Sunday, February 11, 2018

Gap Fillers

You know what I have discovered?  Faith is a really, really difficult thing to hold on to. I am not just talking about faith in God, but faith in ourselves, faith in others, faith in the world.

The past month has been a painful one for me, and it was all self-created.  Oh, don't get me wrong, the realities that caused the pain are still very much alive and true...but the pain caused by doubt and as-yet-unfounded fears exacerbated things to a completely unnecessary degree.  I am wise enough to see that and understand it, but may spend the remainder of my life trying to conquer it.

You see, January roles around, and that is when I begin thinking about our next school year and what subjects we will cover, what curricula to search for, etc.   Next year will be Kenny and Angela's senior years, Oleysa's junior year, and Joshua's sophomore year.  Guess what?  That "future" we used to talk about is nigh upon us, and it is scaring the bejeebers out of me.  The reality is that Kenny will likely never be able to hold a traditional job,  if any job at all, despite his very obvious intelligence.  Angela will absolutely be able to, but will she and Olesya be able to work at jobs that will pay enough for independence and self-sufficiency? 

These two are the kindest people I have ever met.

Angela has a direction, and Kenny has many interests, but how in the world do I help them parlay that into meaningful work?  Will Angela be able to earn enough in a career that is notoriously low paying?  Can she handle the academics of what it will take to step to the next level of pay?  Kenny will never drive, and any sort of life he has will be facilitated by me.  What, exactly, do the next few years look like for him post-graduation?  How do we craft a fulfilling path for him? Can I manage to keep life fulfilling for him, and also find space for me, too?  Then Olesya is on the tail of that, with gifts...and challenges...galore.  How can I help her live into who she can be and avoid directions that don't require things she can not offer? 

Being a homeschooling mom is an enormous job under any circumstances, being one under THESE circumstances requires a level of giftedness I just don't have.  I am not a trained career counselor, special education guidance director, or specialist of any sort.  I am a mom who is passionately advocating for her kids, who believes in them and just KNOWS there is something out there for each of them...but is doubting I can help them get there.

Trust me, the weight is overwhelming some nights.  Awake in bed, my mind swirls with questions about how to financially provide for Kenny after we are gone, how to gently guide and steer, how to explore options.  There are few experts in the US on their disability, and most people they encounter don't see it.  It is why Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is called "the invisible disability". This may change in time as the US catches up with Canada in research, diagnosing, and understanding.  In fact, a NY Times article this week explains a lot about our how prevalent and undiagnosed this is.   They look and act in many ways as competent as everyone else, and in some ways they are. 

But in so many ways, life is different for them.

Some of our kids struggle with possibilities and limitations that are very real.  Kenny and Angie will not be like Matt, nor like I assume Josh will be.  Neither will Olesya.  They can't come to me with a list prepared of things to look into, directions to take, courses to study.  They simply can't think that way, and they need me to do it for them.  They CAN accomplish far more than might otherwise happen if they have that sort of support, and by gosh, they are going to get it even if I literally have to go to school with them and re-explain every lecture in ways they can understand!  They are all three so bright, so positive and hard working.  They have talents and dreams and ambition, it just needs to be helped to be lived into.

It terrifies me to think I will fail them, that I won't do my job well enough to help them step into the world confidently, independently (as much as they can be), and joyfully.  I can fail at things that are about me, but THIS?  No...I can not fail them, I just can't.

Aaaaannnddd...there is where I actually HAVE failed, and where that lack of faith comes in.  Just when you have convinced yourself you are all alone in something, that you are incapable and incompetent, God shows up in the form of all sorts of other people.

This past week the girls had an extraordinarily beautiful experience with a woman from church who pulled them in close and offered her expertise as a seamstress and overall classy woman.  She has grown daughters who had prom style dresses she wanted to share with the girls, and so they spent an evening in her care.  She offered them so much that I can't...affirmation from someone other than their mom of their beauty, how to dress well, and she helped them see how alterations can completely change a look.  Also, I am not exactly known for my style and grace, and never will be.  More importantly, our girls never had the chance to play "dress up" and Christy couldn't have really known that, but God used her to provide an opportunity to do exactly that.  I couldn't offer them this organically very easily.   I can not create a situation for the girls to have such an experience and have it not feel false.  This was natural, it was lovely, and it came along at just the right time as Angie is anticipating attending her first dance.  Christy had no idea that when I drove away, leaving the girls in her care for an hour while I attended choir practice, that I was in tears, knowing God had just wrapped up Olesya and Angela in loving arms.  Were they my arms?  Nope, but that doesn't matter at all...there is always, always room for more love.  Love expands us all, it doesn't contract.

I let faith slip away.  I forgot in the way we humans tend to forget that we don't always have to "make" things happen, that God has this subtle way of sneaking in and meeting our every need, even the needs we aren't considering in any given moment.

This past weekend I shared photos on Facebook of another way in which God is meeting needs in our family in ways I can't.  Sometimes I just shake my head at my own ignorance and arrogance.  How could I ever think that somehow I even COULD fix it all, do it all, be it all?  Kenny has needed a rite of passage into manhood desperately, and his disability will deny him that in some of the more traditional ways.  He has needed a community all his own, a place where his own passions and interests can be explored and expanded upon.  At 19 years old, and without the regular markers of adulthood, his installation into the Shriner's (Part of the Masonic Lodge that raises money and supports children's hospitals all over the US) was precisely what was needed. It was at a well attended banquet, in a room filled with elders, that Kenny was welcomed to the brotherhood as an equal.  Dominick and I couldn't have been prouder, and from the grins on their faces, his siblings who he so proudly introduced also couldn't have been happier for him.  They, of all people, knew what this meant to Kenny.

There he stood, beaming broadly, so proud to finally have earned the right to don his fez after over a year of hard work moving up in the Masons.  Two years ago when he entered one of America's earliest Lodges at Lexington and Concord during their Open House, I saw a spark that needed to be fanned.  It tapped his deepest interests of history and theology, along with his gifts of public speaking and service.  How happy we all were to see him installed!!  Again, I couldn't have created this for him, I couldn't "make" it happen authentically.  There are needs I just can't meet.

But others can.

At church the next morning after the installation, this idea that others will always be walking alongside us was reiterated when Kenny wore his fez to church, sitting so proudly with it as others offered hearty congratulations and admired it.  They could have snickered at this fez-topped young man, could have ignored it, could have rolled their eyes.  I mean, I get it, being a Shriner and perhaps literally a Shriner clown at some point isn't exactly many people's idea of "cool".  Instead they lovingly came around him and celebrated with him, recognizing how important this moment was, and acknowledging it as an adult accomplishment. 

Oh how this kid needed this!  A couple of years ago, Dominick and I were both deeply concerned about the state of his mind and heart.  We were worried he would never really find his place in the world, never feel he had a purpose.  His growing understanding of his disability was heartbreaking to witness and walk through with him.  He ached with grief and loss, quietly expressed.  He gave up, in some ways.

