Friday, December 31, 2010

Out With the Old...

As the year draws to a close, I would like to continue with a few thoughts on simplifying and ordering our lives and spaces. This post is devoted to the idea that you cannot have it all... or more accurately perhaps, you cannot KEEP it all. Unless you live in a huge house, with tons of closets, an attic and basement, and maybe a barn or two, you cannot hang onto everything that makes it way through your doors. Even if you do have that place, it is remarkable how quickly you can fill up even the giant house. If you are like me, you may live in smallish homes, with less than adequate storage space, and awkward configurations of rooms. Many of you have expressed your frustration with the overflow of stuff that seems to have taken over every nook and cranny of your homes. To this I say, you must be ruthless. There is no other way but to get rid of a good deal of it.

For me, there were several issues in play. The first issue was my lack of maturity. I hadn't had the chance to try a million things and discover what I was truly passionate about. I was young, and full of energy. I wanted to be passionate about gourmet cooking, and heirloom sewing and quilting. I wanted to grow my own herbs, and raise chickens and goats, and make my own cheese. I wanted to scrapbook all my photos, and play the guitar, and learn to cane chairs. I wanted to homeschool my children, and use cloth diapers, and...and....and.....you get the idea. Now I am old and mature, and I realize that I cannot be passionate about everything. I certainly can't use my aptitude as a measuring stick for what I should be passionate about, because I can do many things well. Far too many things to have passion for all of them. Over time I have winnowed down the list to a few things I really love or need to do. All the rest have gone away, and with them, all the gear and geegaws needed to perform them. The few things I really DO, I let myself have the good stuff, like a really nice sewing machine, which has earned its bit of real estate inside my teeny bedroom closet. Or the bins of excellent quality fabric stored under my bed. Like the chocolate molds that eat up the whole cabinet over my refrigerator. Like the books that line soooo many of my walls. But so many other things have disappeared. Some things I have sold, some given away to a friend who would use it, some donated. I don't miss the things that are gone.

Maturity and experience have also taught me that I do not need many of the things I once thought I did. Neither do my children. We live with far less clothing and linens. I do laundry every single day. We do not need one of everything for every child. They can learn to share. I do not need to own things I can borrow or rent. The list goes on and on, and applies to nearly every area. But in the beginning I thought I had to have it all.

I have a system for ongoing purging. Usually I purge the house deeply, twice a year. One of the best times is right before the holidays, but after the New Year will work too. Pre-holiday is ideal, because I clear space for incoming gifts, and mentally tally who has what, and make mental notes of what they may want or need. The whole rest of the year, I do constant maintenance purging. I cycle through the whole house, room by room, cupboard and drawer, closet and bureau. I always have a donation bag or box set up, and am constantly adding to it. Anything beyond repair goes into the trash immediately. Outgrown clothing, unwanted books, unused toys get dropped into the donation box. Another bag or box is set up for "things that don't live here". This is for items that belong to other people...things that got left behind, or borrowed items, or things we plan to pass on to a specific person. When I plan to pass the thrift store, I drop off the donation box. When I plan to see a person who owns something in the other box, I try to remember to give it to them.

I have other boxes too. I have a "wait and see" box. This is where I store things I am unsure about. Things I think I want to get rid of, but still have doubts. If I don't go back for it in a few weeks, it's probably safe to let it go. At times I have had "yard sale" boxes. Right now I live in the sticks, so it is not practical to have yard sales. If you really will carry through and have the yard sale, and you have the space to store the stuff until you do it, by all means, have a yard sale. We have made lots of vacation spending money this way. Currently I have E.bay boxes, because I have had success selling certain items using that forum. Another tip I would offer, is that I put my boxes out in a visible, and mildly annoying location. This inspires me to keep the stuff moving out the door, rather than sitting buried and forgotten somewhere. (Kind of like the laundry baskets in the middle of the living room floor inspiring me to fold it and put it away.)

Another sticking point to paring things down, is the children. Children and their stuff take up a lot of space. Especially if you homeschool them. In some ways you have to relax a bit about this, because everything about them is always in a state of flux...a messy state of flux. They are always growing, and so their closets and drawers need constant supervision, rotating out that which is outgrown or worn out. If you are passing clothes along to younger siblings, you must decide how much you can reasonably store. In the past, I found myself storing everything, in fear that I would "need" it. I stored ugly clothes that I did not like. I stored very specific clothing that had nothing to match it, or would hardly ever be worn. I stored clothes that suited one child's body type, but would never suit their younger sibling. In other words, I wasted a lot of precious time and space, because I was afraid I would be found lacking later on. Now I only save that which is in top condition, that I know for a fact will be used. I am also constantly sorting through their toys and books, weeding out the ones they have outgrown. I only save that which is classic and beloved. Things that they have passed over for newer pursuits go into the donation box. I used to save every homeschool book and teaching aid. Those things are crazy expensive, and what if I find myself teaching at that level again? But as that has happened again and again, I have found myself not returning to the materials I had previously used because I found something that worked better for me, or for a different learner. Now I use the materials, and if I don't have specific plans to use them again soon, I pass them on to other homeschool moms.

I have only touched on a few areas, and made a few suggestions. You must figure out what works for you. The most important thing I have learned along the way, is that it is an ongoing process. You will purge, and it will feel good. Then you will purge again, more deeply, and it will feel even better. Spaces will open up, and you will feel freer. Eventually it will become routine, and you will feel as though you are just skimming bits off the top. But you will never arrive at some place of perfect order. There will always be things you are toying with getting rid of, things you are aware will need replacement soon, things you wish you had. For me, it has been getting to a place of calm and contentment about this ebb and flow. I feel like I am controlling it to some extent, rather than being washed away by it.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Place of Your Own

It's hard to decide where to begin, when you feel as though everything needs to be done, but a beginning must be made. I can't really remember where I began, but I am certain it is not where I am sending you first. That is because I can learn from my mistakes. I strongly suggest you begin in your own bedroom. This may seem crazy when the rest of the house feels like it's in shambles, but trust me. You need a quiet place, away from the clutter and noise. You cannot easily gather your strength each day, if your own space makes you cringe. I am sending you to your own bedroom (and bath and closet) because this is where I should have begun my journey.

I would suggest a day just for stripping the room down and deep cleaning. Consider paint, curtains, and bedding later. A clean room is instantly more lovely, and you will have time and peace to ponder making changes or purchases over time. Take separate days for the closet and bath. But keep forging on. As you strip the room down, area by area, pluck out everything that does not belong in your room, and put it outside the door. Set up bins or boxes if need be. Let me suggest a few items that do not belong in your room. Outgrown children's clothing does not belong in your room. The ironing or mending pile does not belong in your room. Children's school work has got to go. Piles of miscellaneous junk definitely do not belong. Last year's taxes and Christmas ornaments from a year and a half ago? Come on! Be ruthless, and don't worry about the growing pile outside the door. As Scarlett O'Hara says, you can worry about that another day. I have rules for my room, and perhaps some of them may work for you. Here's a listie!
  1. Every morning I make my bed. I do it for me, and no one else. It instantly makes my room look neater.
  2. I always fold/hang my laundry neatly in the closet. I never leave laundry piled or laying about my room. Ever. Actually, I pile all my clean laundry in the middle of the living room, because it inspires me to fold it and put it away. When I carry the piles into the bedroom, I place them on the (made) bed, because I cannot go to bed without putting them away.
  3. I do not allow anything related to the children to migrate into my bedroom. In fact, I don't allow the children to migrate into my bedroom. They may knock at the door, and only step inside if invited.
  4. We don't generally eat in the bedroom, though we do occasionally snack. All garbage and dishes are cleaned up promptly in the morning when I make the bed.
  5. All clutter is picked up and put away each morning, the shade is pulled up to let in the sun (or not), and the rug is gone over with the sweeper.
  6. Nothing distracting is allowed in my room. Nothing stress inducing is allowed in my room. Nothing messy is allowed in my room. Nothing stinky is allowed in my room. No half done projects or "To Do" piles are allowed in my room.
I think you get the idea. And yes, I do allow my husband in the room, though he has been known to be messy, and even stinky on occasion. But not in our room. You see, back in the old days, I used to allow my bedroom to be a dumping ground from elsewhere in the house. If I didn't know where to put it, it went in my room. If I couldn't get around to it, it went in my room. If I hated it, but felt too guilty to pitch it...into my room. When I cleaned up the house, my room was the last room on the list, and I hardly ever got there. I had pregnant dust bunnies. I never got around to making my bed. I hated my room.

Then I read something somewhere, about how your bedroom should be a restful oasis. The author even advocated that there should be no photographs or book shelves to intrude. Just clean, comfortable, spaces. I tried the no photo/book thing for awhile, and decided a few small photos and piles of books did not detract from my restful state...so I put them back. But I learned my lesson about the distracting, stress and guilt inducing clutter. And about putting my room first. Amazingly enough, when I made time to clean up my own space, I was more inclined to keep after the other spaces. But above all else, if the other spaces (or people) got overwhelming, I always had a refuge to retreat into.

