Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A Minimalist Christmas of a Different Kind

The houses are lit up, trees stand tall in windows with glittering ornaments dangling from evergreen branches, and carols have been piped in through store speakers for months.

And still, I did not have an ounce of Christmas spirit.  That is, not until this week...

You know how some years, you catch it early and makes lists upon lists of gifts to purchase, cookies to bake, and events to attend?  Then there are the other years that feel flat the entire season, when you hope that maybe on Christmas Eve you will be fortunate enough to find yourself lit up inside and know you have caught that spirit at the last minute.

I can recall Christmas' past, painful ones and joyful ones...the year my Dad died in early December when I was 25, and the lump in my throat made it hard to speak as I returned his gifts to the Customer Service Clerk hoping not to be asked for an explanation.  There was the year we were knee deep in adoption paperwork as we laboriously made our way through the complicated maze of documents needed to bring home our first child, Matthew.  There were, sadly, too many years spent worrying about the safety of my only sibling, whose serious drug addiction  meant we never knew if we would hear from him, or be getting a call that he was in jail, or worse.  There was the sacredness of the entire Advent season spent almost 8 years ago as we traveled to northern Kazakhstan to adopt our precious Angela and Olesya, thinking we would be gone 2 weeks only to find ourselves there for two and a half months and moving through the single most emotional period of my entire life.

There were other years that were less dramatic, of course, years of friends filling our home, of holidays meals spent at the table of others, and many years when we all spent Christmas day working at our restaurant at the airport. 

Each year holds its own special memories. The story revealed in the uniqueness of so many personalized ornaments on our tree is one that is exclusive to our family alone. 

So I've waited this year, knowing that the real spirit is The Spirit, and it will make itself known in the most unexpected and striking ways. 

How was I to know that it would come in the form of five "unseen" ones?  I surely didn't understand the sort of transformation my heart would make when Kenny and I left our house Tuesday morning.  We drove an hour to our church in Grand Junction, where we were going to help with the first worship service for "Rejoicing Spirits", which is an adapted worship service for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities  The program our church supports is Mosaic, a Lutheran ministry program in ten different states.  Kenny was going to explore the possibility of being involved on a regular basis in this ministry, and then to be interviewed at the Mosaic office.  I went with no expectation for myself, solely as "support staff" for Kenny.

And isn't that when God is most likely to sneak up on you?  When you least expect it?

Our new friends arrived, one gentlemen and four women, along with their "coach".  How could I help but grin as their childlike delight shined at the simplest things, like getting a name tag, or using a noise maker?  Without a moment's discomfort, Kenny and I both fell naturally into our roles, visiting and guiding and singing alongside the innocence before us. 

As our pastor led us through an active and engaging walk-through of the Christmas story, where we cheered for our "actors" as they held up signs and walked to Bethlehem.  Loud "boos" were offered for King Herod, our pastor's husband.  A wooden baby Jesus was held up along with a paper star, as he was declared the Savior and his birth was announced. 

The singing was barely comprehensible and off key.  The participants often needed help finding where we were in the bulletin.  The cheers were sometimes ill timed.  This was not a service for someone who prefers structure and ritual.

But the joy, oh the joy!  Smiles and laughter and loud declarations of "Yea, Jesus!!" melted my heart and reminded me of what real faith truly looks like...innocent, all consuming, simple.  It was a "minimalist" Christmas of a different kind, and it was as lovely as the hearts who were making loud proclamations there in that Sanctuary.

As prayer requests were shared, and the last hymn sung, I realized this might be the single best worship service I had ever attended.  I needed this, my heart needed to be softened for the season to be allowed entry.  I needed a visual representation of the child King who came to us so that we might know peace, that we might be able to recognize goodness before us when it came blanketed in what the world would call "brokenness" of an irreparable kind.  What I saw though, in the faces of the ones that came to us that day, was anything but brokenness.  What smiled back at me was an openness to others, an acceptance and joy of the present moment, and a guilelessness that was enviable.

Christmas entered my soul, finally, at least a glimmer of it.  All of us were blessed that afternoon, and it is another memory that will be stored alongside my 50 years of other Christmas memories.  This one won't have an ornament as a reminder, but it will surely be treasured.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Don't Let it Happen

I had a treat this past week, a gift of time, a luxury to be away for a few days and recharge my batteries.  Dominick and I are working hard at being intentional about getting me away from my "work place" 3-4 times a year for a decent respite. We haven't been quite as successful as that, but we are working our way toward it.

And why do I need "respite"?    Well, we are also intentionally using the word "respite" because it implies something very different than "vacation", and it is far more appropriate. Why, after having the gift of being home all day every day do I need a break or mini-vacation? I mean, isn't this all a cake walk? I used to think exactly that and argued against it because I thought the same.

I refused to see myself as a "caretaker", after all, I am a mom, right?

Yes, I am that, but also a caretaker to people who don't have gray hair, who aren't using walkers and canes, who don't need to wear Depends.  And that is why it has been easy for me to dismiss it.

It doesn't look the same as if I was walking around with an Alzheimer's patient all day, we aren't "marked" that way, but I have come to understand that being the full time "partner" for Kenny is taxing in ways we didn't at first understand.  Add in the extra help that Olesya and Angie need, though far less, and it was imperative that I begin to realize that if I want to remain a warm, stable, engaged presence, I needed to make sure my own needs for breaks were met. 

Because I never leave my work place for any extended period of time, I don't get to go home at night and leave work behind.  And when I DO leave home, I usually have some if not many kids trailing along with me.

Because I don't have help most of the time and because I am teacher, mom, every role that a school has for special ed kids, guidance counselor, and more. 

Because I am seldom alone in my own home, maybe 3-4 times a year for a few hours at most.  There is always someone present, always someone to attend to., or some chore waiting for me.  A house for 7 doesn't organize itself, clean itself, oversee itself, fill itself with groceries (Oh Lordy!!).

Because we have five kids, four of whom are 18 and 19, and because of disabilities I  am still driving all five every single place they need to go unless it is after work and Dominick takes over.  We live 20 minutes from Walmart and at least 15 from everywhere else.  There are days I have 6 or 7 round trips into town in between homeschooling.  Do the math, that is a LOT of running.