And, yet again, God sneaked up and brought a true sense of wholeness and possibility, using others to value what Kenny has to offer which is something that coming from mom alone just isn't heard in the same way.

Am I reassured now?  Will I sleep better at night and let go of the worry?  Oh, probably not! Hahaha!  Let's face it, faith is hard in all its forms.  Trust in others, trust in right timing, trust in opportunities presented, all of it requires more than on some days I can believe in. 

But there are those moments when I have this flash of what God's Kingdom is really like. There are flickers of comprehension that are often doused (usually unwittingly by me),  but others come along with a new match and light that wick again, as they hold my hand and remind me I am not alone.  They may not even be able to offer any real assistance other than that hand holding, but on some days, that is truly enough.

I will eventually get it through my thick head that my gaps in ability allow others space to enter in to shine and offer their gifts.  Silly me, how could I think it as even possible for me to meet anyone's every need? 

And maybe, just maybe, once in awhile God uses me to fill in someone else's gaps, too.  How I hope that is true.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Great Need


Of a great need
We are all holding hands
And climbing.
Not loving is letting go.
The terrain around here
Far too

- Hafiz

For school we are all reading the poetry of Hafiz in his great work, The Gift, as a
spiritual practice as well as a way of more deeply exploring metaphor and symbolism.  Last year we spent the entire year working through the Tao Te Ching, and it was an extraordinarily powerful experience for us all.  Several of us felt we gained a new insight into the Spirit and God's very presence in our lives.  I know many Christians eschew the practice of reading other sacred writings, but we enjoy doing so and we see how God can be found throughout the world's great spiritual texts, and I find my relationship with God deepens as I view the spirit through the lens of others.

The poetry of Hafiz is, dare I say, one of the sweetest invitations to be fully present to God that I have ever read.  In page upon page we find the very nature of a God we can't ever truly pin done revealed to us.  I was struck though, quite deeply, by this particular poem we read today which I shared above.

Our former Pastor offered a theological nugget that will stick with me always, and that is that sin is, at its core, a failure in love.  The imagery of this poem above speaks to this boldly, as we can imagine a group of people struggling through life, facing the challenges and heartbreaks of a life lived engaged in the world, and yet being able to continue on because they are tightly gripping the hands of those who pull them forward when they simply can't take another step.

Oh, how we have been blessed to have hands reaching out to us throughout our lives!  

A couple of Sundays ago, I made a bit of a fool of myself as I rose to thank our new church congregation for embracing our family so fully.  It was the year anniversary of our first time attending, and it was my heart's desire to share with them what their welcome and openness had meant to us.  Within moments, tears started to fall, and I wished that perhaps I had kept sitting in silence.  We arrived at the church doors last January not knowing if we would ever find what we were seeking, but understanding keenly that what we had was no longer a fit for us.  Sometimes, that just happens in life; there is no blow up, there is no anger, there is just a yearning for something different because you have changed.  Sometimes we are meant to be in a certain place for a season, rather than a lifetime...whether we like it or not.  We didn't like it, but we knew it to be true for us.

So there I stood, hardly able to speak, choking out words that may or may not have made any sense at all.  All I could hope was that the sentiments were understood, that our appreciation for all they had offered us, both individually and collectively, would be something they could grab hold of even if haltingly offered.

Walking back to my pew, a new friend stood up and with tears in her eyes grabbed me and held me close...and didn't let go.  Whether due to my need or hers, it matters not.  There was a recognition in that vulnerable moment of mine that we all need one another, and we need to hang on tightly.

Our family has learned this in the trenches, as emotional missiles have flown overhead, sometimes exploding right in our foxhole.  We grab hold of one another, we duck for cover, using our own bodies to protect each other from the sting of shrapnel and emotional fallout that our previous lives created. We hold hands desperately, tightly, sweaty palms gripping sweaty palms until the terror passes, quiet descends, and we look one another straight in the eye and say, "We made it through another one!"  The grip grows ever tighter with each subsequent unexpected fusillade.  Though fewer and farther between, the war still rages from time to time against the barrage of emotions that arise from lives previously lived outside this family, from neglect, from being as alone in the world as one can ever be.  

We are stronger for it, without question, but we need more hands to hold.  We are not done growing...oh, I doubt we ever will be, for we are Team LaJoy and growth and exploration are our middle name!  Sometimes though, we become weary from exhaustion.  Our laughter and great joy is genuine, but it comes at quite a cost as well.

Being vulnerable on a daily basis is hard, hard work, and doing it alone is impossible. As Hafiz, in his great wisdom, says above, "The terrain is far too dangerous for that."  We need to hold on to one another's hands with a mighty force, and never let go.

We all need one another.  As each LaJoy reaches outside our family in numerous ways, each of us unique in our approach and interaction with the world around us, we do know one thing for sure...we must not let go, we must reach for others who need help for their own climb, for the ascent alone can feel treacherous and
impossible.  We have grabbed hold of outstretched hands straining to help us many times, but we must also look behind us and gaze downhill to see the next person who needs an outstretched hand, grab hold of it, and pull them toward us.

There is a Great Need, indeed, and that need is active, participatory love.  We can't stand on the sidelines and cheer passively.  We can't just talk about it, we need to "do love".  The terrain is far too dangerous for ANY of us to let go of one another.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The Great Documentary Adventure Becomes Much More

Sitting at my friend’s kitchen table on a frigid Tuesday morning, I am trying to find the words to put the past couple of days into perspective.  A week ago, Joshua and I left a relatively balmy 54 degrees in Western Colorado to head east on what we are dubbing his Great Documentary Adventure.  Having just turned 15, Josh is straddling that vast gulf between boyhood and manhood, as he looks and sounds more adult with each passing day.  You would have to look quite hard to find a more mature, responsible, kind young man and I had been keeping my eyes open for the opportunity to challenge him, and perhaps have some special one on one time with him as I have managed to have with each of the others, albeit often it has been for medical issues.

He is taking a film making class this year as his elective, and we were recently talking about the fact that he needed a “real” subject to sink his teeth into, not just a phony one made up for an assignment. We were brainstorming on a long car drive together, just throwing out ideas but not really hitting on anything that felt “meaty” enough When I casually said, “You know what would be a real story to tell?  Candi’s church and the tornado, and how it has impacted her congregation.”  Josh’s head whipped around to stare at me, and he said, “Oh man, that would be an awesome story!  There is so much there to tell!  But, it is too far away...” and his voice drifted off.

I looked at him, and in usual LaJoy style simply said, “So what?  We have free miles and a place to stay...what do you think?  Why NOT think big?  I’m game if you are!”  The twinkle in his eye told me something and upon arriving home I immediately approached Dominick with the idea, who was all for it.  I explained to him that Josh really wasn’t close to being ready, that the “finished product” would certainly be the “rookiest” one could imagine, but that I felt Josh’s giftedness was screaming out to be tested on something extraordinarily difficult all on his own for the first time, and to know we felt he could do it.  Yes, he has only had 3 months of a course.  No, he really has no clue at all what he is taking on (Hahaha...better not to know, right?).  But the truth is, sometimes you just have to leap and my gut has been telling me for awhile that Josh needed something all his own, something to point to later to say, “See?  I did a really hard thing, and I succeeded, I can do many more hard things because I know I did it once.”

