An early morning mist varnished the weeping vineyards and the tops of our heads. An orange sun crept over the hillside, drawing the first beads of sweat from our foreheads. We were together, Suzi and I, listening to our pounding feet tap out their own heartbeats on the macadam road; each morning engaged in the ritual of our six-mile run. Though I could sense her form fading almost a quarter mile behind, I denied my impulse to turn, compelled by the hypnotic momentum of my legs and by my private race with the rising sun.
As I completed the fourth mile, I no longer had to push, merely to control the forward glide. This was the special part of each run, when the landscape, my breath and my body became one, when my vision seemed to disappear though everything remained in view, something like the long-distance driver who steered his car expertly over one thousand miles of road, but barely remembered the journey. Only Suzi’s presence behind me remained vivid.
I felt kind of high and silly this morning, joyful and humble. I could hear myself thanking the universe for the cornfields which appeared at the crest of the road. Thank you, I mumbled, for the leaves and the trees, for the grass and for the gravel beneath my feet, for the lady I love, for the children who bring joy into our lives. I didn’t feel sad, yet my eyes filled with tears and my vision blurred. The roadway before me suddenly flooded with the familiar faces of people I had taught and counseled.
Then the soft, smiling eyes of young Robertito Soto fluttered before me. “Hola! Robertito,” I whispered. I thought of him and the special family; once a group of strangers, who came together and journeyed to a place none of us ever quite imagined. Yet, the sheer physical energy needed to support our pace for the past year and a half never dulled the sunshine in Suzi’s eyes; but it took its toll. So we had taken the time, this time, to remove ourselves from the hustle, to breathe mountain air, to slow the motors, to attend to our inner thoughts.
The facts had been catalogued; thousands of pages of notes, endless hours of tape recordings, reams of test results, sketches of the most personal experiences, photographs of special moments — more in-depth preparation than for any previous book I had written; yet, here, running down this path, I sensed something beyond the notations, something unstated but definite which happened to each of us in having touched and been touched by each other and this special child.
I inhaled deeply and held my breath. My mind cleared, a response to my decision to work on the book by leaving myself open, empty, receptive to whatever thoughts filled that vacuum.
The slapping of sneakers along the road echoed in my ears once again. The smell of freshly cut grass sizzled in my nostrils. Suddenly, I became aware of a crow skirting the treetops above me. He flew just in front of my running form, about fifteen feet above my head. The bird matched my pace exactly. As he glided easily forward, his head cocked beneath his body; he seemed to watch me, something strangely purposeful about his manner.
I turned to catch a glimpse of Suzi, still running behind, though the distance between us had increased. I threw my hands over my head, a gesture she mimicked. Although I couldn’t see her face, I felt her smile.
At the point where the road dead-ends, I cut across a recently harvested hay field. The fifth mile completed. My legs felt lighter and lighter. Then, the gnawing feeling of being watched returned. The fields beside me; empty. The perimeter of a pine forest; unoccupied. Though I focused on the grass just ahead of me, I sensed someone, some thing. My eyes felt drawn immediately to a cluster of trees in the distance. On a branch, silhouetted against the sky, stood the crow. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.
I tracked his form, craning my head, unwilling to look away for a moment. As I moved beneath him, passing under the tree, he cocked his head in that same funny manner and watched me; then, effortlessly, he glided off the branch and flew above me. I stared at his graceful form, never seeing the root in the path ahead, only feeling the tip of my sneaker caught, knowing at once that I had lost my balance. Rather than fight the fall, I let my body go limp. My shoulder took the initial impact as my legs tumbled over my head; my knees bouncing against the earth as my body rolled through the grass.
I couldn’t determine whether it was from the fall or not, but I began to feel lighthearted; not dizzy, not out of control, just released slightly from the pull of gravity. I considered stopping the run, but somehow I knew to continue.
“Do you believe in miracles?” a voice suddenly asked. My eyes darted quickly across the fields, searching for some hidden ventriloquist. The words were so clear, so very clear, yet not quite spoken. “Miracles,” the voiceless voice said again, and then I knew the words had come from within my head. I’m talking to myself again, I chuckled, though this pronouncement sounded very third person, rather than me speaking to me. The question hung there … no answer, just the wind.
Little Robertito’s face floated before me again, his-blissful enigmatic visage confronting me. “Hola!, Bears Kaufman,” he said in that wonderful, peculiar, whispering voice of his. “Hola!, Tito,” I found myself mouthing. I love that little boy, once so inaccessible, so lost, so hidden behind an invisible wall, Robertito tilted his head and stared at me out of the comer of his eyes. I wanted everything for him, everything I had ever wanted for my own son. For all of us who worked with him, he had become a magnet, the human forum through which we searched and found more of our own humanity, He became a reaffirmation of the loving and accepting lifestyle we taught-more than a vision with specific therapeutic and educational applications, but a trusting way to embrace ourselves and those around us.