Because...and this is the hardest piece, actually...I have to be the one solid functioning brain who remembers everything for Kenny that he forgets, which can honestly often be to remind him he put something in the microwave for lunch and 4 minutes later he has forgotten it.  Or his bowl is on the table and he got distracted and forgot to eat it.  Or he has to take his meds, or make a phone call, or wipe his face, or set up a time to get with friends, or figure out what clothes are appropriate for any given day, or he has to brush his teeth, or he has to shave, or...

All. Day. Long. 
This is what I look like far too often these days,
it doesn't even really look like me!

The mental exhaustion sets in, and I do NOT EVER want to take that out on him, or the girls either when I have to step in with brains that may not be working well on any given day.

I think I didn't realize the need for my own well being because, frankly, I have the most pleasant situation anyone could ever want with teens.  They are WONDERFUL!  Helpful at all times, mature, respectful, kind, self-motivated, bright, and they treat me with a tenderness many moms don't receive at this age.  It hid it all, this blessing of a family, it hid how tired I was, and I couldn't figure out how HARD it all is because in the traditional ways, it just isn't hard!!!

But Dominick has helped me see it, the kids have helped me see it, my best friend has helped me see it, and hearing of family burnout, reading of parents giving up, and families broken apart has caused me to take this more seriously than I was.  Some days I am so busy doing the thinking for one or two kids, I can't think straight about my OWN life!  Heck, let me be honest here, I really don't have "my own life"...and that too, is hard.

I am sharing not because I want pity (Honestly, I wish everyone could be as BLESSED as I am!)  but because I have a ton of special needs moms reading this blog regularly, many with kids whose needs are similar to ours with brain damage, FASD, RAD, and more...and they need to hear "one of their own" saying, "Get away!  Take a break!  If you don't and you burn out, your kids will be lost, your family will tear apart, and all your hard work up until now will be for naught!".  For many of us, this is forever, this isn't temporary or "until they mature" because our beloveds may never make it to full independence, and if they DO manage it, it may only be with lots of support from mom coming in and overseeing paying bills, house cleaning, cooking meals, etc. 

This is forever, and you might as well figure out how to do "forever" really well, with joy, with regular respite to keep yourself cheerfully in the game.

So, as a family, we are working together to figure out how to do exactly that.  I am so fortunate to have them 100% behind me, helping me so I can be fully there for them.  We are Team LaJoy, and that means I am part of that team that sometimes needs their guidance and support, too!  This is fairly new to us all, this awareness of "forever" and what that means particularly for me.  Kenny has walked through more than a year of grieving and is coming out the other side finally, the girls have each grieved the loss of certainty over their future as reality has set in and they are slower to gain necessary important skills. 

And I am perhaps in the middle of my own minor grieving process, trying to sort through what it all means for my future, both long term and the next few years.  Who am I?  Who will I never be able to be if I want to be who they need me to be?  How can I craft something in between the need that feeds my soul, helps me grow, and allows me to reach for something more than care taking?

So many moms of special needs kids and young adults I know feel this way, but struggle to share it with others for fear of seeming selfish.  Concerns about how others perceive their decisions, and their need to take care of themselves being just as important as taking care of their child's needs.  Make the disability invisible, like brain damage and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is, and it is far harder for others to understand the realities of daily life.  If we were walking around pushing wheelchairs, speaking for non-verbal kids, or dealing with walkers there would be instant compassion.  When your child walks, talks and acts like everyone else and can "pass" as normal, there is a lack of understanding of all the effort it takes for it to appear that normal!

The day after Thanksgiving, I left with my dear friend Candi, and off we went to California for a 3 day cruise...and at the cost of $97 after credits and discounts, I didn't even have to feel guilty about spending money!!  Though as Dominick has said, getting me away is far less costly than therapy for seven ;-)  I was gone a week in total, as we stayed a couple nights in Vegas afterward where we went to see Menopause the Musical (Yeah, that is adding to it all at this stage of my life, isn't it? Hahaha!).  It literally took me 2 full days to begin to unwind and let go of "home", but once I did, it was lovely. 

And you know what?  I came back thinking differently, more positive, more hopeful, and inspired with new ideas for teaching!  The respite renewed me, brought the laughter back, softened me...helped me step back into myself.

Moms, find a way to do it if you can.  You have no idea how much you need it until you experience NOT being "on" 24/7, always advocating, seeking services, tending to unending needs.  When you have special needs among your kids, your family needs you to be the best version of you, even more than MOST families do!

Here are some pictures from our trip, which included Catalina Island and my first time ever to see Dale Chihuly's glass work, and Ensenada:

These views alone bring a sense of rest, they are almost a visual sigh.

I have wanted to see Chihuly's glass art for more than 20 years,
so this was a real treat for me!

At the end of the cruise, we perused the photos taken throughout by the ship's photographers.  I couldn't believe the difference, and seeing this image was actually what spoke to me and made me write this blog for other moms like me:

This is the real me, the not-worn-down-so-tired-of-thinking-for-everyone me.  No makeup, not terrific lighting, just a well rested, "brain had some downtime" me.

This is the mom I want my kids to have, and the wife I want Dominick to have.  She leaves us from time to time, and I need to be paying more attention as she drifts away, because there IS something I can do about it, and it is NOT selfish of me, and they deserve THIS version of me...relaxed, less stressed, warm hearted, attentive.  They don't need frazzled, exhausted, frustrated, close-to-a-good-cry me.

We moms matter, we can't keep going if we don't make sure we matter.  However you make it happen, MAKE IT HAPPEN.  Some of us will still be doing this with 30 year olds, or 45 year olds.  We can't keep up the pace if we don't recognize our own needs from time to time.  I am going to revisit this blog and look at the contrast between these two images of me in the future, when I am feeling it is selfish to get away, when I am feeling awful about not finding joy.

And husbands, MAKE IT need wives refreshed, not worn out rags!  In our case, with the responsibility with the store and kids not driving yet, and not wanting to put our kids in the position of being babysitter for Kenny to make sure he is safe, it is pretty impossible for us to get away together for any length of time alone, and thoughtfully, Dominick sees what is needed and always, always steps up as best he can.  He makes it happen, he doesn't begrudge it, he loves me and wants what is best for me.  Me being gone also creates new appreciation for what I do every day, and a deeper understanding for the role I play.

