché. Bean asked Santa for a giant bean bag, and Abby asked for a water cooler and paper cups, and Jon’s oldest son asked for a dinosaur tooth. Try walking through Toys R Us with that list.

Also, I advise against publicly saying you’re going to hand address all your Christmas cards with a quill pen. Not that I would know.