As I continued to run, the question about miracles lingered. Did I, indeed, believe in them? No. Of course not. I’m too pragmatic, too grounded. But then I stopped myself. I reconsidered this story and the journey of our extended family. Different realities, oftentimes peculiar and inexplicable, punctuated this experience. Miracles? Suzi and I had worked with so many other supposedly “hopeless” cases; our son, Joanna, Kevin, Teresa. Each time, the progress defied the prognosis. I heard the word “miracle” in regard to them and now, again, in reference to Robertito. Was that a way for others to dismiss the experience, minimize the evidence and deny the relevance? Miracles happen over there, to other people. Or, as one university professor once said, “If you cant substantiate it by scientific factors, then it doesn’t exist” … or, he smiled sardonically, “you have a ‘miracle’ on your hands.”
But we could explain it, not necessarily in terms of logic and science, but in terms of logic and love. We presented one human being with the most caring, stimulating, exciting, accepting and loving environment we could create. We tickled him, teased him, invited him to join us. In the process, twelve of us changed our lives, emphatically, irrevocably in order to set the stage for ourselves and for Robertito … and then we lived the lessons of accepting, really accepting and trusting what this child chose to do with our offering and what we chose to do with the mysteries we uncovered within ourselves.
Suddenly, I felt closer to understanding what I hadn’t written in my notes. Running had always been a special time; I felt myself letting go, high on the rhythm of my moving limbs. I thought of Robertito’s incredible parents, Francisca and Roby, crazy and wonderful Laura, intense and dedicated Carol, giving and giggly Jeannie, Chella, Patti, Charlotte, Ginny Lea; remembering when Suzi and I first created the program, how our children became part of it; Thea helping, Bryn, at twelve, assuming a role as teacher, Raun, at five, leading another child out of the darkness which had once enveloped him. We didn’t just work together, we made a special universe for ourselves, a special extended family. While others stopped with what was, we attempted to pursue what could be.
My eyes refocused, like a motorized camera, whipped across the landscape; momentarily holding freeze-frame images before my mind; scrutinizing the components of each picture; searching. The bird was gone.
Again I felt lighthearted, freed from gravity. That same question blared in my ears. “Do you believe in miracles?” I knew I hadn’t put it to rest. I initiated another conversation with myself. If a miracle meant trying to make the impossible possible, if it meant trusting yourself despite all contrary evidence and trusting an experience before you could rationally explain it … then, yes, I guess I did believe in miracles. The dreams, the telepathic-type exchanges, the reversal of a physical illness and the words from the lips of a little boy that went beyond anything he could have possibly known defied explanation; but those events were as much a part of this story as a kiss or a flower. From such everyday miracles, we, perhaps, had learned our greatest lessons.
The moment that thought occurred, I had the sensation of being airborne, though I could see my feet touch the ground. I kept running, only moments away from completing the sixth mile. And then these words danced in my head as if spoken by someone other than me:
“Miracles happen to those who believe in them.”
A hot sensation enveloped my entire body, then evaporated, leaving my skin and muscles incredibly subtle and relaxed.
Within seconds, the crow reappeared, angled in a wide, graceful curve; then pivoting to his left on a different air current, he dove toward me. I kept running those last years, willing to meet him head-on; no fear, no sense of confrontation, just respect for the flow of nature and the events that greeted me. As he soared at me, I found myself lowering my head. When a loud cry bellowed from the bird’s throat, I veered to the left, narrowly missing a metal animal trap partially hidden in the grass. A second later, only five feet in front of me, the crow changed directions and disappeared amid the trees across a distant field.
It used to be so hard — to open my door, to love each hour, to celebrate each activity, to freely embrace those who crossed my path. It used to be so hard to smile easily at a stranger or thank someone for extending his hand. It used to be so hard to see myself as powerful and powerless at the same time.
The grueling years of psychoanalysis, the endless graduate courses in psychology, Eastern philosophy, Zen, the experiential seminars in Freudian, Gestalt, Rogerian, Primal and Humanistic therapy, the dives into hypnosis and meditation gave me some answers, but never satisfied my appetite for wanting more communion with myself, with the people around me.
Later, after encountering a wonderfully lucid and loving teacher, Suzi and I began to learn and live what we came to call the Option Process; this book being a classic example of the possibilities of an Option experience. We discarded years of self-defeating beliefs and behavior through joyfully simple direct and illuminating dialogues — dialogues devoid of judgments, expectations and conditions.
From that endeavor evolved a very special and accepting attitude: to love is to be happy with. A friend of mine protested immediately that such acceptance, such unconditional acceptance, breeds impotence and an unwillingness to change what we see. Our experience has been quite the contrary.
As we tried to live these themes more and more each day, we felt inclined to share them with others by teaching in small groups and on a one-to-one basis. We continued to learn and explore. Yet, it was only after the birth of our third child that we realized fully that the loving and accepting attitude we lived and taught was more than the basis of a therapeutic approach and an educational technique, more than even a lifestyle vision, but a gift for us and for those we loved.