It can be, it can actually be profoundly live within the "less than perfect", but it gets harder to see when fatigue and burnout kick in.

Don't let it happen.  Keep yourself able to witness those moments when life sparkles, and you feel to the marrow of your bones that you are doing exactly what you were meant to do.  Don't allow yourself to miss it, it is rewarding in a way nothing else is.

Monday, December 04, 2017

An Irreverent and Reverent Thanksgiving


All of the above is summed up in Thanksgiving.  While we are rushing headlong into the Christmas chaos, it is Thanksgiving that I always enjoy most.  The commercialization, the seasonal decor brought out in late August, and the Black Friday "rush for stuff" is a total turn off to me, and has tainted Christmas in many ways.  Oh, don't get me wrong, I still find joy in the music and the expectant anticipation of Advent, but Christmas as celebrated by most isn't something I relish.

This Thanksgiving was filled with laughter, snacks, playful banter, and moments of great depth.  Our dear friends, Candi and her wife Pam, traveled from Massachusetts to be with us, and their son Billy came home from his first semester at USC to join us, as well as their daughter Christi who is attending high school in nearby Carbondale, Colorado.  Yes, believe it or not, 11 people in our house for several days didn't feel cramped at all!  I thought it was so cute when Billy said, "I remember when we first got together and 11 of us felt like a lot of people, now it just feels normal!".  Love can do that for you, can't it?  It turns the awkward into awesome :-)

We did nothing of any importance, and Candi and I decided it was going to be a Pinterest Thanksgiving, and forced others to participate in silly crafts.  Those who know me understand how hilarious this is, and how craft impaired I am, so it was really more about the entertainment factor of how BAD it would be and not about the end result!  Here are some photos of and hard work:

Oh, the joy ahead...yeah, riiiiight!!

Candi, inordinately proud of her M&M stuffed turkey.
She has "mad skills"...hahaha!

Matt, our Master Glue Gun Operator and Eyeball Attacher

Kenny and Pam teamed up for each craft, our A Team!

The finished products!

We then moved outside, where Candi and I attempted a spray painting project.

Hmmm...wonder what this will turn into?

We worked at this a lot harder than it looks like!


Next we made rice krispy pumpkins, and everyone got in on the fun!

More eating happened than pumpkin-ing!

These two are so funny together!  Sometimes it feels we have added a third daughter, much to our delight.

Matt and Olesya, our "twins", cracking each other up!

Pumpkin Production Team

Aaaaand...another "win"!!
Two full trays of them, and they were all devoured in two days :-)
The boys had their late night gaming fuel!

We were on a roll, so why not one more in our Pinterest Day of Gluttony and Craft Crap?!?!?!


Kenny's, simple, yet elegant...haha!

Josh and Matt, intent on artistic works.

Olesya...upside down and right side up!

Yes, we felt like 2nd graders, yes, it was silly.
Yes, it was a fun way to spend an afternoon!
No, we are not Pinterest People ;-)

Dominick came home to a houseful of interesting goodies, and was probably quite pleased he didn't get sucked into the Pinterest vortex himself!

A feast...and with four teenage boys present, leftovers were at a minimum!

After all the laughter, all the clean up, and all the crafting, what I can not share with you are photos of the most intimate, meaningful time we all shared together.  There are times to simply be present to the mystery and wonder of deep connection, and our social media driven world would cheapen certain experiences.  All eleven of us ended our evening in a very special way, as we gathered in the dark, candle lit living room, and participated in something that has been dubbed by the kids our "Manship/Womanship Ceremony", which is a special recognition for each of our kids when they turn eighteen years old.  We wait until both families are gathered, and we share a time of reflection about the one who has newly attained official adult status.  Then, we present the son or daughter with a specially chosen key chain, and a house key to each of our houses.

This is a sacred moment for each of our kids, and prior to this night we had recognized Angela, Billy, and Kenny.  It is a rite of passage of sorts for each of our kids, one in which all who feel called to share thoughts about the young person can do so by looking back on who they were, how much they have matured and what they value in that person.  Their gifts and talents are lifted up, and their "overcomings" are celebrated.  By candlelight, each young adult hears how precious they are to those of us who love them so much, they hear words of encouragement to continue to grow into the person God is calling them to be, and they see the tears of joy, and hear the catch in the voices of others as they recall special moments spent in their company.

This night, it was Olesya and Matt's turn, as they each turned eighteen this summer.  This ritual matters, it calls each of our young adults to live into all we see in them.  It allows us to say good bye to childhoods, and hello to new adult lives and responsibilities.  It is an invitation to the Spirit to come in and sit with us all just a little while, to be present among us in a tangible way.  I have listened as each of our kids has brought me to tears as they poured love on their siblings, lifting up their achievements...and I am not talking about worldly accomplishments, but things like how they see God working in their siblings' lives, how they value a character quality, and how hard they know they have worked to jump over enormous obstacles.  

I will not share specifics about Matt and Olesya's ceremony, as the words quietly whispered that night are ours alone, and for their hearts to cherish.  But I will share that all four parents shed tears, as did some of our children as they spoke in appreciation and admiration.  And as we presented them with their key chains, we explained that the two keys signified that they will always have a home to return to, and that we are there for the other family's children as well and will always make space for them in our hearts.

On this Thanksgiving night, what I was most grateful for was the ability to go deep with our family, and to have friends who can do so unashamedly as well.  I am thankful for the warmth and love that comes from intimate relationships where fears can be openly shared, where our hearts are safe and cradled gently by one another, and where faith is palpable.  

I am also eternally grateful for family without shared DNA that is as real and true as any family with genetic ties.  And it is all memorable, isn't it?  The games, the crafts, the mess, the noise...the hugs, the quiet conversations, the "remember when's".  It is the makings of a happy holiday, and we were blessed.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Angela's Gifts

I hear her, quietly chatting on the phone, and I grin.

Her friend?  Henrietta, a woman from the nursing home who she hasn't been able to visit due to volleyball season and her busy schedule.  Angela is giggling and asking questions, promising that the season is now over and she will be able to visit soon.  She misses her weekly visits to those at our local nursing home, and she is determined to get back as soon as possible.