So, calls were made, Candi (who is the pastor of this church) discussed it with her congregation who were all for it, and flights were immediately booked!  What I didn’t realize when this idea first popped for us, was that we were not traveling for a school project.  Instead, we were taking a pilgrimage...a far larger step toward adulthood and an encounter with God in ways I couldn’t have ever anticipated.
Ready to head to the airport

This project is not as much about filmmaking as it is about gaining other skills.  In order to pull this all together, Josh took a literal online “Crash Course in Documentary Filmmaking” over 7 days, in addition to his other coursework.  He then had to do the following:  Carefully shop for needed equipment and find the very lowest cost items that still met the minimum needs for the project, plan shots, create interview lists and a long list of possible questions for those interviews.  He had to bring in skills practiced in his creative writing course this year and consider story arc, major dramatic questions, narration, what to include and what moves the story along, as well as creating a main theme.  There are interpersonal skills to practice including interviewing, dealing with adults of all ages, working on EQ skills we have taught throughout his school career with being aware of where another’s heart is and meeting them where they are at as he interviews.  From a business perspective there are costs to consider, meeting his “customer’s” needs (his customer is the church, we are pretending they contracted with him to tell their story), staying on schedule, and much more.  The technical aspects of filmmaking are being tackled for the very first time as he considers lenses to use, mic placement, shot angle, how to keep his viewer engaged and understanding his story, etc.  Then there will be the post-production work of editing hours and hours of footage, adding in accompanying music, etc.  Of course, he knew none of that at the moment :-). Yes, we are a little nuts!

But you know what?  I believe in him.  I know he can do Big Things, and now, he knows we trust in that because we invested time and resources into this.

After having to leave a day early as we scrambled to beat a storm moving toward the East Coast, we spent the first couple of days in conversation with Candi doing deeper planning, as more of the story of this tiny congregation of about 25 was this 250 year old church was actually dealing with building issues for the fourth time with this tornado, how it had only been 3 years since they underwent a half million dollar renovation due to black mold and had met in the local school library for three long years, only to be hit by this freak tornado that struck in February of last year.  The fact that so many members are in their 80’s and have been associated with the church for most of their lives also is an important piece of this story, as is the fact that many New England congregations are saddled with buildings designed for congregations far larger than currently worship there, and many are closing their doors because they simply can’t make it any longer.  Josh’s self-selected theme is “Is the church the building, or its people?”, and it is a good one to be explored.

Having planned as much as possible with precisely 3 months of classes under his belt (We really are nuts, aren’t we?) off we went!  Day one was Sunday worship in the local elementary school library, back where they were three years ago.  Josh set up and filmed from a couple of angles, singing hymns as he carried his tripod around.  It was clear he was a bit uncertain as he worked, learning how best to set up equipment, how to be unobtrusive and yet still get the footage he knew he would need.  His usual quiet confidence was not quite as evident, and he had his first “real” interview with an adult he had never really spoken to right after the service.  He had interviewed Candi’s son and daughter the day before, testing the waters, learning how to set up, etc. but this was “for real” and he was a little nervous.  He also interviewed two younger children in the congregation that morning as well.

And things became really “real” when this first adult struggled to keep tears at bay as she shared about her beloved church.  It would have been an uncomfortable situation for any teen boy to work with, but Josh was fine and knew that also meant from the very beginning he would have footage that might touch others.

From there, we moved on to the church itself, barricaded behind chain link gates.  We had to dig our way through a couple of feet of snow just to get into the building, all three of us traipsing around in the -15 degree weather. The beautiful sunlit afternoon was perfect for shooting, and we knew we might not get another sunny day to film in and waiting for a warmer day wasn’t a good option, so we pressed on.  We scoped out the building and then Josh broke out his equipment with numb hands, gloveless, and began to film.  It was there that I began to see a hint of gift, as he worked and was able to “see” shots that would work well.  He has taken two photography courses already, one taught by myself and one outside course, and so he has a good understanding of using light, exposure, and composition.  I could see that knowledge being put to work as he carefully considered where to shoot from, and how to tell the story of this grand old building and pay it the respect it deserved.  Of course, we offered a few thoughts, but this really is fully Josh’s project, and after I made a couple of suggestions, I backed off, and have pretty much done so the entire time here.  I want him to have a finished product he can look at and feel total ownership over, and yet I realize a project of this magnitude is well beyond the ability of a 15 year old to totally grasp without a bit of support and guidance.  However, I am trying to guide, not “tell”, and to suggest, not direct.

Standing in the middle of the empty sanctuary, it was hard not to feel the grief and sorrow this congregation is feeling as I looked overhead at the afternoon sky visible through tell tale blue tarps covering gaping holds in the ceiling.  Trusses have pulled away from bowing walls, the bell tower has pulled away from the building and the old bell has been removed and crated for possible later use.  The enormous antique pipe organ has been removed and is not likely to be re-used, a relic from days gone by.  Puddles were frozen on the carpet, the ice taking on the hues reflected from the stained glass windows.  The scent of “building death” was in the air, of mustiness and neglect, so different from a mere year ago when our entire family worshiped in this place on Christmas Eve, and where Kenny had offered his very first sermon...the last regular Sunday morning sermon ever preached from that pulpit.

We left the building behind and headed off to interview #2, where Josh began to show a little more confidence as we sat in another room and overheard him question his interviewee.  This is not a natural skill for him, and we were able to offer a couple of tips afterward to make it a little easier, but I was pleased to hear him try to “go off script” and attempt to be more natural.  It isn’t an easy thing to learn, and these fumbling first steps have to be worked through as it does with learning any new skill.  Our “adventure” continued as we attempted to leave their home, only to get stuck in a snow back in ever dropping temperatures and have to wait for AAA to come tow us out!  We had to reschedule two more interviews and ended up calling it a night as we were cold, damp, and worn out.

Ahhh...but little did I know the magic that awaited us on Day 2, and perhaps more of the reason for us to be here than I might have ever known had I not listened to that little whispering of the Spirit nudging me to make this happen.

I had no idea that Josh was about to meet his 86 year old self in the face of his first interviewee of the day.  Bill is a beautiful human being, inside and out, and I had not connected the dots of his own personal story that might speak to Josh.  You see, Bill was a "state kid" who grew up in foster care, never to be adopted and aging out of the system to face the world on his own.  He presents a strong, chivalrous "old school" style of manhood combined with a gentle kindness and openness with his emotions that is also unusual and appealing.  He greeted us with a hearty smile and eager anticipation to share with Josh, and we left to head to attend the book group I lead each week via Skype.

