That baby would be Extreme Kids & Crew. Jason and I were very honored to receive the Felix Award at the wonderful, bedazzling Tenth Anniversary Gala. Thank you, everybody! Here’s the speech I gave.
There’s a lot of things I’m having a hard time believing. That we are all here. That the Felix Awards are live, in person. That Extreme Kids has made it this far through the pandemic to arrive at the practically established, double digit age of ten. Incredible. But perhaps not so incredible when we consider the muscle and heart, tenacity, grit, wit, humor and more of Caitlin Cassaro and her fabulous staff.
I’d like to start this talk with a moment of silence and gratitude for them and for all the people who have helped shape and create Extreme Kids. Some of them are still with us. Some aren’t. We as a community have suffered a lot of grief these past couple of years, and well before that. So I invite you to close your eyes, or leave them open if you prefer, and dwell on those you have loved and who have loved you and who are in some ways responsible for bringing you here tonight.
A whole lot of people.
For Jason and me, the most immediate bringer would be our son Felix, in whose honor these awards are named.
Now we love Felix. Many of you love Felix. Everyone loves Felix. But there have been times when parenting him was extremely exhausting. When he was living at home, he’d go through these seasons of insomnia that were truly epic. In order to get a little rest, Jason and I would care for him in 2 hour shifts, but that didn’t always work. I mean, Felix can get loud. When he was happy, this loudness could be rather wonderful, huge waves of laughter that rocked the house When he wasn’t, oof. When he wasn’t happy, we’d get the police banging to the door at 2 in the morning. Bang! Bang! Bang! What’s going on in there?
No, sir, no one’s getting murdered. It’s just our son.
Have you tried giving him melatonin? A friend would inquire. Yes, my teeth gritted. We had tried melatonin and harder drugs, too. We had altered his diet. We had dabbed his pillowcase with lavender oil and rubbed his feet with frankincense. In the midst of one of these jags, NPR launched a campaign to get New Yorkers to sleep more. I would turn on the radio and there would be these chirpy newscasters saying, “Let’s get to bed at ten! We’ll feel so much better!” I wanted to throw the radio out the window. I stopped giving to their fundraising drives. My mom called. She’d read another article. This one was about the CIA and how they broke down their prisoners with sleep deprivation. “It’s a form of torture,” she told me. As if that would make it go away?
Practically speaking, we needed a night nurse, someone to help out those long hours from midnight to six or seven, so Jason and I could finally get some sleep. To this end, I had filled out many forms and made many calls. Same with my doctor. Same with the people at Child Services. Visiting Nurses said Felix was too young. Another agency said he was too fragile—which is funny. I mean Felix might be the least fragile person I know. Most just put me on hold or said, we don’t do that kind of thing. All this to say, I had tried the routes of government and medicine. They hadn’t led anywhere helpful.
It ended up being Felix who, in his weird way, led to some sort of respite.
A fall day, Felix yowling and banging his walker against the front door. As Jason was there to take care of the girls, I strapped Felix into his pediatric stroller, a bulky metal thing, sturdy enough to accommodate his ever larger body, and pushed him outside. He quieted. Being outside was often all it took. I was glad to be outside, too. A cool, moist, white skied day with the smell of decomposing leaves and bark in the air. We turned on Lafayette. The people on the sidewalk looked our way. I was used to that. Felix almost always caused a stir, generally a pleasant one, at least if we were walking around our neighborhood. Often I enjoyed the conversations he sparked. But I was too tired to partake in any conversation that day. We were on something like Week 12 of two to four hours of sleep a day. My shirt was buttoned the wrong way. My legs were bruised from bumping into things. I got to this cracked bulge of concrete. A tree root had pushed up the sidewalk. I struggled with the stroller, trying not to jostle it, but it was impossible. Felix screamed. Finally we got over the hump, only to be confronted by an old lady in a church hat. She approached in the way of a person who liked to chat. I almost winced. She leaned down to smile at Felix then looked at me, so kindly. Her eyes were filled with light.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Good morning,” I said.
That was it. She went her way. We went ours. But now I had a bounce in my step, a warmth in my chest. I felt like I’d slept, a real sleep, an all through the night sleep.