Such a gift I see in her, this lovely daughter of mine.  For her, working with the elderly as a possible future career isn't "settling", it is a calling.  She started volunteering upon my suggestion, and took to it with great surprise!  I suggested it after recalling an incident that occurred years earlier, when she and Olesya had been home a mere few months and had limited English skills.  We were volunteering at our church's book sale, and an older woman was perusing the selections and mentioned that her much older mom was out in the truck and she couldn't take too long.  Angela doesn't remember this at all, but it sure stuck out for me, as I saw her go to the truck with a glass of water all of her own accord, and then proceeded to visit with this woman for at least 10 minutes in her own broken English.  Time and time again I saw Angie being drawn to the elderly, making it a point at church to visit at coffee hour with the widows who gather together for company.  Like a moth to a flame, she finds her way there.

Of course, she and I have talked briefly about how her grandmother was the only constant in her young life, and when she first gained some language skills she shared how her grandma would make sure she and Olesya were safe, and sometimes and would do without food herself so they wouldn't go hungry.  Tragically, her sweet protector's life was taken by the girls' own mother, in front of them.  It created a lifelong hole in the heart of Angela, and a yearning for replacing that relationship that is gradually being filled by other adopted "grandmas" here and there.

Her gift is in her ability to see those who go unseen, to treat them as equals and not see them as merely the crippled, older bodies that sit before her.  She is undisturbed by their frailties, by their temporary confusion, and she is endlessly fascinated by the stories they share of their former lives and their accomplishments, and yet she gives an indication to them that who they are now matters as well.

I have visited with her a few times, reading to Henrietta from love letters her deceased husband wrote where handwriting was too difficult for Angela to discern, and I have "made the rounds" with her as she introduced to me to the people she had been assigned to visit.  For a nineteen year old, she continues to astonish me with how comfortable she is in a setting that makes most people feel great awkwardness and a desire to leave as quickly as possible, having done their duty and wishing to put this visit out of their minds.

Yes, Angie has a calling, and it is as obvious as can be.   She now visits at the nursing home, and is visiting someone new today at a different assisted care center whose adult daughter reached out asking for a non-family "friend" to occasionally visit her mom.  This woman taught Angela and Olesya a Home Ec class a few years back, and so she is familiar with us and the connection is nice to make!  Angie also has a paid care job once  a week or so with a family friend whose kindness in training Angela around adult diapering and more has been so appreciated.  This friend also "gets" Angie's transportation needs, her careful taking of notes because she might forget something, but also sees how capable and competent Angela is as well.  It is these people that God brings alongside our family that has helped our children over and over again to grow and become so much more than Dominick or I could ever help them become.  We need "more" for our kids, whose needs are less obvious  but often include, largely, understanding that their lives have been different, that they have invisible disabilities that they are learning to work with as young adults, and they will be able to do a lot in this world with this kind of caring circling them, nurturing them, believing in them! 

I am beginning to plan training for Ang, and we are looking at possible careers beyond being a CNA, which will never pay enough to support her but is a good starting place.  She will spend part of next year and after graduation taking online courses in geriatric psychology, practical care skills, studying for a CNA, learning about regulations for nursing home operators, and all kinds of other topics related to elder care.  We are going to visit combination day care and senior day cares, learn about issues for families and caretakers and a whole lot more.  Perhaps she will be an activities director, or she has even talked about owning her own small home-like nursing home!  It will take a few years for her to find her niche, but this is definitely where she belongs and is a growing area.  Now to find how she can make a living at it doing more than CNA work, but the exploration and learning process will be so much fun for both of us as I help guide her and learn a little along the way, too!  Right now she is reading Atul Guwande's bestseller, Being Mortal, and within the first five pages turned to me and said, "Oh man, I am going to learn so much!  This is a very interesting book, and he is a good writer!"

Witnessing the blossoming of Angela is a gift beyond measure.  She is strong, confident, compassionate, courageous...oh, I could just go on and on about this young woman I am blessed to parent!  We missed so much with her and Olesya, and when I think about that it brings tears to my eyes.  That Angie allowed herself and her sister to be mothered deeply is a miracle in itself, that she was able to open up and trust just one more time after their biological mom was so unsafe is in itself the single most courageous act I have ever witnessed.  It didn't come easily, she was scared to death, but somehow we made it. 

I am reminded that sometimes, it is those who have been the most harmed by life who have the strength and ability to bring both softness and firmness to their interactions.  Those souls who have walked through the worst people can throw at them can be the most resilient. 

And I have a daughter whose unique blend of tenacity and tenderness is going to be a force to be reckoned with.  She will change the world for someone,  maybe several someones, and it will be through small, repeated kind acts which may never add up in her head to much, but will actually matter far more than she will realize.

I love you, Angela, and I can't WAIT to see where life takes you!  And you know what?  Thanks for letting me come along on the journey alongside you :-)  You didn't have to allow the intimacy we have, and I will forever be grateful you opened up your arms and your heart to me.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Gut or God?

This past week, for our school "Morning Meeting" we watched a video from The School of Life YouTube Channel.  We have a Morning Meeting at the beginning of every day to pull us all together, including Matt who joins us then goes off to do his own academics.  During our Meeting, we discuss current events and news stories, what our schedule is for the next couple of days, and I will bring up anything that we need to work on to keep The LaJoy Machine running pointing out how dishes are somehow being expected to magically make it into the dishwasher again by the Dishwasher Fairy so I'll urge them to move less than four inches to deposit their dining ware into the dishwasher.  Basically, it is a moment of nagging, and then I am done for the day :-)

Much of our Morning Meeting time is largely focused on developing Emotional Intelligence, or "EQ".  We have worked on this diligently for years, and it has been very necessary.  Our three who were adopted at older ages, Kenny, Angela and Olesya, understandably came to us with few skills, and so we have worked diligently to help them gain what they missed all those years without the one on one modeling and guidance from a caring adult. I use everything I can think of for us to reflect on, find examples from our real life, and speak to how to better handle things.  We also use TED Talks, these videos from The School of Life, and articles from my Facebook news feed that I find pertinent. 

The video we watched this week was "How to Make a Decision", and I didn't understand in the moment how profound that was going to be for me, personally.  Not because I don't know how to effectively make a decision, but because of the insight of one of our kids.