As I was involved in heart sharing with the small group of women from Candi's church, Josh was engaged in deep heart sharing of his own with Bill.  Though he didn't immediately share much about his time with Bill, later in the day, likely after much processing, he started talking and it was obvious this had been a sacred experience for them both.  Josh started by explaining that at first, this had simply been a great story to tell and a "cool project", but that after his time with Bill it became much more, in fact  Candi and I both heard the shift in his voice and saw it in his body language.  He said that Bill had been so open, and really poured his heart out about what the church means to him, and about his life in general.  He said it brought the story to life in some ways, and that at one point during their time together, they both were in tears and that it moved from being an interview, to a deep and powerful conversation between two people.  He learned about Bill's childhood and the challenges of his life, no doubt with Bill having no clue how the sharing might tie into Josh's own life story.  Bill explained how he was brought back to the church after a years long absence when he encountered God in a new way and had made a promise that then involved him ever more deeply in the life of this church.  Josh was clearly moved by his time with Bill, and he said they just hugged and hugged afterward, and that it really mattered.  It also helped him to understand how this project is far more than a mere high school assignment, but that even at his tender young age of 15, he too can bring light and love, and the gift of listening to others...and that it really, really matters.

From that moment on there was a new investment from Josh in this, almost as if he sensed he is part of something bigger than himself here.  This is SO much more than I would have dared dream for him!  He is understanding, intuitively, the healing power of sharing our stories.  He is seeing first hand what it truly means to "be the church" despite extraordinarily difficult and depressing circumstances as he hears time and time again the commitment each person expresses to their congregation, their passion for their community and the desire to remain vitally involved and engaged in whatever was they can, regardless of age or lack of a building.  He is finding male role models who are faith filled, gentle and expressive souls, yet also masculine and strong...much like he himself is.  He is learning on an even deeper level something he already knew, and that is that age doesn't limit us from relationship or vigorous reaching out for life...our own attitudes do.

I was looking for a "great adventure" for Josh, I wanted something special for our youngest who is so special in every way himself.  I hoped for something that might help him reach toward his more adult self and help him gain confidence in who he is, not just what he can do.  I wanted the chance for him to be the center of attention, not just "one of the kids", because often the very real needs each of our others has required more of me.  I wanted his "special need" of giftedness to be put to the test and met in an unusual way, as truly those who are gifted are often not viewed as needing anything different, but trust me, they do.  Parenting and educating two of them along with twice exceptional and truly learning disabled means the gifted part has often had to be pushed aside to take care of the more critical needs, leaving the giftedness unintentionally by the wayside sometimes.

What I didn't dare think to ask for was something that would explain Josh to himself, to help him understand the power of his own story, and to help him move forward with confidence toward the extraordinary man I am certain he will become.  I didn't approach this as much from a faith perspective as I did from an academic and emotional development place, but as always, the Spirit shines through, reaching out for us when we least expect it, offering us exactly what we need when we need it.  And that has happened on both sides here, as I have watched the healing power of story telling, of being heard, of knowing someone else cares and is interested, even if it is only a 15 year old young man working on an unprofessional high school film project.  I have watched God gently at work all over the place his week, and again I shake my head in wonder and amazement as I gain a little more understanding of the ways of the Spirit.

The end product here really isn't a film, the end product here is healed hearts.  That alone has made the trip a worthwhile venture.  Anything else is just icing on the cake.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

What Really Matters

Have you ever done something with your family, and then immediately realized it was going to become "a thing"?  Our New Year's Eve tradition evolved from what I originally thought might be a one time event, but the kids decided it was going to be formally declared a Tradition with a capital "T".  In fact, we even took our Tradition on the road with us last year, packing fondue pots to go along with us when we spent the holidays with our dear friends!  This year, the plan was altered a bit, but ultimately it turned out precisely how the Spirit wanted it to be.

As the new year approached, Olesya was sick and had been for days, and in fact is still fighting off a nasty cough.  We also had plans to serve dinner on New Year's Eve to the homeless along with members of our former congregation, and at the last minute we decided to move our celebration to New Year's Day, which thrilled Josh as he then went to spend the night at his best friend's house and enjoyed their gathering, too.  However, we all ended up helping to feed 47 people that night, and we all agreed it was a wonderful way to spend the evening if we weren't going to do our "usual" activities. 

I also think it was a strong reminder of how blessed our family is, but additionally, that there is far less separating us from others than we think there is.  Truthfully, what separates us is our own reluctance to connect with others because we think they are so different than we are.  I gave an older gentleman a hug after his third helping because he said that was the only other thing he could think of that he really and truly needed, and I thought about how every human being needs connection.  The kids are all unafraid of being in these settings now, as we have done so regularly throughout their childhood, and their kindness towards others touches me, but it is their ability to "see" others and not judge that matters most.  After all, they too were once "homeless" and "familyless", though few would look at them and realize this.  Some of us have been spiritually homeless and familyless, too, and that also leads to an understanding of a different sort of poverty that isn't always as obvious with outward appearances.  Relationship and being known is at the heart of our deepest longings as humans.

New Year's Day we prepared everything for our evening Fondue Feast!  We do it once a year only, and it makes for a lovely and leisurely way to spend time around the table together.  This year was no exception and we all enjoyed it very much.  Though this might seem like the "main course", so to speak, of our tradition, but in fact, it is merely the appetizer.

The main course is what happens next, at the kids' insistence, and it is when we figuratively throw the doors wide open, and invite God to the table.  Lights are lowered, candles are lit, and hearts are shared.

One at a time, we spoke, being present to one another as we answered the questions, "How did you change and what did you learn in 2017?", and "What are your hopes for growth for 2018?"  This is not a time for restating accomplishments or bragging about about achievements, this is more about who we are not what we do.

This sacred place, this kitchen table of ours, looks nothing like an alter, nor is it surrounded by paraments or stained glass, but be that as it may, it is a Sanctuary in all the ways it can possibly be.  That is due to the faithfulness of those who gather here, not just us, but friends throughout the years who have brought their own sacred selves to share with us, too, and our family has been changed for the better because of it.

Three hours of quiet conversation ensued, as one by one, sons and daughters, mother and father all revealed what the past year had been like for them as they lit their own personal candle.  Then, every family member spoke about what they had also seen in terms of growth and change for that person.  It was as beautiful as can be, having each person lifted up one by one, encouraged to become ever more of their real selves, having their progress as people growing in character and courage lifted up before the entire family.  Dreams for the future were acknowledged and affirmed.  Our little geeky squad offered quotes repeatedly to make their points, from St. Augustine to Aristotle to Solzhenitsyn to FDR to Tolstoy (and no, they were not all offered by Matthew!)  Over and over, authenticity and out of the box thinking was praised, as many declared that they grew in the ability to stop caring as much what others thought and live the life they felt called to live. 

One highlight was when Matt pointed out that he recalled two years ago our family having a heart to heart conversation with Olesya, and about how none of us felt we really knew her and how closed up she was.  He praised how much she had grown in this area, and we all agreed that there was a new openness to her, and that not a single one of us could say that about her any longer!  Such an impressive amount of work on prying open a heart that was long scared to put itself at risk.  This is a family filled with overcoming in all sort of ways.