To be honest, I could cheerfully make my room with nothing more than a mattress on the floor, and piles of books, but over time I have collected bits and pieces that make me happy. We sleep on my great-grand's antique bed, and I lay there and wonder who may have been born or died in it. There's an antique shelf that came from a barn we once owned. Most of the furnishings have been collected over the years, from consignment shops and yard sales. The accessories are gifts. I made curtains, and covers, and pillow cases. The books just find me. I say all of this because you need not break the bank "decorating". Cleanliness and order add grace and beauty to any space. Take time to actually live in it, and decide what you would really like to have, and then wait for it to come to you. When you know what will be just right, you will come across it and know. Don't worry if you have to wait some time. It will be worth it.

One final note. Always look on your closet and bathroom as extensions of your bedroom. Keep them with the same care and attention as your sleeping space. My closet has a place for everything, and so I always put it back in its place, and I never lose anything in there, though it is a cramped, wretched little space. I rarely leave my bathroom without picking up any misplaced item and putting it away. Consequently, it never takes more than a moment to make it perfect. I scrub the whole thing down only weekly, with little touch ups as needed, and it never gets too horrible. But the cupboard is always tidy, the trash emptied each day, and everything is in its place. Lest you are picturing a luxurious master bath, let me say no. Picture a postage stamp, that I share with Beloved Husband, Hippie Boy, and Baby Boy. Make no mistake, I am not whining about my small bedroom, smaller bathroom, or teeny closet. I have come to love them, as I have worked hard to make them work for me. It takes time, thought, and work...and it is so worth it.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Holiday Mess

'Tis the season for many things, and from what I gather, one of those things is despairing over the chaos and mess inside one's home. I am not picking on any of my dear friends. This is a theme I hear, read, and even see commented upon in Facebook photos of Christmas carnage. I think there are several issues in play. Let me enumerate, in list form, because I loooove lists.
  1. The holidays are a busy time, thus we have less time to devote to cleaning and organizing.
  2. The children are everywhere, all the time.
  3. We tend to have company, which also adds to the chaos.
  4. There are piles of presents to and from loved ones, plus wrappings galore.
  5. We also engage in other messy projects like baking, cooking, writing cards, etc. This equals projects spread about our spaces.
  6. It's wintertime, which means coats and snow pants, boots and hats, mittens and scarves.
  7. It's wintertime which means being cooped up inside four walls a lot.
  8. Did I mention the kids are on vacation and are underfoot all.the.time?
This can lead to ugliness, I am here to tell you. It may mean you find yourself laying on your bed having a good cry instead of a long winter nap. It may mean you see this transformation from "carefully and lovingly chosen gifts" to "all this crap overrunning my house". It may mean you end up yelling at those children that are in the house, under your feet...did I already say this? ALL THE TIME.

Now I don't mean to gloat, because I have had my share of trials this past week (not limited to a poodle who tried to kill herself with fudge, and the resulting mess and vet bills), but I think after twenty-four years of marriage, I am finally getting the hang of this thing. My house is fairly orderly, even in the midst of the holiday hustle and bustle, and I don't feel superior. I feel relieved. The hard work and discipline is all worth it.

If you are a person who makes New Year resolutions, and sincerely means to follow through... if you are a person who chafes against the structure needed to whip your house into order, yet hates the chaos too... let me encourage you to stop rebelling against your own best interests. Button yourself down to the task of setting things in order, and discipline yourself to make new habits. Force structure upon your reluctant self. Your weary self will thank you all through the New Year.

By all means, if you are completely happy and relaxed in relative disorder, don't let me boss you around. I actually have secret envy for people who don't feel the need to alphabetize their DVDs or organize their sock drawer by style and color. I've had friends gently tell me, "They have medication for that." But when all is said and done, my sock drawer makes ME happy. I have no desire to mandate sock drawer protocol, or judge you for tossing them all in a basket, unmatched no less. It's about comfort level. And I'm hearing a lot of people saying their houses are making them very uncomfortable right now.

A lot of people look at me, and they think, "Oh well of course. You are THAT SORT of person." You know, the person who is super organized, always thinking and planning ahead, scheduling and making lists. But I wasn't always like this. It has taken years of practice, and mostly self discipline, to transform myself and my thinking. In the past I thought of myself as a creative person, thus excusing my creative "stuff" being scattered all over our living spaces. I also used this excuse to "create" during times that I should have been caring for my children, cooking meals, and generally keeping up my home. I would always, always choose a good book over my domestic duties. This was before the days of computers, with email and Facebook and blogs. Thank goodness, I might never have come up for air.

We also had young children. I homeschooled, and had school "stuff" everywhere. I crafted and sewed, and cooked and baked. We had small spaces and a small income. All of this is to say, I hear you. I hear every excuse you are spitting at the screen right now. They are all the reasons I fought getting organized myself. But in the end, it was the most gentle, kind, loving thing I have done for myself. Yes, for me. It isn't drudgery and the death of my creativity. It has been freeing, the lifting of a huge weight. I have slowly found ways to pour my creativity into the process, and I do it with my own sense of style. The careful keeping of my home and family employs all my imagination and personality. I enjoy it, and I'm not ashamed to say so... though I do get some funny looks at times.

Check back in the next few days, and I'll share a few ideas that have been extremely helpful to me. It's too big a subject to address in one post. There are great books and websites devoted to the subject. I'll be sharing the ideas that really made huge changes for me. The important thing is finding the ideas that resonate with you, and implementing them to improve the quality of your life.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why I Go to Church, Part 2

In my last post I was thinking aloud about the church. I said a bit about kitchens and bathrooms, that probably would sound pretty funny out of context. I also said I would get back to my thoughts about the church building and its important function. I will say again that people are the core of the church. All Christians are connected, whether they want to believe it or not, all part of the Body of Christ, all "the church". No particular building houses God, or any object that gives us a direct line to Him. But today I am going to discuss the local church building, the individual group of people that gathers there, and some of the reasons we show up on a Sunday morning.

I'm going back to my bathroom analogy, not that it's perfect, but it works for me. I said that relationships with people are the kitchen. Sometimes hot, sometimes messy, sometimes frustrating and even a little dangerous. But it's where you get fed when you are hungry. When people are needy, they need other people. Even when they aren't in a particularly needy place, they still need people. The Bible teaches us that the way people get fed, and clothed, and cared for rests on what people do. It's true that God can do miraculous things, and it's true that all good things ultimately come from God's hand. I believe that. But God has never physically cooked me a meal, taken me shopping and bought me underwear, carried out the trash, or given me a hug. God has always used the bodies of living people to do those things for me.

The problem, in my humble opinion, is setting up shop in the kitchen. People are awesome. They are the very best gift God has created on this earth for us people. The Bible tells us that they aren't just awesome, they are made in God's image. I can't even begin to see what that means...but I am certain it means something really good. We have something in us that is like God. It is so easy to fall in love with people, and spend our lives pouring ourselves out for them, and soaking up the awesomeness of them, that we could forget God altogether. To continue with my analogy, we might be tempted to sit around that big ol' kitchen table, warm and full, and with a contented sigh say, "It doesn't get any better than this."

Can I take a small rabbit trail here? When I was growing up, I was taught that Jesus was THE WAY. I was further taught, that anybody who wasn't living this reality was miserably unhappy. Of course they were probably sinful and bad too. If they didn't look miserably unhappy, and sinful and bad...well, they were just really good actors. Except I knew people who were not Christians, and they were genuinely moral, compassionate people. They seemed happy. They didn't seem like they were faking it. I just could not make sense of this. I think my kitchen theory might account for this. To be honest, I have been tempted at times, to discard everything else in favor of the kitchen.

So if people are what it's all about, and the church is really just people, why not discard the church building, and start hanging out in some awesome person's kitchen? Why not throw away the whole rest of the house, and just make one huge kitchen? Well, partly because I will not buy a house that doesn't have a bathroom. Call me American, but I do love me some white porcelain fixtures. I like the fact that I can go into that quiet room, all by myself, and take care of my private business. I can dispose of waste, that isn't good for me to hold onto either inside or outside my body. A quick flush of water and it's gone. I can wash up in the sink if I'm only partially dirty, or I can take a shower or a tubby if I need a total cleanup. Don't get me wrong. I don't want to live in the bathroom, but I need and want to visit the bathroom with regularity.

Maybe it's a bit irreverent to liken the church building we visit each Sunday to the bathroom. I'm going to take a chance on it. Think about it for a moment. Why do we go to church in the first place? Let me preface my answer with a list of all the reason I do NOT believe we should go to church on a Sunday morning. I do not believe we go to church to get things. One of the biggies that I hear all sorts of rumblings about is "fellowship". And what most people mean by this is socializing. I love to socialize. I love food and coffee. But if I couldn't get any of it, I'd still go to church. I do not go to church to get feelings, blessings, fillings up, etc. Sometimes it happens, and it's nice no doubt. I don't go to church for teaching. I really appreciate a good sermon. I even appreciate a bad sermon that a pastor has clearly labored over. But if there was no sermon, I wouldn't feel as though the filling was left out of my sandwich. I don't go to church to be entertained. I don't have the right to critique anyone's "performance". I don't have the right to decide if the room is too bright, warm, clean enough for my liking. I don't go to church to judge or be judged by other people, whether they are in the pew next to me, or at home sleeping in.