It was explained that there are five distinct perspectives we can use to help us give "fresh eyes" on our decision dilemma, and it went on to explain them (Fascinating how our enemies and death were two of them!)  and we had a lot of discussion about the surprising ways in which we saw truth revealed in the five minute video.  Matt sat there quietly, as the wheels in his brain turned, and we could all see he had something to say but was working it through before speaking.

Finally, he said, "Something is missing, I get this guy is secular, but our faith is a big key to our decision making."  He went on to explain his point, and that he understood the creator of the content was probably including any sort of faith component under "gut instinct", but for Matt, decision making could include gut instinct as separate from being spiritually guided. 

I can't tell you all how profoundly moved I was...and we all that.  Matt is the one who has, in the past, least spoken about God's role in his life,  but who has in the past couple of years claimed his Christian faith more intentionally and deeply.  His analytical, scientifically oriented brain seemed to lend itself toward the concrete rather than the abstract, and in truth, I think the process of leaving our old church and methodically searching for a new one, then claiming it, brought forth a stronger sense of connection for him.  Obviously, what we had before was not a good fit for him.

We continued the conversation discussing the ways in which we, as a family, have made decisions totally counter to our own desires because something felt God led.  We have never regretted such decisions, and Dominick and I have always worked with the kids to talk through such things so they could begin to understand how you "see" God's guiding you  in your life.  We quickly recounted all the ways in which we have used spiritual reflection (and God's 2x4's!) to help us make the best decisions...moving to Colorado in the first place seemed counterproductive as we left behind terrific jobs to do so, but God had other plans.  Each and every time we adopted we had people attempt to dissuade us...particular with Kenny, Angela and Olesya, and thankfully, God had other plans.  The purchase of the liquor store  was not something I was personally comfortable with but God showed me how clearly this was the plan and I needed to say yes.  Changing faith communities after almost fifteen years was not something I would have chosen for us, but God hounded us and had other plans.  Homeschooling, oh that was SO not my idea!  But God had other plans.

Every time we have evaluated a decision, we have tried to be intentional about making space for God to be present in it with us.  In our case, it often seems God guides us to the possibility we would be least likely to select, but not fighting that and being willing to say "Yes" even when we would prefer not to has always proven to be the best for us, hands down.  There has never been a single time when we have gone with "God" instead of gut, that we have not been joyfully surprised.  I can't even recall how many times my gut screamed out, "NO!!!  I don't wanna!!!" and yet my soul said otherwise.  Sometimes, I actually hate that, because it also usually means a new kind of courage is going to be required of me, a new level of trust, a new trial to walk through...and yet I grow :-)

Sitting there at the table surrounded by our five young adults, all nodding their head in agreement at Matt's pointing out the need for God to be the largest part of our decision making, emotional twin...looked me square in the eye and said, "Mom, next time you doubt your parenting, remember this moment."  She knew how much this mattered, how Matt was the more unlikely one, how this affirmed that our years of sharing the ways in which God moves in the world and in our own lives.  More importantly, she knew how important it was that in our darkest moments, each of us feels there is something to hold on it, and sometimes the only "something" you may have is God.  Only someone who has walked through the darkest of moments herself could understand the significance of this for Matt, and for all of us.

We are at the stage when we, as parents, are realizing the fruits of our parenting labor.  We are seeing things being put into practice, skills being utilized, and a gradual maturing into the people we had hoped our kids would become.  They aren't "launched" yet, and might not be for years to come, but they are making steps toward it.  And who knows, saying "Yes" to God may mean our entire family life looks different from the cultural norm as this process continues. 

That's OK, I like being counter-cultural anyway ;-) 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Giving Birth!

I have a new baby!  No, it is not an animal, and no, it is not another child (though if I were a wee bit younger, you could bet it would be!).  It has kept me incredibly busy and is surprising me, frankly.

In 2013, I started a web site that was really a place to empty my favorites folder into, and I figured I might as well do it publicly as others might find the information helpful.  So, I listed it all, then promptly forgot about it.  By that, I mean I truly didn't give it another thought and hadn't visited the site in four years. 

This past winter I received a couple emails from moms who had discovered some broken links.  I sort of ignored it, as honestly, my head was nowhere near being in a place to give that any more thought than I had the prior four years!!  Just too much going on personally for me.  Late this summer, I felt a strong urge to see what I might be able to do with it.  I don't know why, other than God nudged it I guess.  I tend to say "yes" when God asks things of me, because it leads me on unexpected extraordinary adventures. 

My web site is called Blue Collar Homeschool and it contains a list of resources for families who are homeschooling kids who are likely to be headed toward Blue Collar know, Vocational or Trade School bound learners.  In the homeschooling arena, there is little shared about kids who are not college bound, and few resources available.  I feel this is a shame, not just for homeschoolers but in public schools as well, so I wanted to share what I had found for our own kids, some of whom are not likely to go to college.  I wanted to create a place on Facebook that partnered with the web site where we could share about our very average kids doing the things they love, not prepping for SAT's or taking AP classes.  I guess I really wanted a place to celebrate those incredible accomplishments of kids who are not college bound, but who have enormous talents.  I also wanted a place for conversation about education in general, about cool trade opportunities, and about teaching kids practical skills and entrepreneurship.

I spent many hours checking every link, updating it a bit, and creating a logo. All of this takes me far more time because I am clueless about website design, even with "easy" interfaces!  I have a blog there I have been writing for as well, which is why the blog here has gotten short shrift the past couple of weeks.  I also got the Facebook group up and running and started planning content for it as best I could, not having a clue what I was doing!  I had no idea what to expect, or if I would ever get any members at all, but figured it might be nice to have that as an extension of the blog.
  I will readily admit it is a dull, unexciting web site, but it holds links to resources, and

Somehow, I stumbled on something with this endeavor, and it has stunned me, actually.  Our Facebook group has almost 350 members in less than 2 months!  It is easy to see how this ministry of a sort could turn into a full time volunteer gig.  What warms my heart is how many wonderful comments we have already had about how happy others are to find this "place".  The sharing happening there is awesome, and the community gradually forming is something that clearly we all needed.  That really matters to me, for I have always desired that those around me never feel alone if I can do anything about it.  Though these are all strangers, I am touched that this silly idea has blossomed so quickly and has become a tool for very real connection.