We sipped on sparkling cider out of dollar store champagne classes, and time stood still.  one by one, each candle was lit that joined our first candle signifying our family as a whole, and the light shined brighter and brighter.  No one glanced at the clock, everyone was offered the gift of time to gather their thoughts and express them gently.  It was powerful, it was meaningful, it was sacred in every sense of the word.

This little family of different, so "weird" as declared by some, so counter cultural.  We don't match in any way if one looks through eyes solely grounded in the world.  Yet we match, oh man, do we match beautifully.  There are connecting strands that tie each of us to one another.  It has nothing to do with biology, or race, or nation of origin.  It has to do with faith, heart and intellect.  It has to do with choosing to love one another deeply, fervently, and forever. 

And we will do that in 2018, and beyond.  We will each continue to grow steadily, to pursue interests, and to always, always offer love, both within our family, and to every person we encounter.

We don't know how to be any other way...and that is what really matters.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Reverse Bucket List

As 2018 drifts toward us on warm and surprisingly gentle winds (believe me, no winter here in Western Colorado...shocking!), I can think of no better time to compile my "Reverse Bucket List".  In researching for Blue Collar Homeschool I came across this article at Fast Company about Reverse Bucket Lists, and I had never heard of such a thing!  I let the tab set open for two weeks on my laptop, pondering the idea each time, and realizing this was something I needed to do.  You see, Bucket Lists are great, and I agree wholeheartedly that creating goals helps us achieve them.  But sometimes, those goals become idols in our lives and can mock us as we fixate on all we have yet to do, rather than all we have accomplished or achieved.  So the Reverse Bucket List lifts up all you have accomplished, it celebrates it, which helps move you from a sense of lack to a sense of abundance.

I try to live walking in gratitude, though like all of us I fail miserably sometimes.  This blog is the story of our family, sure, and it details ELEVEN years of our life together.  Holy Moly!!  But recently I realized what it really has been is my gratitude journal, and my personal sounding board.  It is my altar where I lay my burdens, and it is my sanctuary where afterward I find peace.  In my younger years I never would have imagined writing as much as I do now.  It was not something I enjoyed at all, nor have I ever taken a writing course.  Writing was not an aspiration, and of course, it isn't really any big thing that I do...there is no budding novel, no manuscript buried in a drawer.  However, it has become a constant in my life, sort of a companion of mine.

So this Reverse Bucket List idea stuck, and I will share it here with my companions (and my virtual companions as well!) I also found this blog post helpful as I considered exactly what a Reverse Bucket List might contain. I am sure it will be scintillating ::she says in a voice dripping with sarcasm::

Cindy's Reverse Bucket List - 2017 - 51 Years Old

1.  Graduated high school - In my family and extended family this is a rare achievement.

2.  I am sober and always have been - Again, a rare achievement in my family and though many might not find this to be celebratory, trust me, once you have had a front row seat to the destruction caused by addiction, you thank God daily that you didn't fall into that trap.  Odds were against this for me, and I am incredibly grateful for living a sober life.

3.  Adoption - My teenage understanding of my life path was made a reality.

4.  Education - Despite not attending college, I consider myself to be well educated due to my own endeavors because I am curious about everything and read everything I can get my hands on.

5.  Happy Home and Marriage - Peace reigns, laughter lights up our lives, I could never have imagined how beautiful family life can be.  Being married for 31 years to my high school sweetheart when everyone thought we were doomed is also something I am proud of.  

6.  Faith Life - Pursued and developed a faith life that fits me perfectly, that feels authentic, and enriches my life immeasurably.

7.  Kindness - I am kind, pretty much all the time.  When faced with uncomfortable situations or hostility is directed toward me, I am kind.  That matters deeply to me.

8.  Travel - Many of the sites I dreamed of visiting have been checked off my list!  For someone who had never had a single vacation in my life until my honeymoon, this feels like really making something happen.  I still have much I'd love to see, and maybe I will be blessed to be able to do so, but I am thrilled with all I have seen thus far, and never thought I'd really be able to.

9.  Teaching - When I was young and through my early high school years, I thought I was headed for a career teaching deaf children.  I had taken sign language and enjoyed it, and that was my game plan.  Life came along and sort of caused that plan to drift away.  However, every single job I have been on, I have trained and taught others, and enjoyed that aspect of my work, regardless of what field I was working in.  Homeschooling was not on my radar, and to put it bluntly was one of those, "Oh NO WAY!" sort of things...until we had few options.  I learned, I grew, I gained skills, and I love it. 

I have homeschooled in one of the single most challenging, difficult, and  unique circumstances that anyone could ever jump into with no experience, and the kids have flourished.  I have taught two all the English they know, got Kenny reading fluently and at a definite high school graduate level when he wasn't reading at 12 years old, self-diagnosed and pursued an official diagnosis for every single disability the kids have that no one else could figure out.  I have graduated one of our kids, and will graduate four more, with three who very seriously might have dropped out well before 12th grade if we hadn't made this choice because they would have been too far behind.  Our kids are civic minded, politically savvy, well read in general for a standard high schooler, write decently, and will never get caught offering foolish answers on TV if stopped on the street and asked basic questions about American history or our government.

Most importantly, we did it together :-)  We still love one another, perhaps even more so, despite how hard it all is!

10. I have been a strong partner to Dominick as he started businesses.

11.  Say "Yes" regularly when I feel God has asked something of me, even when I vehemently disagree! Hahaha!  I am unafraid to go against the grain, to make big changes even if they make no sense to others, and to live totally outside the box.  I only hope there is much more in store for me to shake my head over and say "Yes" to!

12.  Silly things include:  I have been a licensed pest control applicator, termite inspector, and agricultural pest control adviser.  I have been a licensed insurance agent in property and casualty, and health/life.  I have owned and managed a restaurant seasonally for five years.  I have been an international customer service agent for a company that manufactured antibodies for medical research.  I have am a lay minister.  I have been a part-time janitor, newspaper distributor, drug store sales clerk, pharmacy tech, and self-taught bookkeeper.  I have created blogs and facebook groups and crafted wooden puzzles for sale and been mentioned in Reader's Digest by name twice, been featured on Kiplinger's magazine for Matt's adoption, can make a "taco tongue" and "flip" a pile of quarters off my elbow into my cupped hand like a pro, played the clarinet from second grade through high school graduation, and was one of the first 100,000 users of America Online and I begged Dominick for us to buy stock in it as I saw the future of the internet there, but he declined, and I have never let him live that one down ;-)

It is funny how awkward this was to write, and yet I initially felt it was an interesting exercise in self-evaluation.  I realized as I was writing that the very thing it was supposed to make me grateful...was something I was struggling with.  Why?  Because looking at my List, there are none of the typical brag worthy accomplishments.  No college to name, no GPA to post, no big name career or job to point toward. I even went back and added #12 because in looking at others' Lists, it seemed I had left out the sort of things most name.  That was because I really don't have those things to share.  In looking for examples I found lists like this, and this.  I am none of what they shared.