For me, going to church is somewhat paradoxical. I go to be part of something that is communal in nature, yet it is solitary as well. In the kitchen we are shoulder to shoulder, and face to face. In the pew we are all facing toward something other than ourselves. We come to church to worship, which is kind of an alien concept in itself. I read some definitions, and it all seemed to boil down to a sort of adoration for something that is elevated far above us. It is very true that we can worship privately. Nature can cause us to spontaneously worship. Private devotion and prayer can lead us to worship. Communal worship is just downright hard for me.

Think about the rituals we observe. Confession. I sit next to my neighbor, and I confess that I have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. I have not loved my neighbor. Yes, that person sitting next to me. I have been negligent. I have not done the things that I know I ought to do, yet amazingly I have found time to do things I know I shouldn't do. Communion. I sit quietly and examine myself. I find myself sadly deficient. "This is My body, broken for you... this is my blood, shed for the remission of your sins..." These are not comfortable thoughts and actions. If I could avoid them and remain in the kitchen, it would be more to my liking.

But I need to take my waste somewhere. I need to clean up sometime. I'd prefer to do it in private, behind closed doors. Experience teaches me, it is better for me to do it quietly beside my brothers and sisters. In a sense it is private. In a sense it is communal. In every sense it should humble me. If there is a humble room in our homes, I would say it is the bathroom. If there is an actual, real, literal humble place to go to in our faith, it should be our church building.

Going to church should empty us out, make us cleaner and freer. When I am cleaner and freer, the songs I sing feel more uplifting, my prayers feel as though they soar straight to God's ear, and I feel so much more love for my neighbor. God makes me this beautiful gift of feeling, even when I come dragging my feet (and my feelings) sometimes. Most times. It is alien and mystical. It's probably a whole lot better than a bathroom.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why I Go to Church, Part 1

I've been thinking lately, about some things that I've read, or heard said, about how the church "does charity". Now this is a pretty broad subject, since there are all sorts of churches and parachurch organizations that administer charity. When I say charity, the verses in Matthew 25 come to my mind.

"For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me."

I hear a lot of people complaining about how the church deals with the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. Sometimes the complaints are directed at the institution of the church, and sometimes at the individual members. And heaven help us, many of the complaints are completely valid.

There's an old Keith Green album from the seventies that rolls two songs, one into the next. The first is a dramatic retelling of the above passage of scripture, concluding with the thought that the only difference between the sheep and the goats (righteous and unrighteous) is what they "did and didn't do". It rolls directly into the song "Asleep in the Light", which describes a church paralyzed by its own prosperity.

"Oh bless me Lord, bless me Lord!"
You know it's all I ever hear.
No one aches, no one hurts,
No one even sheds one tear,

But He cries, He weeps, He bleeds,
And He cares for your needs,
And you just lay back
And keep soaking it in.
Oh, can't you see it's such a sin?

'Cause He brings people to your door,
And you turn them away
As you smile and say,
"God bless you, be at peace"
And all heaven just weeps
'Cause Jesus came to your door.
You've left him out on the streets.

Heaven help us if this is how we do charity. I have heard the cries of people who have been turned away at the door by people who say "God bless you, be at peace, and here's the numbers of some government agencies that might be able to help you". I have heard the cries of people who have been turned away at the door by people who say, "God bless you, be at peace, come back at Christmas and we'll have a toy for your baby and a holiday food box." I have heard the cries of people who have been turned away at the door by people who say "God will bless you and give you peace, but only after you clean up the mess that is your life."

The church, as an institution could do better, but we need to cut the church some slack. It is an awkward thing, trying to administer charity to strangers through the church as an institution. The government does it, and maybe does it better. The government has programs that we are compelled to fund through our tax dollars. The government expects to be defrauded. They set up all sorts of protocols for a needy person, to prove that they are indeed needy. The American tax payer does not expect the government to be frivolously handing out cash and goods to anyone who has their hand out. They expect the government to screen people, and determine if their need is real. And so needy people are served, and still the government is defrauded as well.

The church sits in the shadow of the government. No one is compelled to fund the church. People always talk about how all the church ever does is scrounge for money. I have been in the church for my entire life, and I have never experienced this. If anything, I have often heard the church apologetically asking for money to fund worthy endeavors. People give, and proportionally, the people with the least give the most. The church as an institution holds that gift carefully, and labors over where it will be best used...where it will best serve to feed, clothe, heal, and comfort. In fear of being defrauded, perhaps we guard the gift too closely. Do we become the man who buries his talents in the ground, for fear of being robbed? In fear of enabling the very behaviors that cast people into poverty of body and spirit, we are afraid to give liberally. In fear of being impoverished ourselves, we hang onto the lion's share to feed our own.

This is the struggle of the church as an institution. We have this idea that if we find ourselves cast upon hard times, we can find a church door, and knock there. Maybe we can find help. The reality is, you will probably find the door locked. If you are lucky, you will find a friendly pastor or priest, and they may be able to offer some suggestions and assistance. They will invite you to come back and worship together with their congregation. They will express an interest in getting to know you. This will feel weird and invasive, like there is a price to be paid for help, or a screening process to determine whether you are deserving. If the pastor shares your situation with the congregation, it will be awkward. People will treat you like you are special, but it will feel forced and strange. If the pastor does not share your situation, it will be awkward as well. People will treat you like nobody special, and you will feel hurt because they didn't see your need and minister to it.

I think it's kind of like being hungry, and going to the bathroom looking for food. Over and over, you feel the hunger pains, and you get up and trot to the bathroom for a snack. But there's no food to be found. There's water and a cup. That helps. There's vitamins in the cabinet. That helps too. There are magazines on the back of the toilet. Some of them even have pictures of food in them, and recipes for how to prepare it. But no matter how often you head to the bathroom, you still end up hungry.

I think that going to a church building when you are in need, is like going to the bathroom when you are hungry. It's not really what it's there for. The church building has her own purposes, and I'll return to that another day. I don't want anyone to think I'm saying that the church building is useless, or cold, or empty. I just want to spend this post sending hungry people to the kitchen.

The kitchen is people. The kitchen is community. The kitchen is relationship. The kitchen is also the church, but it can exist with or without a building, a pastor, or even a Bible. Not that it throws these things away. They are good and necessary things that help the church grow...but if it has to, it can live and even grow without them. But without people, the church is dead. The church can have a beautiful building, a well trained staff, and shelves full of Bibles and hymnals...but without living breathing people in relationship with one another, it's dying.

Oh, but the kitchen is a sloppy place. It gets uncomfortably hot at times, especially when something is cooking. The sink is full of dirty dishes, and the counters are covered with crumbs. The cooks bustle and squabble, sometimes self important in their aprons. Sometimes they yell at you to get out of the way if you're not doing anything useful. The kitchen can be a scary place, with knives and hot pans. The kitchen can be a wonderful place, full of delicious smells, and happy chatter. The kitchen is people, and it feeds you.

I think that when people come to a church building, genuinely searching for help, they are often let down. Because when people come searching for food and drink, clothing and warmth, healing and human companionship...they are searching for relationship. And when we tell people that God loves them, that He will meet all their needs, that He is the solution to all their problems...we're speaking the truth. But if we don't speak it from the context of a genuine relationship, it sounds like "God bless you, be at peace" as we turn them away from the church door, still cold and hungry.

I don't pretend to know the answers. The physical church building is often the most visible representation of the church body in the community. It is natural that people in need would want to see that steeple as a beacon. In the old stories, people left babies in baskets on church doorsteps. Is this because somehow, magically, the church building itself would save the child? No. The hope was that the presence of the church building indicated the presence of a community of people that were knit together in love. Such a community of people might take in a stranger's baby, and bring them up in that environment of love.

I think babies on church doorsteps are mostly confined to feel-good fiction. The reality was the same then as it is now. The church doors were locked for the night, and everyone was gone home to their own families and firesides. Baby would freeze on the doorstep of the church. If you didn't know of a warm, welcoming kitchen somewhere, you were out in the cold for the night. In other words, if you didn't have genuine relationships, and you found yourself in need, you had few options. I guess what I'm getting at, is that some of us need to stop checking the church doorstep for baskets, and start checking our own back porch. And some of us lingering on the church doorstep, need to find the kitchen and ask to come in. Maybe you're hungry. Maybe you know a bit about cooking. Maybe you can help with the dishes. On a cold night, we might all be surprised to see who gathers around the table.

Continued here in Part 2.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

How to Sing the Blues

I found this on Dee's blog and it made me laugh out loud. Enjoy.

1. Most Blues begin, “Woke up this morning.”

2. “I got a good woman” is a bad way to begin the Blues, ‘less you stick something nasty in the next line, like “I got a good woman, with the meanest face in town.”