I have no idea where this little adventure will lead, but I wanted to share it all with you.  I will still be blogging regularly here, but am also honing my skills with a different sort of writing over at "BCH" as I am abbreviating it.  I am intrigued, challenged, and learning a lot as I work on this little project.  I have never written a lot here about homeschooling as a main topic, but it does get woven throughout as a natural part of our lives.  Many blogger moms get creative and really turn homeschooling blogs into money makers.  I have no desire to do that, though many might find that foolish.  Corny as it sounds, I just want to help others if I can, share what I can, and let the Spirit do with it what it will. 

So, from time to time I may be mentioning Blue Collar Homeschool here, and I wanted you to understand what I was talking about!  And for you praying folk, could I ask for prayers for this group and web site to be a place where relationships are formed that really matter, that hearts feel connected, and that needs are met in terms of access to ideas and resources.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

We Will All Make It...Somehow

He sits there, eyes rapidly blinking, Adam's apple bobbing, unable to utter a sound.  Something is misfiring in his brain, and darned if we can figure it out.  Matthew is struggling recently with communication in certain moments, and we are not quite sure what is happening, but we have seen it in the past once in a great while.  In moments of stress, it is as if everything shuts down, his processing speed slows to a crawl, and nothing can be accessed.

Recently we have had this happen a couple of times, and it has been a little scary for both of us.  This last time a week ago, there were simple questions being asked that made him feel "put on the spot" just a bit, and we saw this shut down.  Rather than let it go, and knowing that with both of us being frustrated we needed to just cool down a moment, I asked him to sit at the table with me and talk this through.  He had misinterpreted my questions as accusations, and I was soon to really understand why...

"So, can you tell me what is going on?", I asked, hoping we could get to the bottom of this.

Finally able to speak, and frustrated...and probably a bit angry with me...he said, "I don't know!  It is like I literally don't understand what you are saying, and it doesn't matter how you word it!"

This simple question about internet trouble in our home had turned into something much different.

I begin to describe what I see, "You look totally blank when this happens, as if you are suddenly not even here, like you are flat.  But what you need to know is that it makes it look to the outside like you are trying hard to come up with an excuse or a quick lie to get out of something.  I know that's not the case, but others will not understand this, but YOU need to understand how they may interpret this."

"That's not IT!", he exclaimed, crushed.

And then, it was clear what was needed, and I let the tears start showing in my eyes, and then I told him through my own sobs, "Matt, I am so sorry this happens.  I know how hard it must be and you have no control over it.  I hate that you have to struggle so much!!  I'd give anything to fix this, but I can't." and that was all it took, and holding one another we gave in to the grief we had yet to really ever express but that had been building.  This is a special sort of grief, the kind of which few ever experience but that seems to be my lot in life...the grieving that occurs when bright brains don't work...can't work...despite the best efforts. 

One of the big reasons we decided to homeschool was that Matt's needs weren't being met in public school.  Through a public-homeschool alternative program we later utilized he was tested and found to be both gifted and learning disabled with Dysgraphia which is a writing disability, something that took us awhile to figure out.  What we were told at the time was that he had "maxed out" the test for spatial reasoning, which wasn't a surprise for us, and was highly gifted in a couple of areas, by 5th grade he was reading at a 10th grade level as tested, hence the reason he no longer could fit in a traditional class setting. 

But when we were told about his Dysgraphia, we were also told that he had an extremely slow processing speed.  This was not something we had anticipated, though it did answer some unasked questions.  We have always said Matt has one speed, moderately slow, and even physically if there was a fire in the house he would really be unable to move quickly.  We just thought it was part of his nature, not a real disability or issue, but more that he was one of those slower more methodical people we all encounter in life.  He was so intelligent, that we never really gave "speed" of thinking much thought, and always accepted it as part of who Matt was and never got angry with him when he simply walked through the world at half speed.

I stood there, holding him close, his sobs and mine intermingling.  I am so tired of the suffering of my kids, I can't begin to tell you.  Just when you think things are moving along well, something else comes along and bites us in the behind.  We seem to never be able to escape their pasts, their beginnings that shaped them into the wonderfully resilient, kind young adults they are becoming but also caused irreparable harm. As their mom, I just want it all to be easier, even if I can see how it has also helped them have more empathy and more understanding. 

He apologized for taking his frustration out on me, and I accepted and told him that I needed to ask him for lots of grace, as I too am at a loss.  Every single disability our kids have has been diagnosed because I took them to specialists for testing to confirm what I had researched and thought was possibly what we were dealing with, even to the point of taking Kenny to the University of Washington's Fetal Alcohol clinic.  I have had to dig, and guess, and tap my internet friends for ideas, and then beg for testing to confirm a suspected diagnosis...basically, I have sort of had to be a neurologist and special ed teacher all in one, because the diagnosis is only the first step...then, how do you best teach it?  And Dominick totally "gets" this is why I have thousands of hours logged on the internet...

And that doesn't include the role as therapist for so much heartbreak.

I asked Matt to work with me and not assume I was going to accuse him of something.  I reminded him I was doing my very best to guess sometimes if he was "having a moment" or if he was being a typical teen who, believe it or not, is NOT totally perfect.  Well, at least not all the time ;-)  I explained that he needed grace and kindness from me, and I needed it from him as well, and that it was really important for him to not view my questions as "interrogation" when he felt blameless, and instead view them as attempts to figure out what is causing the glitch, and where/when exactly it is coming into play.

We held hands, and we talked briefly about how having a slow processing speed does not mean "stupid", and that I would never, ever think that of him, but I knew at times he might be scared others would thinks so if certain things took him longer than others.  I explained that mostly, people would think that he was a thoughtful guy who didn't throw things out off the cuff, but that if he was asked a direct question and he "blanked out", that the look he gave others and the lack of response led them to think he might be trying to come up with an excuse.  I also explained how I have accommodated his slower processing speed at home for years, by giving him the chance to wait until all the others had answered the question asked, then allowing him to contribute last.  We talked about self-advocacy, and stopping in the moment to explain to others that he needed a moment longer to think because his brain moves at a slower speed sometimes.  We teased a little, wiped our tears, and knew we now had more to think about as we contemplate his future.