Upon reflection, my Reverse Bucket List isn't about what I've done, but as I re-read it, I see it is more about who I am and what I value.  To some, it might seem vague, to me much of it is all I ever dreamed of as a child.  Now, some would look at this list and say those dreams were not very big, that I didn't have much to strive for so of course I accomplished it.

That's OK, maybe they aren't big dreams, but when I look around me I see plenty of people for whom some of what I have is sadly far, far out of reach.  I know I haven't set the world on fire, but maybe at the very least, I haven't started any fires that needed to be put out, either.  And so as awkward as this process was, I learned one thing, and that was important...

My Bucket runneth over, indeed. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

First Acts and Third Acts

I love Divine coincidences, don't you?  A week ago, we had one such coincidence occur when we least expected it, but when we really needed it.  As often happens, the location was completely lacking in glamour or drama, with the Walmart Produce Department providing the backdrop for an important conversation.  Funny, Walmart really does seem to be Holy Ground for me sometimes, as I have had more than one occasion where God spoke loud and clear to me there.  (OK, I also get that I probably spend half my life there, but whose counting??)

It was there, among the busy aisles framed by displays of brightly colored oranges and apples that I ran into our old "resource consultant" from our time spent in the local public school/homeschool hybrid program which we left about four years ago.  Amy was a huge support for us as we got our feet wet with homeschooling, and she understood better than most the enormous challenge we had before us when we first began.  After exchanging great big hugs and bright smiles, I learned that Amy had left her position with the school district and had moved on to working in elder care in a town nearby, overseeing the Alzheimer's and Memory Care unit at a local nursing home.

Jumping at the chance to gain a little guidance for Angela, I peppered Amy with questions, and she offered so many ideas for us, as well as reassurances that Angela could make a decent living in a variety of ways in elder care!  Whipping out my cell phone, I pulled up training web sites she recommended, and obtained her current contact information.  She offered to have Angie job shadow, and to share any resources she could think of whenever we were ready to move on things.

The timing couldn't have been more perfect.

It was only earlier that week that Angela and I had a discussion in the car as I was driving her to her volunteer visiting appointment.  She was sharing about her heart for working with the elderly, and yet her fears that she would never be able to make a livable wage doing so.  I was trying to encourage her, offering a few ideas about how she might work her way toward a better wage, but not being able to point directly toward how she would get herself in that position.  I promised her I would do more research, and see what I could learn.

And there was the answer right before me, smiling cheerfully and offering web sites and, more importantly, the reassurance I needed to be able to help Angela find her way.  God knew precisely what was required in the moment, and presented it with the usual 2 x 4 I tend to need!

What many may not understand is that for some of our kids, more help is needed to steer them toward their future.  There are fears about being pushed out into the world too soon and losing their connection with their family, there are understandable concerns about being able to perform well in high enough paying jobs to be able to eventually be independent, there is also a lack of ability to do the work themselves to land in a career that is appropriate for them.  It isn't a lack of desire, not  by a long shot as every one of the five kids is a diligent soul and entirely responsible in every way.  It is a lack of being able to easily make mental connections, to see that one thing can branch out into multiple opportunities.  For our three adopted at older ages, Kenny, Angela and Olesya, there are some profound learning disabilities to overcome, memory issues that get in the way, and depending upon brain function on any given day there is an inability to think logically.  This varies from day to day, and from young adult to young adult in terms of significance of delay, but it is absolutely there...and it can sometimes be overwhelming to them as they think about their futures.

As we drove, Angela asked, "Mom, I really do think this is the direction I want my career to go in, but can I earn enough money?"

"Sure you can, but you won't at first, and you absolutely must do more than be a CNA.  That alone will not provide for you, but we will figure it out somehow." I replied

There was silence as she thought, and then revealed, "Mom, I really don't even know how to start or where to start.  I don't know what I would do without you, because I really don't know where to go from here.  Like I don't even know what to look up."

There was more hesitance, and then she asked, "Where do I even go for the CNA?" and I explained the next town over had a training program.

Silence ensued, and I could not tell exactly what was going on for her until she shared, "But mom, how will I get there every day?" and I suddenly realized that she was recognizing she may not be driving by then, as we really aren't sure how long it might take for her to be comfortable and safe behind the wheel, as things are not "clicking" as well as we might have hoped.

It was in that moment that I caught a brief glimpse of how scary the future is for our kids who struggle, yet have tremendous gifts.  How do they move out into the world?  How do they "make it happen" for themselves as it will never be as easy as it is for other kids?

Truthfully, the answer is, "They don't make it happen for themselves.  They don't have that ability."  I immediately realized now was the time for me to lay it on the line clearly, as my own personal contemplation of my "third act" in life seem to be gradually gaining clarity.

"Ang, you've got me, and I will get you to school every day, and I will research, and I will study alongside you if you need me to so I can re-explain things, and I will walk you through all of this as much as is necessary because that is my job.  I love you, you really have a gift and I think it is clear this is the right path for you, and you feel it, too.  So, we make it happen.  I don't have all the answers yet, but I give you my word, I will do whatever it takes.  The next steps of your life don't have to be scary and you won't be alone, I promise."

"But mom, you need a life too!!"

"I think I am beginning to understand my future a little, too, Ang, and this appears to be what God created me to do!  There is nothing more important I could ever do with my life than to be helping all of you as you  move into your next phase.  If some of you open businesses, there is a lot to learn and you will need more help, and I can offer that to get you started.  I am going to be driving Kenny forever, and I want him to have a life of meaning and interaction with the world, so that is just going to be the way it is.  I may be driving you a long time, and who knows with Olesya.  I don't even really mind, as long as I can squeeze in time and projects here and there that are just for me.  You all are amazing in how you encourage that so I can be my best, and I am going to do what I can to make sure you all are able to be your best.  It is how our family was designed to be.  I may not have ever anticipated this sort of involvement with my older kids, but I honestly don't resent it."

Sitting next to me, she grinned, relief was evident.

I added, "We are all a team. I am your partner, but you are mine, too, in so many ways.  You help me all the time at home, and you help Dad, too."

A few days later, I had an "official meeting" with Angela, and I shared some of the programs for online training that Amy had led me to, we talked about how we would craft a post-high school exploration year for her as well as begin training for her field.  I explained I was formulating a plan where we would go visit various nursing homes, look at state requirements for running a small assisted living facility, look at various careers in elder care, read books on several related topics, and get her enrolled in several courses.  Dominick and I also reassured her of something that was worrying her, and that was that she didn't have to start any of this until after her senior year next year, that there was no rush because we wanted her to have a really successful high school career.  We understood that unlike other kids, her school work took her much longer to do and do to the level of excellence she demands of herself, and that multi-tasking was just not wise for her with her brain.

The grin, oh that grin!  She is suddenly far more excited about her future, it feels more concrete now, and she has at least a little sense of direction now.