3. The Blues is simple. After you get the first line right, repeat it. Then find something that rhymes … sort of: “Got a good woman – with the meanest face in town. Got teeth like Mick Jagger – and she weigh 500 pound.”

4. The Blues are not about choice. You stuck in a ditch, you stuck in a ditch; ain’t no way out.

5. Blues cars: Chevys and Cadillacs and broken-down trucks. Blues don’t travel in Volvos, BMWs, or Sport Utility Vehicles. Most Blues transportation is a Greyhound bus or a southbound train. Jet aircraft an’ state-sponsored motor pools ain’t even in the running. Walkin’ plays a major part in the blues lifestyle. So does fixin’ to die.

6. Teenagers can’t sing the Blues. They ain’t fixin’ to die yet. Adults sing the Blues. In Blues, “adulthood” means being old enough to get the electric chair if you shoot a man in Memphis.

7. Blues can take place in New York City but not in Hawaii or any place in Canada. Hard times in St. Paul or Tucson is just depression. Chicago, St.Louis, and Kansas City still the best places to have the Blues. You cannot have the blues in any place that don’t get rain.

8. A man with male pattern baldness ain’t the blues. A woman with male pattern baldness is. Breaking your leg cuz you skiing is not the blues. Breaking your leg cuz an alligator be chomping on it is.

9. You can’t have no Blues in an office or a shopping mall. The lighting is wrong. Go outside to the parking lot or sit by the dumpster.

10. Good places for the Blues:

a. highway
b. jailhouse
c. empty bed
d. bottom of a whiskey glass

Bad places:

a. Ashrams
b. gallery openings
c. Ivy League institutions
d. golf courses

11. No one will believe it’s the Blues if you wear a suit, ‘less you happen to be an old ethnic person, and you slept in it.

12. Do you have the right to sing the Blues? Yes, if:

a. you’re older than dirt
b. you’re blind
c. you shot a man in Memphis
d. you can’t be satisfied

No, if:

a. you have all your teeth
b. you were once blind but now can see
c. the man in Memphis lived.
d. you have a retirement plan or trust fund.

13. Blues is not a matter of color. It’s a matter of bad luck. Tiger Woods can now can sing the blues. Gary Coleman could. Ugly people automatically get to sing the blues.

14. If you ask for water and Baby give you gasoline, it’s the Blues. Other acceptable Blues beverages are:

a. wine
b. whiskey or bourbon
c. muddy water
d. black coffee

The following are NOT Blues beverages:

a. mixed drinks
b. Red Bull
c. Snapple
d. sparkling water

15. If it occurs in a cheap motel or a shotgun shack, it’s a Blues death. Stabbed in the back by a jealous lover is another Blues way to die. So is the electric chair, substance abuse, and dying lonely on a broken down cot. You can’t have a Blues death if you die during a tennis match or while getting liposuction.

16. Some Blues names for women:

a. Sadie
b. Big Mama
c. Bessie
d. Fat River Dumpling

17. Some Blues names for men:

a. Joe
b. Willie
c. Little Willie
d. Big Willie

18. Persons with names like Sierra, Sequoia, Auburn, and Rainbow can’t sing the Blues no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis.

19. Make your own Blues name (starter kit):

a. name of physical infirmity (Blind, Cripple, Lame, etc.)
b. first name (see above) plus name of fruit (Lemon, Lime,
Kiwi, etc.)
c. last name of President (Jefferson, Johnson, Fillmore,
etc.)

For example, Blind Lime Jefferson, or Cripple Kiwi Fillmore, etc.
(Well, maybe not “Kiwi.”)

20. I don’t care how tragic your life: you own a computer, you cannot sing the blues. You best destroy it. Fire, a spilled bottle of Mad Dog, or get out a shotgun. Maybe your big woman just done sat on it. I don’t care.

[Dang, and I had the perfect blues name picked out: Exzema Pear Cleveland...]

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Adoption Sunday

This is the speech that we were privileged to share with our congregation today.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are honored to speak to you today, about a subject that is very dear to our hearts. This month, November, is set aside as National Adoption Month, and many churches will recognize this today by observing Orphan Sunday. Many of you have supported our family in our adoption journey, and for that we are very grateful. Today we wish to challenge each of you to think about how God may be calling you to minister to orphans. Scripture teaches that each of us is required to minister to the weak and the fatherless, in their need. It is not optional, and it is not easy.

It would be very easy to make this time into an advertisement for adoption. We could tell you many heart warming and inspiring stories, and most of them would be true. Instead, we want to talk about some of the hard truths concerning orphans. Worldwide it is estimated that there are between 140 and 210 million orphans, but it is hard to tell, because only a fraction are being counted or cared for. I have read that less than one percent of these children have the hope of being adopted.

In America, if you are a healthy infant, you will certainly be adopted. There are waiting lists of qualified folks wanting to adopt these children. This is a necessary and worthy endeavor, which has its own joys and challenges, but we are not here to speak of these children today. In America we have orphans as well. They are the 114,000 foster children who are legally freed for adoption. Their family ties have been severed , and they are wards of the state. The average child in foster care is not an infant, and there is no waiting list to adopt him. He is eight, maybe nine or ten years old, a boy, African American. He may have siblings that need to be adopted with him, or that he wishes to remain close to. He will wait, on average, four and a half years to be adopted. He has suffered trauma and loss, and his attitudes and behaviors reflect this.

You will encounter this child's face in books of child profiles, or on photolistings on the internet. He will smile out at you and grab your heart. His profile will tell you that he loves fried chicken and football. That he works hard in school, and enjoys drawing and listening to music. It will probably not even hint at the truth about this child. This child was removed from his birth family because of horrible tragedy. No suitable family member or person acquainted with this child stepped forward to take him in. He is probably living in a different home than his brothers and sisters, and is lucky to see them once every few months. While in care, he has probably moved several times, having to adjust to new caregivers, homes, and schools. It is a certainty that he has experienced more trauma and abuse since he entered the system. Now he is being marketed to waiting adoptive families.

Russell D. Moore says: "As much as we might not want to admit it, many of us don’t think much about orphans because, frankly, we’re scared of them. Orphans are unpredictable. Often we don’t know where they’ve come from, what kind of genetic maladies and urges lie dormant somewhere in those genes. Moreover, in virtually every situation of fatherlessness, there is some kind of tragedy: a divorce, a suicide, a rape, a drug overdose, a disease, a drought, a civil war, and on and on. We’d rather not think about such things, and we’re afraid often of what kind of lasting mark they leave on their victims."

Many of us don't think much about orphans. Even when people do think about orphans, they often think wrongly about them. People want heart warming stories about families being formed, but adoption of orphans is also about heart wrenching stories of families being torn apart. We want to celebrate adoption because it is a win/win situation. Children without families are being given homes and families. But adoption of orphans is also about tremendous loss. The children already know this, but if the adoptive families don't know it, they'll be finding out soon.

When children are very young, even before they are born, the groundwork for who they will become is being laid. Each time a child is cared for, soothed, kept safe from harm, they are being shaped. When children are cared for consistently through childhood by the same one or two people, they are being shaped. When they are held, sung to, played with, read to...their brains are being shaped. They are receiving messages that the world is a good place, that they are valued, that they are safe. Without any thought at all, trust is formed and cemented.

When children are very young, even before they are born, and their environment is chaotic and unpredictable, likewise a foundation is being laid. When children are neglected and ignored, they are being shaped. When they are surrounded by violence and anger, they are being shaped. When they have changing caregivers, and cannot attach to any one person, their brains are being shaped. They are receiving messages that the world is a scary place, that they are unimportant, and that they must keep themselves safe at any cost.

Children, even children of trauma, are smart and adaptive. Over time, most children will develop a highly effective set of coping skills to help them navigate and survive foster care, orphanages, tent cities, the streets. It is not enough to want to help. You cannot transplant this child into your loving home, give them a cute bedroom and a closet full of toys and clothes, and tell them they are safe and loved. There are dozens of ways different children react, but almost certainly it will not be with gratitude, and reciprocal love and mutual respect.

You might find it surprising to know that no matter how awful a place this child might come from, they will miss it. They will miss their absent parents, and past caregivers. It does not matter if they can remember them. It does not matter if they were ignored by them. It does not matter if they were abused by them. They may be angry at you for taking them away from that place and those people, even if it happened long before they met you.

You might find it surprising to know that this child will be afraid of you. In the beginning you won't know, because you won't know what afraid looks like in your child. But later, much later, you will look at photos of the early days, and you'll see it. The photos will be of celebration, and you will realize your child was afraid.

The fact is, many things will surprise you, even if you read lots of books, and take classes, and pick the brains of every adoptive parent you know. Knowing what may happen, knowing what will happen, is not the same as having it happen to you and your family. Planning out how you think you will react and feel, is not the same as living through it. You may be ashamed to discover you are not half the person you thought you were. You may be shocked to discover how much you need to change to make this new relationship work.