Driving is proving challenging for both Angela and Matt for similar reasons, it seems, and it is this slow processing speed that is getting in the way.  For Angela, she can hear my instructions clearly and interpret them, but her brain simply can  not act fast enough based upon the instructions in situations where she lacks confidence.  Believe it or not, I am teaching them all the recorder (The little instrument, yes, you can have sympathy for me now) and I am seeing it play out even there as she struggles far more than the other kids to make her hands move when she feels pressured to "keep up" or make her body do something when she has to think hard about it.  Behind the wheel, what comes naturally for many of us...things like being reasonably centered in the lane, or saying "stop here" and she can't get the instruction interpreted fast enough and then think about her foot then move her foot onto the brake peddle.  Nothing is intuitive.

With Matt, he is also struggling with processing speed, but for him it is anxiousness at doing a new task almost shutting off his ability to comprehend the words I am saying.  No joke, one time we were out practicing in a cemetery and he is unable to turn 5 mph...starting too late, not turning the steering wheel enough, etc.  I am not a "yeller" so we are always calm about it, but I said with growing urgency, "Turn, turn, TURN..." and he was able to brake, but then looked at me and I asked, "Why didn't you turn more?" and again he told me, "I literally didn't understand what you meant..." and this was the first time I think his awareness grew around his processing speed being an issue, and he was clearly a little scared.  "What else would you have me say, Matt?  What would help?  I don't know what would help..." and we determined that using as little language as possible but showing him would help.  So, I got out of the car, switched sides, and proceeded to take tons of turns with him watching, I went very slowly and explained with as few words as possible and breaking it down into steps where to begin the turn, how far to turn the wheel, etc.  Then he was more able to do so when we changed seats again.

Angela and I talked a lot about driving and other things when I took her out this week, and what others don't understand is how embarrassing it can be to struggle to do things others find pretty easy.  When your brain doesn't take in or work with information the same as everyone else's, you find that hard to explain.

And yet I am so proud of these two young adults!!  They are patient with me and themselves, they are willing to look at the hard stuff and deal with it, and not pretend it isn't there.  There is no attitude, no nastiness, no rancor.  Just moments of clarity that are hard, and then acceptance and problem solving.

No one knows how hard life can be at this stage with challenges like this, they see an ordinary group of teens whose invisible disabilities aren't always present.  Matt is flying a plane, for goodness sake!  Why can't he drive a car?  Wellllll...decisions made in a plane are allowed more time.  Turns are planned well in advance, miles ahead, and there are not distractions like kids playing in streets, other cars coming at you, road signs to read and interpret, turn signals to activite, windshield wipers to turn on, speed to watch that changes constantly depending upon the road you are on, 3 mirrors to keep an eye on while looking out the windshield.  Flying is an entirely different activity requiring different...methodical...skills.

Matt asked me the other day if I knew what "apraxia" was, and I told him that I thought it may have something to do with his inability to speak at certain moments, but that I had yet to look into it much because we were really just beginning to see this come into play.  I was pleased that he was researching things himself, and throwing out ideas.  A chip off the old block, maybe :-)

We move into young adulthood with these amazing teens, each fighting to make it on their own, each needing security to be who they are, to learn more about what they can and can't do in the world through no fault of their own.  They are working against so much, and yet continue to grow and mature.  It won't look the same as other families, it will take a lot longer and we all know that.  Others may judge, but they don't really know...they don't know how far we have come, all we have overcome, and all we still have to figure out.

But we know, and we are a team...and we will all make it somehow.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

To Be Understood, a "Friendaversary" Tale

One afternoon a little over three years ago, I sat on my living room couch trying desperately and unsuccessfully to hold myself together as I was explaining to a dear older friend how I was feeling.  I was drained from the day to day work with our special needs crew, I was growing ever more isolated as a stay-at-home homeschooling mom who didn't quite fit anywhere, and I was more lonely than I can recall ever being in my entire life.  Sure, I had friends I interacted with at church, and I had my family (Yea, YOU try maintaining your sanity with a houseful of teens and pre-teens 24/7! Hahaha!), but what was missing was a deep connection with someone who "got it".  Many of my friends were well beyond their parenting years, or had never parented at all, and they either shook their head saying, "Man, I have no idea how you do it!" or "I don't know WHY you do it!"...both similar words yet very different statements.  There was no malice meant whatsoever, but a simple lack of understanding of my singular life.

We had started homeschooling when Matt was in fifth grade, and it was like trying to jump into a well formed clique that was strong and had been for years before we came along.  This, too, was not out of malice, but is just sort of how life goes.  Being more progressive in my theological understandings and being in the homeschool arena also left me feeling uncertain, as the homeschool world where we live, as in most places, is largely Christian and can lean far more conservative than we are.  This isn't a problem for me at all, and I love my Christian friends of all ilk, but I was always afraid of letting the real me show and feared being rejected because I said the wrong thing.  Like millions of Protestant Christians in America, I do not take the Bible literally, but I do take it seriously...however in certain homeschooling circles that admission alone can brand you a heathen.  

The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was after the first volleyball practice of the season, when I went in and politely chatted with a few of the moms as I always had in prior years, and one of them turned to me and said, "Oh, are your kids playing this year?" and not quite understanding I responded, "Yes, just like we do every year." and she looked at me quizzically and said, "I don't remember seeing you or any of them last year." and then turned to talk to another mom, totally clueless about the impact her words had made on me.

We had literally had five kids playing on three teams the year before, and I had visited with this very mom at almost every single practice and game.  We were so distant from being considered part of the "core group" and my family and I mattered so little that it hadn't even been noted that we were in attendance for an entire season.

I went to the car, more heavy hearted than I had been in years, and despite my best efforts started sobbing.  I had tried so hard to visit, to be warm, to engage others in conversation despite how hard it is for me as a bit of an introvert, and still it didn't matter.  Something shifted for me in that very moment, and I realized it was pointless to try and make much more effort to try and fit in where I truly just wasn't going to fit.  I prayed on the drive home for God to reach into my heart and help me cope with feeling so lonely, to help me learn how to live with this as it was imperative that we continued to homeschool for the sake of our kids and I was committed to that with my whole heart, but I was aching with the seclusion that brought.  