Later, I wondered if that had really happened. Maybe it had been a dream. Or a narrative I’d made up. I’m a writer, after all. I like to make up stories.
Then it happened again. Not with the old lady. A different day, a different stupor, a different person drawn to Felix and through Felix to me. Again I had the feeling of being lifted up, dusted off, and gently put down, all from the light in someone’s eyes. I didn’t care anymore if I was making it up. It was working. These people, who I didn’t even know, were holding me up. After that, when things got hard, when I felt myself on the verge of snapping, I’d strap Felix in the stroller and we’d go out in search of these people.
We did not always find them. But these types of encounters happened enough that I began to trust that they were real. A simple nod of recognition could work like six, seven hours of sleep. I began to wonder about these people, this power they had. They certainly weren’t powerful economically. I mean, most of them were older, most were of color, most didn’t look like they had a lot of extra money. Maybe, in part, it was the difference in our outward markers that made their greetings so special. Americans are taught to love equality, but we don’t get to experience it that often. It is a wonderful, visceral feeling. Here we are, on this planet, in this city, in these bodies, together in this moment, absolutely equal. Just people.
In spite of that precious quiver of equality, I doubt any of these people would remember me or Felix. New Yorkers who can walk, walk a lot; we take multiple walks most every day. Felix and I would have been part of a walk that disappeared, as most walks do, into some dusty file of memory. If they had been able to see the light in their eyes, then I think they would have remembered. But they couldn’t. I was the one who got to see that. I got to gobble it down.
Maybe it’s easier to shine that light on people we don’t know well. With the people we’re close to, things can get muddled. There’s so much history, hurt, hope, yearning. When someone you love is suffering, you so desire for something to be done, for them to feel better. You can’t help suggesting things, bringing up studies, remedies, the evils of the CIA, whatever it is you grasp for. Even if you remember that unasked for advice is seldom useful, even if you hold your tongue, they can still feel the weight of your concern. It would be very hard for instance, for me to say a simple, pure, unaligned “Good morning” to my teenage daughter. Whereas I might be able to say this to someone else’s. And it might be welcome, a light recognition from someone outside of the family. Good morning. Here we are.
I started fantasizing about a place where these exchanges would happen more often, more reliably. A community center with disability as the draw. So it was not only Felix who brought me here tonight. It was also the people he attracted, the lady in the church hat and all those others who gave me energy when I was completely maxed out.
The energy they gave me. I think of it now as light love. Love light. It’s different from the dense, sometimes heavy bonds of love that bind close families and friends. It’s fleeting, almost impersonal, and precious. If we let it run through us, we can be like an electrical wire for each other.
When I was the opener and closer and greeter and janitor of Space No. 1, Extreme Kids & Crew’s first playspace, I felt that kind of electricity a lot. Not always. There would be days when no one showed up, or when the people who did were too tired, distracted, nervous to be able to take part on that level. That was OK. You can’t always get to that level. I know I can’t. But very often, this sweet, simple exchange would happen. I am sure that’s why Extreme Kids took hold. Alongside all the hard work of Caitlin and crew, I am sure that is why we are still here today.
I think of community centers now as places to practice light love. We may be making art, or swinging our kids, or making a raised bed, but we are also recognizing each other, listening and responding, finding a lost shoe. At root, we are building each other up.
I’m not arguing that all we need is light love. We also need strong love, bold love, diverse love. We also need safe shelter and healthy food, good jobs and inclusive, flexible education, healthcare, racial justice, civil rights for every single human being in this country, and underlying and connect to all of this, a deeper understanding of nature and our place in it. We need a lot, and always have. As we work towards these things, which we will forever be working towards, some gentle, light, loose love really helps. Without it, we get worn out and start to lose faith. Or get concerned only for ourselves or our families and become cut off.
So thank you for engaging in this practice with me, as all of you already have. I hope you will continue to practice at Extreme Kids and extend your practice to Lonely Worm Farm, too. It’s a wonderful place to visit. There are wetlands, glacial slopes, magical herbs. If you are having one of those days and don’t feel like dealing with people, you can practice light love with a chicken or a pine tree or a gust of wind. I think that’s what Felix is doing when he closes his eyes and tastes the breeze. Just connecting. Saying hi. Loving lightly. The way I see it, he is leading the way.