Orphans are hurting people. The world is full of hurting people, and being an instrument of healing is something we should pray to be. When we pray, we should know how much it may cost us. My dear friend, and fellow adoptive parent, Christine Moers writes "I ask you to converse with God and determine if you are ready right now to parent one of these children. If not, what will it take for you to get to that point? How does God need to work you over?" If you feel God pulling you toward older child adoption, I would say, why not let Him start working you over right now?

Not everyone is called to adoption. Many will sincerely think it through, and come to the conclusion that God has not equipped their family to adopt. But you can support families who do choose this path. Above all else, adoptive families need to be upheld in your prayers. From the moment a family begins to fill out the paperwork, adoption is a stressful, costly, invasive process. If you have ever welcomed a child through birth, think of a long hard pregnancy with no due date in sight. Pray these children home, as there are endless obstacles and setbacks along the way.

Rejoice with adoptive families as they prepare to welcome children into their homes. Observe the same rituals that you would observe if a family was expecting a child by birth. Parties and showers are wonderful ways to celebrate, and help families provide for the needs of their new child or children. Let the family take the lead about how this is best done. Children from institutional care need simple, small lives when they arrive in a family. This may mean that showering the family with lots of material goods is not actually a good thing. Combining monetary gifts to buy one or two larger items, or to purchase a gift card for future use, may be a better plan. It is hard for families to know in advance, all that their child may need in the early months at home. Do not give in to the temptation to wait until the child is home to have a party, so that they can be included in the festivities. This celebration is for the waiting family, and will likely be be difficult for a newly placed child to process. Likewise, do not create public welcome ceremonies for older adopted children. This puts already stressed children on the spot. Instead, wait for quiet, appropriate times to say, "Hello. I'm glad you're here."

When the children finally do come home, allow families to take a period of time away. I realize that people are naturally curious and excited to meet the new child, but adoptive families need weeks, even months of quiet family time to allow their new family to begin to bond and adjust. Families may come into church late, and leave during the last hymn, because they realize this is all their child can handle for a time. Realize that much like the parents cooped up at home with a newborn, this family misses their church family. They are isolated, and often exhausted. They need for you to keep up contact. Call on the telephone, send emails and cards. Set up a rotation of meals, and have them delivered by someone who won't be tempted to stay and visit. Ask if the family would appreciate a visit after the children are in bed asleep, or offer to come stay with sleeping children so Dad and Mom can slip out for a late night cup of coffee.

It is natural that this feels strange. So often, when a young couple is expecting a child, our reaction is to say, "Oh, I just can't wait to get my hands on that baby." All the focus is on the beautiful new baby. With older child adoption, it is easy to see the beautiful baby, and the first reaction is to want to shower the child with affection and attention. The child may seem chatty and affectionate...may even run to you and hug you, or climb into your lap. This is an unhealthy behavior of an unattached child. Children learn quickly that the cutest, most charming child, often gets the lion's share of everything. If you do not have an intimate relationship with the child, it is best to gently redirect them back to the parents. Always direct them back to their parents.

These are just a few suggestions of simple things that can be done before and shortly after a child arrives. Truly, books could be written on the subject. But if I would leave you with any enduring message today, it would be this. Adoptive families of older, traumatized children are not like the other families in your parish, and these families are committing to a lifetime of being very, very different. It would be easy to understand this in terms of troubled children struggling to integrate into families, of weary adoptive parents dealing with years of rejection and difficult behaviors... and at times it can look exactly like this. But that would be unfair, and would not properly honor our children.

Every day we ask our children to move mountains to achieve healing. Our mental hospitals and prisons are filled with adults whose histories mirror that of our children, and yet we demand that they rise up out of their apathy, overcome their fear, and let go of their very justifiable anger. We ask them to make themselves vulnerable, when they have been hurt so many times before. We ask them to trust, when they have been let down time and again. It boggles the mind, to consider what we are asking of them, and in the light of this our sacrifices and struggles must also be very great. This is why God must work us over to prepare us. You must be willing to ask yourself, What am I unwilling to give? and know that it will be required of you.

Many of you may say today, "I didn't know this, then. Now it is too late. Your family is moving beyond this stage of need, and I didn't know then how to help." Don't worry. In this room, I am confident that there are other families, who God has already begun to work over. In time, they will adopt orphans, and we will all have the privilege of supporting them in their ministry. Even a few of us, who move well beyond the years of child bearing age, may realize that God calls us to be adoptive parents to young orphans nearing adulthood. Children aging out of foster care at 17 and 18 years of age, are still placing themselves on photolistings, hoping against hope that they will find a family for life. How cold is the world for an 18 year old, with no one to advise them, no home to return to for holidays, no grandparent to hold their babies? This is the sad reality for 30 thousand young people who will age out of the foster care system this year in this country.

We can only speak for our own family, but I believe in this Godly community, that it must be so, that good Christian men and women will rise to the occasion. That being said, let us be the first to announce the adoption of the next member of our family. Her name is "S" (for bloggy purposes), and she will be five years old this month. Right now she is in a wonderful medical foster home, and we have been caught in a waiting pattern for several months. The wheels of the adoption bureaucracy move very slowly. We ask that you please pray our new family member home. Pray that the appropriate approvals and paperwork come through. Pray that the money comes through. Pray that her health remains stable, and that we are able to line up excellent health care in advance of her arrival. Pray for our family, as we prepare to take on this new challenge. And pray that this is only the first such announcement in our parish.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I'll Fly Away, Oh Glory....


Last weekend I flew away, for the second time in less than a year. The first time was to Orlando, and if you want to read all about it, Corey is pretty good about keeping it on the front burner. When I came home I tried several times to blog about it, but nothing I wrote could begin to explain what we had all experienced there. I could tell about the nervousness of doing something dangerous, of flying away to meet people I only knew of in cyberspace. I could tell of the childlike joy we all felt as we explored our villa, or jumped hand in hand into an icy pool. I could tell of a dinner prepared by loving hands, and an unfolding of selves around a big table. I could tell of the laughter and tears, and the giant burning pain of parting. But it wouldn't be enough. It would only scratch the surface of what happened in Orlando.

But I can tell you about what did not happen in Orlando. A group of women did not get together to try and impress one another. A group of women did not get together and create a pecking order. A group of women did not get together and piss and moan about their spouses, children, or hard lives. Sure, we shared our struggles and frustrations, but through it all, every woman was expressing her complete commitment to the life path she had chosen. Even those who were struggling mightily, expressed profound gratitude for their partners and families.

If I had to tell you the message of Orlando, first I would have to climb to the rooftop. From there I would shout, "You are not alone!" You may feel alone, but it is a lie. Your sisters have been scattered, but you can find them if you try.

This past weekend I flew away to Texas, to a reunion of sorts. Six of the original nine traveled from around the country, to camp out on the living room floor. Though there were only six beds, there were nine spirits present. Life is life, and one can't always pack up and run away to Texas. And again, I am at a loss for words. I could tell you about the joy at seeing now familiar faces. I could tell you about talking deep into the night, playing games, eating and drinking far too much. But I would again, be scratching the surface of the thing.

This time we did not talk of our families, our children, our common bonds...not so much anyhow. We spoke of ourselves more often, of our unique histories, and thoughts, and dreams. We discovered how different we are, and most surprisingly, how very much the same. The wonder of Orlando remained, but here also an ease that I had not felt before. If the shouted message of Orlando was, "You are not alone", then the message of Gonzales was a sigh and a whisper, "Yes. I am not alone."

We spoke of how it builds us up and fills us. We, who taste discouragement every day, know that we are winning. It may not feel like winning, but we are winning. In general, Gonzales whispers, but if it shouts anything it all, it is "I want to be more than I am. I will not give up."

Beautiful airplanes, fly me home. I would rather be there than anywhere. But fly me away once in awhile, to Orlando, and Gonzales, and any other place my sisters are.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Comfort in Words

There is great comfort in words, whether it be the kind words of a friend, the lyrics of a song that stay within you and resonate, or the words of an excellent story. I am a person who loves words. I would rather have a word to carry with me into the dark night, than pretty much anything else. Words are like food, and I hunger for them, and search them out like choice morsels. So often, words form a chain, from the lips of a friend, to a song we heard, to the written page... all the same necessary message.

A few years ago I decided to read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I had started it several times, always stalling in the first hundred pages or so. This time I would persevere, and read the entire story. I remember reading passages, and feeling the story crawl under my skin. It describes a time, early in Frodo's journey, when he begins to realize what he has undertaken, and the horrible danger of it. It goes:

They stood for awhile silent on the hill-top, near its southward edge. In that lonely place Frodo for the first time fully realized his homelessness and danger. He wished bitterly that his fortune had left him in the quiet and beloved Shire. He stared down at the hateful Road, leading back westward--to his home. Suddenly he was aware that two black specks were moving slowly along it, going westward; and looking again he saw that three others were creeping eastward to meet them.