This wonderful daughter of ours is going to make a real difference in the lives of others.  Will it be a prestigious career?  No.  Will it be enviable?  Likely not by most.  Will it be crucial for the lives she touches?  Without question, yes.

And my encounters with Angela are helping me shape my own future.  I have had moments of concern as I think about two or three years down the road, what my life will be like as the kids slowly work me out of a job as they graduate...but also wondering if I will ever be fully out of a job with some of their needs.  I had never imagined homeschooling, and never imagined 10+ years of my life spent
doing this, but I did always assume in the back of my mind that "after" I would strike out to do something new, maybe for the first time something of my own choosing rather than just "get a job, any job" because we needed the money.

I have referred to the future as my anticipated "Third Act" of life, and I am slowing coming to grips with the fact that my Third Act may still be about others.  And, as I stated above about Angela's possible career direction, my future "work" may not ever be prestigious, or enviable...but it may truly be crucial for the lives I touch.  And it may not be many lives other than the lives that reside under my own roof. 

But one thing I have learned after all these years, is that if God is nudging me in a certain direction, I am always, always going to say "yes" regardless of whether that conflicts with my own imaginings for my life.  Every single time I have said "yes", even when it seemed counter to all I thought I wanted, I have never been disappointed, and I have always come away with a sense of wonder at how beautifully things turn out.  More than any other thing I can model for our kids, this one matters most.

So, here we sit, looking tentatively forward toward budding First Acts and Third Acts, not knowing for certain how it will all play out, but convinced of one thing, and one thing only...we will say "yes", both of us, Angela and I.  Divine Coincidence will also surely accompany that "yes", so we can rest assured we will be joined on the journey.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Belonging...The Best Gift of All

I am beginning the writing of this blog on the cusp of Christmas Day, 10 minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve.  Sitting here as the house gradually eases into quiet slumber, I realize that this holiday seems to be highlighting a particular theme for me to reflect on.  Now, when I share what that theme is, you might roll your eyes, or even laugh out loud, but it is taking on an entirely new meaning for me.

The theme is "adoption".

I know...I know...hasn't that pretty much the theme for the past 20 years of my life?

Yes, it has been, but the shoe is now on the other foot.  You see, in years past, I have been the "adopter", the one initiating the connection and affirmation of a relationship.  I have been the one in pursuit of another, but rarely in my life have I ever viewed myself as the "adoptee". 

Even our tree is really a symbol of this theme in our family, as year after year ornaments were added as we waited for beloved children to come home, or celebrated their first Christmas with us.

I have spent 19 years growing as an adopter, learning how to slowly take down emotional walls that were sturdy and well built.  I have become skilled at helping old wounds heal, and at guiding raw souls toward trust and connection.  This role I know, it is familiar and comfortable.

What is new is being on the other side.  Being adopted by others, having them help me gradually rebuild trust, being guided toward healing and wholeness...all of this is new from this side of the fence!

And yet, this is what God has done in my life the past couple of years. 

This evening, we had Christmas Eve dinner with "grandparents" who have adopted us, stuck by us, and gone out of their way a million times to support and help us.  Jane and Steve are not blood related, but the pride they take in our kids couldn't be any stronger if they were.

We are family in every way.  We have shared at least 5 or 6 Christmas Eves together, countless birthdays, and much more.  We aren't connected by DNA, but that doesn't matter.

Every adoptive parent has experienced the deep inexplicable desire to "claim" their new child.  We look for similarities that mark us as family.  We desperately need to affirm that this parent-child relationship was meant to be.  This claiming is an integral part of the emotional process, and it happens for the newly adopted child as well, who also yearns to be permanently linked to a family that will view them as precious, and will delight in their presence.

The past few weeks it has been clear that we have actually been adopted by our new congregation.  Over and over again, we are being shown love and a deeper desire for connection in all kinds of ways, big and small.  We, too, have been claiming, as conversations on the long drive home inevitably have several of the kids pointing to how "we just fit here", and they chatter on about this person or that person who they are enjoying getting to know better.

Tonight, we were surprised as our longtime friend, Kent, showed up in church to spend Christmas Eve in worship with us.  We have known Kent for probably 15 years or more, and he has adopted us as additional family.  When making big decisions, he often consults with us to see what our thoughts are.  When he is with us, he nestles in our family as if he was born into it.  

This is what adoption looks like.  This entire pew is filled with people who are not genetically connected, and therefore they have a choice...they don't have to care for one another, support and encourage one another, or spend time with one another.  This pew is all love, and all choice.  I look at this photo and realize that I may have been under the illusion that I was solely the "adopter", but I was being equally adopted as well.

My best friend and her family have also adopted us, and we have gained aunts and cousins for the kids, and a niece and nephew for Dominick and I, all by choice.  

You know what the real message of Christmas is for me?

We all belong to one another.

How can one look at the Christmas story and the birth of Jesus without seeing that?  Joseph claimed both Mary and Jesus, because he knew they belonged to one another, despite the opposition of those who would say Mary betrayed him, and that Jesus was an illegitimate child.  And, in turn, this humble little family of three also knew they belonged to God, as well.

No person is illegitimate.  It is impossible when one takes Jesus' overarching message to heart, because...we all belong to one another...and that legitimizes every single person.

We adopt one another, we claim one another, and we walk through the world with one another.  

But the message is a hard one, because it challenges us to the core.  Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of  God's son, means we belong to one another, and the difficult part of that is that forever we belong to one another, and "one another" means everyone, not just those we pick and choose.  We humans belong to one another, not selectively, not based on race or gender or religious preferences.  

This Christmas season, look around your family, your friends, your workmates, and instead of finding ways to distance yourself, how about finding ways to belong to each other?  How about claiming someone as yours, and then living into that statement in a new and more compassionate way?

This is my family.  Many might say we don't belong to one another because we don't "match", or we don't share DNA, or we don't share ethnicity or race.  Heck, we often don't even share the same philosophy or theology!  

It doesn't matter, not one whit.  We belong to one another, and we belong to God.  Like the trust Mary and Joseph both had in God in accepting Jesus, we trust God brought the seven of us together.  We trust that our friends near and far were brought into our lives by God, and we welcome being adopted by them, just as we also joyfully adopt them.

The message of Christmas might change from year to year as we mature in our faith, and in life.  But what should never, ever change is our recognition and acknowledgement that we all belong to one another...all of us.

And when you stop to think about it, isn't that the best gift of all?

Merry Christmas, dear ones.  May you always feel you belong.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Gift Upon Gift

It is almost 3:00 am, and I was awakened  by the winds howling outside, hopefully bringing us at least a dusting of long awaited snow.  Despite living in Western Colorado, it has been surprisingly debatable this year if we would find ourselves celebrating a white Christmas or not.

The past week has been filled with a subtly growing anticipation for Christmas Eve as our family has gently made space and time for those things that herald the season's arrival.  No, it hasn't been shopping or wandering the mall aimlessly, feeling weighed down by the mental list of items not yet purchased.  Instead, it has been an intentional participation in opportunities to be together with others, and a living into being family in new ways as the "kids" are moving more into adulthood.  There has been none of the frenzy that usually accompanies the holidays, and with each year's distancing from the excitement of Santa and his sleigh, a more peaceful and sacred form of the holiday has entered in.