You see, I had even moved beyond my prayers for closer friendships and companionship and was simply asking for God to help me accept this as the way my life was going to be.  I had given up, and just needed to find a way to be OK with it all.  Aside from the lack of connection in the homeschooling community, our unusual situation with our kids meant that I didn't even have anyone who understood our life from a parenting perspective.  We have to make so many decisions that are counter to what other parents do, and we have to parent such a wide range of abilities and disabilities, emotional trauma, neglect, and more, and I have been the interpreter of the world to my children, but am also sadly in the role of interpreter of my children to the world.  Your standard parent hasn't had to deal with the rejection of an infant due to Reactive Attachment Disorder that takes years and years of work to heal, they haven't had kids hit their heads because their brains don't work and cry out as they say, "I am so stupid!  I am SO STUPID!", they haven't had to parent children who have witnessed murder, who have suffered institutionalization, who have had their hearts, bodies and minds crushed by the very people who were supposed to protect them. 

I had perhaps one or two people I knew at all via the internet who had adopted so many kids from orphanages overseas, let alone kids significantly older.  I had no role models, no one I could call with the sometimes terrifying issues we dealt with every single day, no one who understood how much damage was being done to my own spirit as I was the emotional sponge for all the very real pain I was absorbing in our home every day.  Don't get me wrong, we were truly happy, too, and still are, solely thanks to our invitation to God to be smack dab in the middle of our lives, but it has been harder than I can ever explain.

So as I sat there, unsuccessfully keeping the tears from flowing as I shared with my friend who truly loved me but  with whom I also didn't share much in common, how I was just wrecked, lonely beyond belief, and felt at moments like I was always going to be alone. I was fifteen years into a journey that I would STILL take over again, but was beaten down and declaring loneliness the winner.  I don't know if I had ever allowed myself to be quite so vulnerable up until that point.

Barely a month later, my sweet friend Mary who heard my heart that day introduced me via Facebook to someone she had met at a conference a few days prior, someone the Spirit had told her to connect with, and she listened and felt something strong that she couldn't ignore.  Through a series of "Divine Coincidences", Mary stumbled upon the person who would quickly become the best friend I would ever have...all because she listened to the Spirit guiding her to keep nudging us together.

Tentatively, trusting Mary's gut, Rev. Candi Ashenden and I began communicating through emails and Facebook, trying to ascertain what it was that Mary saw might be there for each of us.  Our first real communication was when she asked me to send her the copy of a sermon I had just delivered, wondering if maybe she could find something for us to talk about, as Mary kept bugging us :-)  That was all it took (not that the sermon was that good, trust me!) as Candi was able to see my true heart somehow in the lines of that sermon, and we began to develop a deeply meaningful long distance friendship that sustains each of us today.

Three years later, on this day we celebrate our third "Friendaversary".  At first glance, it would be hard to see how we could have anything in common at all, me a homeschooling mom of five kids most of whom have learning disabilities, no college degree, total Southern California attitude at times who also has a lot of Colorado rural common sense, straight and married for 30 years to my high school sweetheart...then there is Candi who is a highly educated fairly naive (versus SoCal!!) pastor with a bit of a typical New England insularity, who has two academically high performing kids who attend private schools, with her spouse, Pam, who is an attorney.

But you know what?  First glances can be so deceiving...

We are both committed to our families and would do anything for them, and we love our spouses and work to keep our marriages strong like any long married couple does, gay or straight (She and Pam have been married 20 years).  She has a child who struggles with high functioning autism and it brought to her a sensitivity and understanding about my own it did to me with hers, each of whom I love as fiercely as I do my own.  We both love to write, to talk about ideas, to brainstorm.  We both talk...a LOT! Hahaha!  We both are INFJ's on the Meyers Briggs personality profile, that oddball 1-2% of the population who are intuitive and have a unique set of qualities that few others have (quirky, we are!).  There is a love for learning that comes through with each of us, to the point of being annoying :-)

But it is perhaps in the area of our faith where we most closely align, walking it with all we are worth.  It doesn't matter at all that she is a pastor for she would be the same way whether she was a secretary or a teacher or a pastor, but with Candi I can share my daily interactions with the Spirit and my faith and not worry that I am making someone else uncomfortable.  The biggest part of my life doesn't have to be excitement when God 2x4's me, my seeking prayer for God to reveal the right path for me to take, my abiding sense that God guides all our family can all be talked about as we actually DO talk about it in our family, as part of our regular old daily life and not as if it is reserved only for Women's Group or for sharing Joys and Concerns on Sunday morning.

This friendship has saved me in a very literal way, and it was God who saved me through it.  I suspect she might say the same thing.  I have never met a kinder, warmer, more authentic, loving human being, and the lives of my entire family are richer for the presence of her and her family.  She is the sister I needed and never had.  No one has ever treated me with as much respect for my intellect despite my lack of education, and has seen more possibility in me, nor encouraged me as strongly as Candi has.  

I remember after the second email we sent back and forth going to Dominick and telling him, "I am getting to know someone Mary introduced me to who I need you to know feels like a 'keeper', it is the same sense of knowing I had with you and with each of our kids...I'm just letting you know someone important may be entering our life." and my dear husband, having years and years of being part of that unusual "knowing" I seem to have and being blessed by it with our kids, trusted me 100% and took me very seriously.  He also trusts how God works in our lives, and that in this arena, it is me who hears, and in other arenas, it is his job to be hearing and my job to trust.

This is the friendship that shouldn't be...the one that distance alone ought to have kept from blossoming.  We should have never met, we should have never found our common ground.  This is the one that was truly a gift from God, one that could never have been orchestrated by either of us.  This friend is the one my children and husband needed, where aunties and cousins were included.  This is the one who would drop everything and "show up" to be beside me as my kids suffered through surgeries, as they experienced new self awarenesses that were hard to accept, and as we work our way gently and steadily toward adult independence that will take longer and look quite different.  This friendship is the one with wisdom to share that helps me be more creative, more honest, and most certainly more whole.  This friendship is the one where God can also be placed in the middle without reservation or concern.

English may not offer us other words as some languages do, and it inhibits us from expressing the many different kinds of love we all experiences.  We hear of "love stories" and we think of romantic love, but every once in awhile God offers love to us in extraordinary ways, through the unlikeliest of relationships.  Friendships, when deep and true, can fill us up in completely different ways.  We can love others' children, we can love entire families as they join ours, we can love other couples who fill grandparent gaps in our is in short supply in the world these days, so why limit it??