Those black specks were of course the black riders, out to seek his life and to end his mission. There was of course, no safe road home. The words of this passage resonated in me, at a time when I realized that I had chosen a road that was fraught with danger and difficulty. One day, like Frodo, I had found myself looking back on the road I had recently traveled, and I realized that I found the sight of that road hateful to me. I hated the road for bringing me so far from all I held dear, and familiar, and comfortable. As I gazed backward from my imaginary high ground, I saw that the road home was fraught with danger, and that going backward was no longer a safe option. I knew that my only option was to press forward, though it seemed unlikely that this option would prove safe either. In that instant, I truly did hate the road for carrying me anywhere at all, and for making me so weary and worn. Perhaps I am a bit hobbit-like at heart.

Recently I came upon a song, in a rather roundabout way. A friend posted a link to a video, that touched my heart, but also made me search for this album. I actually purchased it, something I have not done in years. When it arrived in the mail, I put it into my CD player, and lay down on the floor, and listened to the songs. I still found that I loved the original song I had first heard, and liked all of the others. But one song spoke to me at a fundamental level. It is a song called "The Long Defeat", and if I could send you to a link of it, I would. I can only find it in its entirety in one place, and it's set as background music to a home made TV show trailer, and the video really detracts from the song.

OK. I promise I'm going somewhere on this rabbit trail. I was reading the info about the song, and I saw that its title had come from a quote by Paul Farmer. In his biography written by Tracy Kidder, he is quoted as saying:

I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I am not going to stop because we keep losing. Now I actually think sometimes we may win. I don't dislike victory.... You know, people from our background-- like you, like most PIH-ers (Partners In Health-ers), like me--we're used to being on a victory team, and actually what we're trying to do in PIH is to make common cause with the losers. Those are two very different things. We want to be on the winning team, but at the risk of turning our backs on the losers, no, it's not worth it. So you fight the long defeat.

It's an amazing quote really, and made me go do a little internet research about Paul Farmer. It also made me want to read the book, which I am going to try and order from the library next time I go there. But I wondered where he had come up with this vaguely familiar concept of the long defeat. There seemed to be a bit of disagreement, but I came to the conclusion that it was likely he was quoting from one of his favorite books, The Lord of the Rings. It seems that Galadriel says to the weary Frodo, "Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat."

For days, and weeks, the phrase "the long defeat" has echoed in my ears. What in the world is the "long defeat"? And why in the world would anyone in their right mind want to fight it? I am all for choosing the winning side and planning and working toward victory. I see almost everything as a win or a loss, and I am not accustomed to losing. I have been known to carefully weigh odds, and choose not to participate, based on the assumption that I could not win, and was therefore wasting my time.

For the last few years, I have been fighting the uphill battle, desperate to wring wins out of the excruciating effort. As time rolls on, and I am able to see the writing on the wall, I must acknowledge that I am likely fighting the "long defeat" in many areas of my life. Here are the lyrics that grab me, and wring something out of my soul:

I have joined the long defeat that falling set in motion.
All my strength and energy are raindrops in the ocean.

So conditioned for the win, to share in victors' stories,
but in the place of ambition's din, I've heard of other glories.

I pray for an idea, and a way I cannot see.

It's too heavy to carry, and impossible to leave.

I can't just fight when I think I'll win, that's the end of all belief;
and nothing has provoked it more than a possible defeat.

I pray for an idea, and a way I cannot see.

It's too heavy to carry, and impossible to leave.


We walk awhile, we sit and rest, we lay it on the altar.
I won't pretend to know what's next, but what I have I've offered.

I pray for a vision, and a way I cannot see.

It's too heavy to carry, and impossible to leave.

I pray for inspiration, and a way I cannot see.

It's too heavy to carry, and impossible to leave.

(The Long Defeat by Sara Groves)
Up to this point in my life I never really had to pray for an idea, vision, inspiration. I have always been full of ideas. Up until now, I had never found myself in the middle of the road, facing the dilemma that my burden was too heavy to carry, but too precious to abandon. I am not acquainted with "the way I cannot see". I was always too smart to choose the losing side.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ode to a Red Warm-Up Suit

When I was a child of eleven or twelve, I decided to buy a warm-up suit. Back in those days, warm-up clothes, sweat suits if you will, were highly specific items of clothing. No one owned multiple pairs of sweat pants or piles of fashionable "hoodies". Athletic clothing was mostly confined to athletic activities, and non athletic people like myself, just did not own such a thing, much less wear it out in public. I would have just as soon turned up at school in my nightgown. For gym class, you rounded up a pair of shorts from the previous summer, with a T-shirt nobody cared about, and these were your "gym clothes".

May I say, right off the bat, that I hated gym? I would wake up on "gym days" with dread in my gut. There were several layers to my dread. First, I hated to exert myself. Not in general, but for the forty minutes between science and history. It interrupted the flow of my day, and made me feel all distracted and disjointed. Plus I hated to go back to class all sweaty, but in elementary school, no one had the option to take a shower. I think there was a shower, but I never saw it used, ever. And then also, I hated most gym class activities. I wasn't terribly good at them, and people got so worked up and even mean about them. And it was cold. I grew up in New England, where our school buildings were drafty and cold. Every day I bundled up in corduroy, turtlenecks, and woolen sweaters and tights. Undressing for gym was torture. I would put on those shorts, and stand in the drafty gym, clutching my arms around my middle, my legs purple and goose pimpled. The gym teacher would cheerfully exhort us that if we would "get moving" we would warm up, and it was true. But there was no middle ground. One moment I would be shivering convulsively, the next minute my hair would be plastered to my forehead with sweat. Even worse were spring and fall days, when the cheerful gym teacher would desire to "get us out into the fresh air". Those were fifty degree days, out in the stingy sunlight, running across soggy fields. The brisk breeze cut through the worn T-shirt like a knife and numbed the bare limbs, and no amount of "moving" warmed one up.

And then the most brilliant idea came to me. I was reading the Sears Wishbook, and my eyes fell upon the picture of a happy, athletic girl wearing a warm-up suit. It really was a marvel that my mind even registered the picture, since I usually skipped past the athletic section of the book, but somehow fate was with me. I stopped to consider the knit jacket that zipped up the front, and the straight knit pants with elastic waistband. I pondered the color options of navy and red, and the triple white stripes down sleeve and pant leg. Like a message from heaven itself, the dress code for gym class flashed before me, and I realized that warm up suits could be worn in place of shorts and T-shirts. I became a woman on a mission. I would buy a warm-up suit.

I told everyone about my plan. I quickly checked my resources. I probably had a dollar or two in change. But Christmas was coming, and I knew I would receive cash gifts. I could probably rely on a few dollars to come directly into my hands, but the key was the check from Grandma. Grandma would send a check to my mother, and my mother would decided what to buy with it. I knew I must persuade my mother to order the suit, or all would be lost for another school year. For weeks, perhaps months, I mounted my persuasive campaign. For weeks, perhaps months, my mother tried to dissuade me. She could not see the sense in spending all my Christmas money on such a specific item of clothing, when there were so many other things I might need or enjoy.

In the end, I stuck to my plan, and either I persuaded or annoyed my mother into ordering that suit for me. I chose red, and stood anxiously by while my mother phoned in the order. I chewed down my nails, waiting for the call that would say the parcel had arrived at the store, and was ready for pick up. I anguished through the days, waiting for my parents to make the drive into town to pick up my precious package. It seemed as though it would never happen, but finally it was in my hands, a surprisingly small, light weight sack. I rolled it out of the bag with something akin to wonder. There it was, in all its fire engine red polyester glory, and I knew that I loved it.

My mother looked at me and sniffed. "I hope you're happy with it." Her tone implied that she did not believe I would be, but she was wrong. I was happy for every gym class until I went off to high school. It never made gym class fun or enjoyable. It didn't make me less sweaty when I got overheated. But every time I hurried out of my warm clothes and into those soft ,warm long pants and sleeves, I was happy. Every time I lined up in a chilly gym, or on a windy playground, next to shivering classmates, I was happy.

I learned a lesson with that purchase. I learned that sometimes you just have to spend all your Christmas money on the thing that will help make life bearable. Sure, I could have economized and kept on shivering. Would I even remember the thing my mother would have talked me into buying with the Christmas check from my grandmother? I learned that most of the time, nobody else understands what you need, or how much it matters. My mother never understood my horrible fear of the warm-up suit getting delayed in the laundry, the fear of being reduced to a worn out pair of shorts. I guess it was the first time I learned a little something about self care. Even now, I often equate self care with selfishness. I wasn't selfish by buying that suit. Sure I could have sent my Christmas check to starving children in Mexico, but we all know that wasn't going to happen. My mother would have discouraged it. My Grandmother already sent money to starving children in various locations. She meant this money for me.

Sometimes God sends me a Christmas check, and often I try and send it to starving children or give it away, but God doesn't always want me to do that. Sometimes He intends it to be just for me. Sometimes, I believe, He wants me to order a fire engine red polyester warm-up suit and stay warm.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Coming to Peace...