We had a weekend filled with events as I sang in a five church combined choir, and the familiar melodies lifted my spirits.  The holidays can be a little hard for me, as they can be for many, a mixed emotional bag as memories of what was in years past...or what was always desired and never was...peek in around the edges of the present and whisper words of loneliness into our heart.  As I looked out from where I was singing and saw an entire pew filled with "the present" in the form of close friends, Jane and Steve, as well as Dominick and all five kids, I was reminded that what may never have been in my younger years now actually was there, and a peace settled over me.  The mere fact that I have five young adults who all feel it is as important to be there for my events as I feel it is to be there for theirs is a special blessing all of its own.

Earlier that day, we sadly had to miss an event for Kenny, as mom and dad can only be in so many places at once, and work and playing taxi driver for others kept us from seeing Kenny installed as the Chaplain for this coming year for his Masonic Lodge, but never fear, Jane and Steve were there and shared photos.

Seeing the joy on Kenny's face is a strong reminder of how important having a sense of belonging truly is.  He has spent years trying to find his place in the world, hoping to fit in and be able to use his unique gifts.  The men at the Lodge have been such accepting and warm mentors to him, and they provide role models for a different kind of masculinity that is perfectly suited to who Kenny really is.  Seeing his young self among true elders in the group photos isn't really such a surprise, as he has always been somewhat of an old soul from the moment we first met him as a tiny 8 year old boy.

As I shared with our bunch, you know you are approaching adulthood when you find yourself getting a kick out of watching younger kids, and as we were enjoying the youth of our church in worship on Sunday as they led worship, Josh was giggling beside me. Toddlers were behind us, heads popping up over the pew, enormous grins on their faces as they played peek a boo, and Josh was totally charmed.  And there was another sign of impending manhood as he sweetly as attentive to one young active boy who is in need of a bit more attention.:-)

After worship, the day was spent together as a family checking out the local train display at a museum down the road from our church which was incredible, and then moving on to an open house hosted by new friends.

They are maturing, easing into young adulthood and taking tentative steps that are affirmed by the older adults in their lives.  Our circumstances are not the norm with kids still in high school at far older ages, likely to be reliant on mom and dad longer than others are.  The balancing act can be difficult, and I often tell myself that Dominick and I have to find the sweet spot between recognizing their needs that still exist that are not typical for their ages, and yet acknowledge and respect their emerging independence in the ways they can step into it.

Several conversations lately with each of the kids has also been a special "holiday gift" as God has used the words of each of them to touch my sometimes troubled and anxious soul.  The other day, Matt and I were out practicing his driving on empty back roads, and the "lesson" began to take on an entirely different feel as we found ourselves lost in an area we didn't recognize.  Grinning at one another, we shrugged our shoulders and said, "Why not?" and off we went to explore, changing the entire feel of the morning from teacher and student, to fellow adventurers!

Driving along for miles on a dirt road, we visited, my son and I.  We talked about his siblings and their needs, about his own future, and about our family.  In between gentle corrections with his driving and pointing out things to look out for on the road ahead, Matt did the same for me.  With conviction he spoke to how wise our parenting decisions have been about homeschooling and meeting special needs, and that the judgment and criticism of others has been because of a lack of understanding...and that those outside our family will likely never, ever truly understand that our collective experience is simply too far outside the norm for the traditional parenting models to ever work.

And then, this young man of ours turned to me and said, "Mom, I know it is easy to say, but you really never have to worry about our family.  We are all going to make it somehow, because we are all going to be there to help each other, even us kids helping you and dad."  and I laughed and said, "Sort of like in the military, no man left behind?" and he said, "Yup, no man left behind.  We're going to do it differently, and you know what?  I think we all like it that way, even if others think it is wrong.  It is always going to be that way for us, and part of the reason they won't understand is because they don't get what we all get, thanks to church and you and Dad...we are a team, and we all need each other in this world.  Our friends need us, and we need them, and we kids all need each other and you guys, and we will always make sure we are all OK and help each other."

Yeah, that was my Christmas gift, wrapped up neatly just for me.

We stopped and got out of the car, and looked out over the vast horizon before us, both of us drinking in the site of our beloved Colorado and quietly we each talked about how we couldn't imagine living elsewhere, and how we both hoped we never had to move from here.  In unison, we whipped out our phones to take photos.  He shared about his flight lessons, and how beautiful and different the landscape is from above.  Pointing out landmarks he was describing, he said, "One of these days, once I have my license, I will take you up, and you will see it is even more beautiful." and I looked over at this man before me, who a little earlier had also talked about he and I going kayaking together, and I realized, we had arrived at a new place in our relationship, and much like our driving that day, we were exploring together, learning the lay of the land, and very much enjoying the companionship.

We may be mother and son, but these days, we are also friends.  He is a trusted confidant, as are all of the kids, really, to varying degrees as is appropriate for their developmental level.

Yesterday, another gift we all received was the gift of belonging.  Oh, how splendid the gifts of this season have been!  All wrapped up just for us, not in packages with bows and shiny paper, but in hugs and smiles, and words of acceptance and gratitude for our presence...the kind of gift that lasts long beyond Christmas itself.

We decided to throw school off for the day, and make the two hour long round trip to church to help with a small ministry project.  Our church makes up over 100 gift bags filled with goodies to deliver on Christmas Day to those in the community who have to work on the holiday...911 dispatchers, gas station attendants, nursing home staff.  It is a way of recognizing those whose efforts are often unseen and under appreciated, and a lovely gesture.

We arrived at church to be greeted with such love, and there were so many new friends who were surprised we showed up!  We got right to work, and helped with preparing bulletins for worship and candles for the candle light service as well.  Admittedly, the kids did more of the work, and I took pictures in between :-)

And, as often happens, it is in these seemingly insignificant moments where God reaches out and touches you.  In this case, it was in an encounter I had with someone there who was working in another part of the church, who stopped to take a moment to chat.  Her kind words, and the warmth in her eyes was more of a gift than she will ever realize, for she and her husband have been a steady, welcoming presence for me personally as I have forced my introverted self to adjust to the changes in my life this past year.  It was a true gift from God, as are so many others in our new congregation who have embraced us, comforted us without knowing it, and welcomed us.

As Christmas draws nearer, our entire family has received gift upon gift, the kind that really matter.  Gifts of presence, gifts of music, gifts of acceptance...these are the things we all receive that are priceless, and unlike "as seen on tv" items that are wrapped and offered, these are the things we won't find ourselves setting on a rummage sale a year or two later virtually untouched.

My hope is that in the next few days, everyone might receive these gifts in some form, and that on Christmas Eve, you too might look around you and recognize the love that surrounds you, and that the true Spirit of Christmas visits you and sticks around for awhile.