Our son, Raun Kahlil, the third little person to be born into our lives, becomes a haunting undercurrent in this book, not only because of his active involvement and enigmatic insights, but also because his own journey had become a demonstration of possibility which affected our lives and Robertito’s life as well as others who have been confronted with situations viewed as “depressing,” “tragic” and “hopeless.” When Raun was formally diagnosed as having a condition., considered to be the most irreversible of the profoundly disturbed; severely impaired developmentally, neurologically and cognitively, Suzi and I waded through the quicksand, trying to extract the secrets beneath the complex terms which damned our child.
Why us? We had finally moved through the turmoil of our first years of marriage, we had grappled with some of the miseries and confusions and put them to rest. We had finally begun to experience our lives as an easy, mellow movement. Why? It was almost as if the universe shouted out to us: “Ah ha, so you think you have it all together, you think you know-well, well, my friends, try this situation on for size.” Eventually, we would come to know, through our journey with Raun and others who would follow, that this little boy came into our midst as an opportunity to be either diminished, saddened and defeated by our own unhappiness or to thrive, explore and be enriched by our encounter with this very special human being.
By Raun’s first birthday, we noticed his growing insensitivity to sounds and voice; he no longer responded to his name. During the following months, this behavior became compounded by his tendency to stare and be passive. He preferred solitary play rather than interaction with his family. In our arms, he dangled limply, like a rag doll, never attempting to hold or hug. Tests, coupled by visits to doctors and hospitals, produced no definite answers except vague reassurance that he would outgrow his peculiar mannerisms.
By seventeen months of age, Raun withdrew from all human contact and slipped behind an invisible, impenetrable wall. He spent endless hours immersed in self-stimulating rituals; rocking, fluttering his fingers in front of his eyes, spinning every object he could find, finally spinning himself. No language development. No words, no pointing gestures. No expression of wants. He never cried for food, never indicated he wanted to be changed or lifted from his crib. Sometimes he appeared blind; other times, deaf. Silent and aloof, frozen in his own aloneness.
Eventually, he was diagnosed as being a classic case of infantile autism, traditionally considered to be a sub-category of childhood schizophrenia, though more recently viewed as a brain-damage situation of indeterminate cause with profound, lifelong cognitive and communication disabilities “Hopeless.” “Incurable.” These were the underlying messages of the literature and the professionals we consulted throughout the country. One physician suggested institutionalization for Raun, then barely one and a half years old.
Most of the programs we viewed were little more than experiments. Whether based on psychoanalysis, sensory conditioning or behavior management techniques, the ratio of children reached was dismal, perhaps only a few in each hundred; those successes being defined as the child who learned to perform minimal tasks on a primitive level.
We encountered doctors who administered electric shock treatments with cattle prods on children under five because some professional, teacher or parent deemed their behavior unacceptable. Other boys and girls were locked in portable closets without windows as part of aversion therapy. Still others murmured weakly, their hands and legs bound to chairs to prevent them from rocking and flapping. Even in the most “humanistic” programs, the therapists, despite their avowed sensitivity, approached these children with disapproval.
We turned away, refusing to relinquish our good feelings, refusing to extinguish the life of this delicate and different child by placing him behind the stone walls of some nameless institution. We decided to create our own program based on the philosophy of Option, grounded in a loving and accepting attitude. Our movement would respect his dignity instead of forcing him to conform to our ideals or behaviors. Our awareness suggested that in terms of his present abilities, Raun, like all of us, was doing the best he could.
After observing him for endless hours, cataloguing all his actions and reactions, we decided to join our son in his world with love and acceptance, to understand and know his universe by participating. Our major thrust began with imitating him, not just as a tactic or strategy, but sincerely being with him; rocking when he rocked, spinning when he spun, flapping when he flapped. Several physicians labeled our efforts as tragic since we supposedly supported our son’s bad behavior. Yet for us, good and bad had no useful meaning in our endeavor to reach this very different little boy. We just wanted to somehow find a way to say: “Hey, Raunchy, it’s okay wherever you are. Hey, Raun, we love you.”
Both our daughters, Bryn, then seven years old, and Thea, then four years old, participated as loving teachers for their brother. We trained others to help, using the principles and attitude of Option as our tool. Piece by piece, bolt by bolt, we began to build bridges.
Although we worked with our son for three years, a total of almost ten thousand hours on a one-to-one basis, within the first year, this totally withdrawn, mute, self-stimulating, functionally retarded, autistic and “hopeless” little boy became a social, highly verbal, affectionate and loving human being displaying capabilities far beyond his years. Today, at just seven years old, he attends a regular second grade in a regular school. More socially and verbally sophisticated than many of his peers and exhibiting no traces of his earlier disability, Raun Kahlil loves life and life loves him back. In many ways, he has been a great teacher and mover of us all. What our son came to learn, respect and trust in himself, we seem to have to relearn continually. In entering our lives, Robertito Soto not only challenged his parents and each member of the group we forged together, but became an inscrutable mirror from which none of us could hide. Helping him meant loving and accepting him for who he was, not for who he might become. But before we could accept him, we had to first learn to face and accept ourselves … perhaps the most crucial yet least visible part of our journey, without which we could not have hoped to reach this little boy and trust his choices … or dare to trust our own.