I am slowly coming to peace with some choices we have had to make. From my viewpoint, we were presented with several options, none of which I liked. The only option I did actually like, is not an option. No go, off the table. Nothing I can do will make it an option at this point. So I sat down with my other options, and weighed out the pros and cons of each. The problem is, that most of the options I felt I could live with, had huge cons for myself and beloved husband. Probably the kind of cons that would have us checking into a double occupancy rubber room. The options that "worked" in any way for us and the family as a whole, seemed to not work for one of our especially challenging children. I have been circling, and researching, and filling out forms, and scratching my head. I have had endless emails and phone calls. Every night I have gone to bed discouraged and restless, but each morning I have awoken full of resolve to make the right choice, regardless of the cost.

The funny thing is this. Every time I would get going in a track, and would be getting excited about the possibilities, something would come to light regarding this challenging child. Something that would stop me in my tracks, and make me question the track I was currently on. Again and again it has happened, to the point that I am able to predict that if I get an energizing phone call or email, I will also get news of some wonky behavior within the hour. It might be new wonky behavior, or just old stuff coming to light. But invariably, the new awareness always seems to put the current proposed course of action in serious question.

The other morning we were dealing with wonky, and it just came over me, that we should not change anything at all. That we were to just stay the current course, even though it has all the earmarks of failure. That's the thing...no matter what we try, once the novelty has been wrung out of it, it always begins to look like failure. And like any parent, adoptive or otherwise, I start to put things under the microscope and look for alternatives. What am I doing wrong? What do I need to change? How can I rally the resources to make the needed change?

The other day I was visiting with a missionary friend, who is currently contemplating change, and had been really unsettled about what course she should take. She was so afraid that she would go her own way, and miss God's will, that she was actually propelling herself toward that which was hardest, and even most distasteful to her, in fear of shirking the difficult call. In a time of intense prayer, a friend told her they felt impressed by God to ask her, "What do you want to do?" This was so shocking to her system, that her reaction was actually physical.

I felt, the other morning, in the midst of chaos, that same impression. "What do you want to do?" I realized I didn't want to do anything at all. I wanted to stay the course we had begun, in spite of the fact that on many levels it appears to have failed. I realized that I was willing to make a change, even a change that would cost me dearly, but that my willingness was not confirmation that change should occur. I also realized that every bit of what appeared to be failure, had nothing to do with me or my choices. It had nothing to do with me shirking hard work, or my willingness to love or serve my daughter, or the rest of my family.

Most, if not all, of the failure results from my daughter's inability to make good choices for herself. It isn't even for me to try and sort out how much blame should sit on her shoulders, or how much of it she is led to by her traumatic history. I just know it doesn't rest on my shoulders. Not that I don't feel the weight of it. I do. And I am willing to continue helping to carry that weight, as any mother, adoptive or otherwise, would.

And anyhow, I'm getting used to this looking like failure gig. I realize that what looks like success in so many young people is just smoke and mirrors, and what looks like failure is often the building blocks for something real and good. I'm willing to bet on that, even though at times it's hard to believe in.

Friday, July 2, 2010

What I Hate About "Fundraising"

I detest typical fundraising efforts. I hate to send my children out to peddle stuff. My least favorite type of fundraiser goes something like this:
  • My child is sent home with a catalog and order form for some overpriced luxury item like candles or candy.
  • They are expected to make the rounds of our closest family, friends, and neighbors to sell their wares.
  • They are expected to collect money by a prescribed date, and turn it in with properly filled out forms.
  • They then receive a small portion of the sales towards their "fund".
This is how it really goes:
  • I have to nag my children to go peddle their wares, because they feel uncomfortable doing it, and because they have other far more interesting things to do with their time.
  • I have to keep track of order forms and money, because, HELLO, these are children here. As a rule, when people fork over money, they don't expect it to end up in the black hole of my son's bedroom.
  • We rapidly run out of customers because:
  1. We live in the boonies.
  2. We don't live near extended family.
  3. We have several children in the family competing for the same customer base.
  4. We associate with people who don't have a lot of extra money, and aren't interested in spending it on overpriced trinkets.
I think these fundraisers are evil because they put pressure on kids and families to do something that makes them fundamentally uncomfortable. Furthermore, they don't encourage kids to actually work toward their goal, because really all they do is make the request and collect the cash. Mom usually does all the real work of managing the project and distributing the goods. Plus, most of the time, the smallest part of the profit goes to your cause. All along the way, others are getting their piece of the pie.

The only type of fundraising I actually approve, is when a kid works hard to provide a service or product that people actually want. It should be presented in a manner that puts no pressure on the potential customer. I like bake sales and car washes, because all the profits go to the cause, and no one feels strong armed into pulling over and submitting to having their car washed. Generally the same is true of bake sales, as the goods are fairly priced, and you are free to walk on past, if the sight of fudge brownies doesn't compromise you.

Lots of folks have the cockles of their hearts warmed at the sight of hard working young people, willing to give their time and energy to a cause or goal. Those folks often generously say, "Keep the change," or drop cash into a donation bucket, even if they don't have a car to wash or want a sweet. But no one put pressure on them to do it. They didn't feel taken advantage of, when their $20 box of caramels arrived, and they realized it fit on the palm of their hand. Sure looked bigger in the catalog.

I also admire people who train to do something HARD, like run a marathon, or jump on a pogo stick 10,000 times, to raise money for worthy causes. Really, they are just straight up asking you to give. They're saying, "This is important enough to me, that I'm willing to do something potentially painful to make it happen. Will you help me?" And I can respect that, because I can say yes or no as I'm able, and anyone who is strong enough to run a marathon, can deal with me saying no. But those candle and candy companies bank on the notion that cute little kids, with sad puppy dog eyes, are impossible to say no to, and that's just slippery in my opinion. Not admirable in the least.

I'm undecided about dinners. I think if you provide a nice meal, maybe some quality entertainment, and a presentation of the goal, it can be quite good. But I've been to a few sad pasta dinners and chicken barbecues, where I felt the value was just not there, and I didn't really care if the cause was worthy. People who fork over the cash for benefit dinners are honored guests. I think they should be treated as such, even if the fare is simple.

I realize I've used words like HATE, DETEST, and EVIL in this post. Clearly I feel strongly about this matter. I suppose that qualifies this as a rant. My son will be so proud. He loves a good rant.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An Essay

"Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother,' which is the first commandment with a promise: 'that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.' " Ephesians 6:1-3

"The eye that mocks a father, that scorns obedience to a mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures." Proverbs 30:17

These have been part of an ongoing writing assignment for one of my children. In addition to writing the verses many, many times, they were also expected to write an essay sharing their thoughts regarding obedience to the authorities God has placed over us. Of course we all memorized the first verse as children, and quote it regularly to our own children. The second is slightly less widely memorized and quoted, yet the message is not lost on a girl who lives where there is lots and lots of roadkill. She knows that dying by the side of the road means that the crows will eat you. After some discussion, she understood that disobedience doesn't necessarily strike you dead, but that a life of honor and obedience comes with a promise, and likewise, so does a life of dishonor and disobedience.

It took about a week of dishonor and disobedience to finally get to the place where she completed the copying part of her assignment. It should have taken no more than two days. I reminded her that she needed to write her essay. She pretty much told me where I could go with my essay. It was in this climate of anger, more than a week out from any discussion about the verses, that she began to write. I am amazed at the result. I will share in her very own words, that you may be amazed as well. I will add that although I will edit very slightly for spelling, this essay was well written in neat, pretty cursive, with little need for the red marking pen.

I think that disobedience will get you nowhere but in a broken down house somewhere. Which would lead to you smoking, and doing drugs, and drinking. This will also lead to you being sexually active and having kids that you don't want. Your kids will be like you. You will also be in and out of jail for getting in trouble with the law. Which is pretty bad. You will be sick and will look pretty bad and ugly. This will lead to you dying somewhere on the side of the road. And if somebody found you they probably wouldn't know who you were.

I think obedience will lead to you having a good life. You will get a good education. You will go to college and get a good job. You will get married and have kids that will be healthy and very obedient. Which will be great. They will have good friends and be good students at school. They won't be in and out of jail. You will live long in a nice home with a nice family. When you died there would be lots of nice people that knew you that would come to your funeral.

I think we should all go for obedience, because you will get a lot further in life with it. We should all go for obedience which would be a great choice. You won't have a bad life.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Flowers For....Me

In the last couple of weeks we have painted through our entire new house, moved into it, cleaned and polished up the old place. We broke down the goat pen and moved it, and cleaned up and reseeded the area where the pen used to sit. We've attended concerts, and dinners, and closing programs. We've had dress rehearsals for dance recitals, and graduation parties to attend. We've also dealt with cheating and lying, physical defiance and restraints. Life has been tipped upside down a bit, and attachment disordered children don't like that. Neither do attached children, or Moms or Dads for that matter.

