“How much pocket money do I have?”

After the profound sadness of the shooting at the US primary school, I was deeply shocked to hear of a horrendous backlash against young people with autistic or Aspergers syndromes. Apparently, there has been a surge of Facebook pages and other online media wherein ignorant and enflamed mobs are threatening to start vigilante groups to seek out and murder people with these conditions. The horror of this suggestion fills me with despair that our society is so easily capable of falling back into the dark days of the witch-hunts.

I follow a blog of one mother who has two lovely boys, aged 12 and 14, who are both autistic, in which she writes about the often heart-breaking challenges and more-often profound joys of raising her two very special boys, who, in their unique way of seeing the world, manage to share their deep wisdom with her and those who read her blog. Here is her entry for today, which I would like to share with you because of it’s wonderful spirit of Christmas that I hope you can pass on so that there is a positive message for those who live with the already-great challenges of these conditions and for whom the reactive voices of ignorance are truly damaging.


“How much pocket money do I have?”

It’s a question Attie asks me often. Saving money is an incredibly hard thing for him to do, as I’m sure it is for any kid, so I was used to this constant line of questioning.

But this time it stopped me in my tracks.

It was late last year and I’d just spent the only money I had taking the boys to visit their grandfather in Europe, a crazy idea borne of the realization that at nearly 80 he was now officially ‘old’ and since he rarely travelled to see us they had very little idea who he was. I’m not sure what kind of magical sleep-deprived confidence came over me to make me think I could handle taking two autistic kids on a twenty hour flight overseas to a country where I don’t speak the language. Safe to say, it was an amazing, difficult and life-altering trip for all three of us and I don’t regret a single second of it.

On the evening of our last day, we sat in a little kebab shop in Germany as I tried to soak up the last moments I’d spend with my dad for who knows how long. Over ridiculously strong coffee he told me about a charity he and his wife support in Bulgaria, an orphanage where the funds are so tight that on many weeks all they have is a sack of potatoes to feed all of the children and single mothers who seek refuge there. Winters are especially harsh he said, a concept I could only now come close to understanding after having spent the week in the coldest temperatures I’d ever experienced.

I pulled my new down jacket tight around me as we walked to the car, feeling gratitude for the warmth and thinking about so many who couldn’t. I wanted to help but didn’t know how. It wasn’t until I was packing for home the next day that my brain decided to be useful, and realized that we could leave all of our winter clothes behind for my father to take to the orphanage. It was a brilliant idea, and I tried hard to ignore the fact that it also left us with more room in our suitcases to take home the obscene amount of souvenirs we’d amassed.

There was only one problem with my plan… Attie was in the grips of an intense love affair with his jacket. It was puffy and blue and as he put it “like a big winter hug”. This is a kid who has an incredibly hard time letting go of stuff – he wears his pants until they’re three sizes too small, has every piece of artwork he’s ever done stuffed into a bedroom closet and don’t get me started about the packaging that his toys come in. The trip had been full of drama and transitions and change, which only made him cling even more tightly to his jacket as the one constant amongst the chaos. But it was big and bulky and just not necessary in our Australian ‘winter’, and it could literally be a life saver for another child. I wasn’t looking forward to telling him that we would be leaving it behind.

We got to the train station and the time had come. I handed the bags of clothes to my father and knelt down in front of Attie. I explained it all to him, about the orphanage and the children and the winter that was coming. He nodded, said nothing and took off the jacket. As he handed it to me the tears began to fall. An hour into the trip they were still falling, as he stared out the window and said nothing. I squeezed his hand and he turned to look at me.

“How much pocket money do I have?”

It was a question he’d asked me three hundred times on this trip. At every store, souvenir stand, sidewalk vendor. I told him the amount, my heart breaking that now he wanted to use it to buy a replacement jacket.

He shook his head.

“It’s not enough.”
“Oh baby, I know you want your jacket back but you just don’t need–”
“No Mummy. We need to give more to them.”

He wasn’t crying for the jacket. He was crying for the children.

I was speechless. Luckily Attie did the talking for me, in fact he chatted about nothing else for the entire flight home. He made me promise to donate every cent he had to the orphanage, ‘encouraging’ his brother to do the same (nagging him constantly until Max finally gave in). When we got home I found him collecting up the rest of his clothes and toys, which prompted a long discussion about the economics of international postage and ended with a compromise to donate it to a local charity.

Last week to our surprise we received a handwritten letter from the ladies who run the orphanage. It’s in Bulgarian, but my dad explained that it’s an account of everything that they spent Attie’s money on. Blankets and food for the children. Medicine for the babies. I read it to the boys as they decorated our christmas tree, and this time I wasn’t surprised when I again heard those words.

“Mummy, how much pocket money do I have?”

You can read her blog here: http://42squeeze.blogspot.com.au

“May all flowers and trees achieve enlightenment”

2012.12.08 somokutoDuring the course of my research here in Japan, I’ve encountered a wonderful tradition that has been carried out over the past thousand years in the northern area of Japan, called ‘somokuto.’ A sumokuto is a stone monument with an inscription carved into it that says “May all the flowers and trees achieve enlightenment.” It is placed at the location where trees have been cleared to make way for human habitation and acts as a kind of tombstone or memorial dedicated to those trees and flowers and plants that have sacrificed their lives in the name of human progress. This practice stems from the belief that all living things, including plants, have the potential for enlightenment in this and future lifetimes, and that even plants need our prayers and best wishes for helping them along on their own spiritual journeys.

The stones also act as a reminder of our deep connections with nature and our responsibility in taking care of the natural world. Wouldn’t it be great if we could introduce this practice into the Western world? Every time an area gets cleared to make way for a housing development or a shopping centre, thousands of plants die and all the animals and insects that depended on them must perish too. I don’t think it’s possible to stop this kind of development, but what if we could recognise this loss of nature in some way, such as erecting a stone monument to remind us of what was once there; to honour and acknowledge the natural world in a way that brings other people’s awareness to that connection as well. This is a simple thing that we in our own small communities could do as a way of honouring our relationship to the natural world. And how much more important is this reminder than in our ever-widening urban landscapes?

I think that developing a deeper personal and communal awareness of the way our lives impact on nature should be the root of our practice towards sustainability. Instead of a top-down approach, we need to work on a bottom-up approach to sustainability. The top-down approach is where we all have opinions about the actions of government parties and agencies, who argue ad nauseum about carbon tax levies and sustainable development. Instead, we should take a bottom-up approach that involves practicing awareness of our own daily impact on nature around us. This awareness practice helps to generate a sense of connection to nature by reminding ourselves that every one of our actions will somehow impact the natural world that we are a part of.

2012.12.08 weedAs you walk along the footpath, bring your awareness to the earth below and look out for the little weeds that always manage to find a way to thrive – they are the remnants of all the plants and flowers and trees that once covered that land where you are now walking. If we can always be aware of this history, then we will grow to feel once again the connection we have as living beings with the living earth. Even if there are acres of concrete, we can still develop an awareness of the living earth and appreciate what has been sacrificed for us to be able to live in a house and drive the roads and use the supermarket and so on throughout our constructed modern lives. This awareness practice is the root of sustainability.

Then as individuals who make up our local community, we should encourage communal awareness, such as the Japanese practice of somokuto. When I get home I am going to talk to the local Indigenous elder about this practice and see if there might be some way we, as a community, might be able to incorporate aspects of somokuto with local indigenous customs to mark the place where a new shopping centre is about to be built. I’ll let you know what comes of that in a later blog.