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.

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.