In the midst of all this, I have been working on putting in flower beds. I don't really have the time, but I do it anyhow. I do it for me, and pretty much that's all. My house faces a deserted dirt road, that might see two cars a day, so no one will be commenting on how nice my yard looks. Beloved wanders out occasionally and cheers me on, but he would happily live in a weed patch. Nobody else in my family cares one bit about the landscaping, with the possible exception of Hippie Boy, who is currently having a love affair with a pretty orange Husquvarna push mower that he calls "his baby". Technically it was my Mother's Day gift a few years ago, but whatever. I don't really mind that my mower is cheating on me with my son.

And while he mows his little heart out, any day the weather permits, I try to get outdoors and weed, mulch, plant. Today I filled five buckets with black gold, otherwise known as my own special compost mix. It's a blend of goat manure and decomposing hay, aged for up to seven years, so rich you might be tempted to eat it with a spoon. Well, maybe not, but my plants eat it up. I turned it over into my beds, and planted my flowers, cradling them in their carefully dug holes, or in the flower boxes on my porch.

Last month was my birthday, and a friend sent me a gift. Although her husband had recently lost his job, and she was up to her eyeballs in her own challenges, she remembered that it was my birthday, and she took the time to send me a card, write me a note, and send me the dough with instructions to get a treat, just for me. For a month I have been wondering what I should buy, just for me. Last weekend I knew it was flowers; beautiful, cheerful, pink and blue flowers. I know they have fancy names, but to me, all summer, they will be my Coreyflowers.

In the midst of the crazy I will head out to my unremarked upon front yard, and pull weeds and pluck spent blossoms. I will do it just for me, and I will look at the delicate faces of my Coreyflowers and I will think of my RADmom friends. I will hope and pray that they are finding a moment of peace in their crazy days.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Community

A few thoughts on community. A friend recently expressed, that it is hard to live in community. Amen, and you ain't kidding sister! The hardest people you'll ever live with, are the people you live with. I was thinking about this today, as I was mulling over my daughter's attachment challenges. Being pretty classically attachment disordered, she seeks superficial interactions, and spurns anything deeper, more long-standing, anything that holds her accountable. In her muddled fantasy world, people are always fun. They always talk in that high pitched voice that adults reserve for young children they have just met. They always have treats for you, or plans to take you to a playground or fast food restaurant. They never stick around for more than an hour or two. They never show up more than once a week. They are always charmed by your cuteness, or at least pretend to be. This, in her mind, is the ideal relationship...and of course anyone who has experienced a healthy relationship would immediately see the problem with this opinion. It isn't a relationship. Real people, in real relationships spend time together, getting to know one another in a variety of situations. Generally this leads to seeing one another in less than favorable lights at times. And that's okay, because the people who know us and love us, warts and all, are the people that generally stick with us through the tough times, and rejoice with us when we experience success. In other words, you tough it out at times, but the payoff can be pretty big. But my daughter hasn't ever experienced this. To her, instant payoff in the form of a trinket or treat, outweighs the need to work at relationship to experience deeper joy. I find this tremendously sad.

Another thing I've been thinking about, is kind of related. I have a several friends who have adopted older, attachment challenged children. I notice a theme in so many of the conversations we have had over the course of time. There is such a craving for community. I ask myself why. These are strong willed, talented adults. They're not the sorts that would ever have trouble making friends or influencing people. So why do they exist as islands, craving community and fellowship? I believe it is because the course of their lives have taken them down a lonely, isolated road. They thought they knew where it was leading, but then they found themselves so far out in the boonies, that there was no cell phone reception. Wait, that's where I actually live...but I think you can understand that I'm using a metaphor.

So what do you do about it? I see people do a variety of things. Some people venture into town, and try really hard to fit in. They mostly do this by pretending that their lives are like everyone else's. They hide all the trauma and hooey that goes on behind closed doors, and in the end, they feel more alone and even more traumatized. Some people go with the open book model. They try and explain what their lives are like, in the hope that they would have the chance to educate people, and maintain community with the folks they used to connect with so well. Often this results in trauma as well, since those folks are polite, but frequently form opinions that have nothing to do with our reality. And of course they would. It's like trying to explain to someone what it's like to live on Mars. They form their opinions based on their experience of living on Earth. I can't blame them for that, but it does make me cranky at times.

In the end, most of us just end up living in the isolation, whether we like it or not. We get tired of trying to fit into a world that no longer fits us anymore. We grieve for our loss. We say things like, "I just want a normal life..." or "For a minute, it almost felt like we were a normal family..." or "I just want my life back." I've said them all. And while we grieve, we cry out for community, because we are so lonely. Our lives are hard, and I don't say that to whine. They just are. Day in and day out, you learn to eat disappointment. There are victories, large and small, but they are bought at great price.

This is where I'm getting to be at. I say that, because it's a very slow process. This is what I tell myself every day. When I adopted older, traumatized children I kissed normal goodbye. I brought mental illness into my home voluntarily, and I said I was ready to deal with that, and I was so deluded. There isn't a class on this Earth (or Mars for that matter) that can prepare you for that. I have been to the depths of discouragement, and grief, and anger. But here's the weird thing. I really don't want normal, no matter how much I might whine and cry about it. And I'm pretty happy with my life. I used to get all worked up about stupid, inconsequential, selfish things. I used to be weak. I used to be ruled by my emotions. I still am...but I am less so, and I believe that is a good thing. My children are really tough, but I care what happens to them, and I believe that is a good thing. I have some friends who are traveling this lonesome road, and though we don't always physically travel together, I know I don't go it alone. It is enough for me, and I am grateful.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Thought

"The demand to know where we are going is one which no Christian has a right to make. In a very real sense we do not know where we are going, but we are trying to meet day by day the plain requirements of God's will."

~Bishop Newbigin 1909-1998

Monday, April 12, 2010

In a Word...

OK. Two of my Orlando Angels have posted this, and given orders to do it. I am nothing if not obedient. By the way, I know I broke the one word rule with ice cream... but I didn't want to lie.

Hair – troublesome
Your Mother – sputtering
Your Father – puttering
Fav Food – ice cream
Dream Last Night – forgotten
Fav Drink – coffee
What room are you in? – living
Hobby – writing
Fear – cowardice
Where were you last night? – home
Something that you aren’t – patient
Muffins – pumpkin
Wish List Item – solitude
Where you grew up – MA
What you are wearing – socks
Your Pet – many
Friends – cherished
Something you’re not wearing – shoes
Fav Store – grocery
Fav Color – red
Last time you laughed – now
Your Best Friend – husband
Best Place you go over and over – Disney
Person who you email regularly – BJ
Fav place to eat - home


I know this is the part where I'm supposed to tag folks. Just comment and tell me you did it so I can enjoy what you wrote.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Life is Only Therapy

We've all been running up against it...the sad story of the "returned" Russian adoptee. I don't want to write about it. I don't want to think about it. It opens up cans of worms I prefer to leave tightly closed. My friend Corey posted about it today, and her thoughts make me weep. Her response is well thought out, and not an emotional, knee-jerk response to a complex problem. It is true that her perception is colored by her own experiences, how could it not be? Mine is too. We are women living in a constant state of emotional contradiction; intense compassion blended with anger. It is hard to exist in our skins, loving our children so much that we are willing to live such threadbare lives to see them through. It is easy to judge when you still have dreams for your children. It is easy to judge when you still have hope. It is easy to know what you "would have done" when you do not live in constant fear.

I do not believe God wants us to live threadbare fearful lives, devoid of dreams and hope. I believe that God is "slow to anger, and of great kindness"...which implies that God has both anger and compassion for His own children. I believe God does not wish for us to run to judgment, for either the parent or the child. It's the easy road. Isn't it easy to feel anger and indignation about the boy cruising the school halls with a loaded gun? Isn't it easy to feel it about the woman handing a note to her son and shipping him off on an international flight?

We have not chosen the easy road. This thing we do is not for the faint of heart. There is so much outcry about the lack of preparation, the lack of services, the lack of supports. Don't get me wrong. Adoptive parents NEED to be prepared. Services and supports CAN be a lifesaver for a season of time. Go with that word picture... a buoyant ring, that you grab onto to keep from drowning. Something to hold onto, until you can be pulled to safety. They are not permanent solutions. They don't heal our children, they rescue us in the storm. How can you know that you can parent this child? This child is a stranger, and their history is shrouded in mystery. How can you know what you are capable of, both for good and evil, until you are put to the test?

Logic tells me that some people will find that they are made of much stronger stuff than they ever knew possible. Others will find that they grossly overestimated their own capabilities. Why is there no provision for this? Every RAD mom fantasizes about running away. That's not what I'm talking about. Every one of us gets to a breaking point, and it generally isn't pretty. But we get up again, and go back in for another round. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about d.o.n.e. Some people get there, especially if they are isolated and believe they are alone. Maybe most people get there, when they are isolated and believe they are alone.

I realize this is a post with a lot of questions, and very few answers. The more I travel this road, the more I realize how few answers I have. Like the country song says, "Life is only therapy...real expensive, and no guarantee..." I don't want life to be that way. I want guarantees. I want to know something for sure, and I still believe I can. But the only way to do it with ease, is to hold yourself above the fray, away from the pain, out of view of all that is unsavory about humanity. Ivory palaces and all that jazz.