Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Long Journey to Paradise

Do you know what a privilege it is to watch hearts unfold?

We have had a very good past couple of days, despite moments that are hard. It is a roller coaster over here, one in which we find ourselves throwing our hands up in the air as we rocket downhill at lightning fast speed, screaming all the way with smiles on our faces, then steady ourselves as the coaster clickety clacks it's way uphill for the next run down.

We are very slowly creating order from scheduling chaos, one little day at a time. A huge problem for me personally is...well I have two problems that others will laugh at, but here they are anyway.

#1 - I didn't get to nest appropriately as I was planning on some heavy duty mucking out of cupboards and reorganizing between adoption trips. Obviously, the "between" never happened. Consequently, I find my inner self quite disturbed at drawers that are packed and were put off being emptied (i.e. the kitchen junk drawer everyone has that in our case barely closes!) and deep cleaning not done. I feel incomplete and unready for the girls even though they are already here, and as I type this I know how stupid it sounds and that no one will understand. But it's me, and it is extremely unsettling to me.

#2 - Homeschooling organizational nightmares...Big Problem. We do most of our work at the kitchen table, we have a cheapie fiberboard entertainment center with glass doors covering shelves that no longer open or close right, and this is where I store our homeschooling stuff...which is not being stored because I can't open or close it easily plus we simply have too much stuff already. I know, go ahead and laugh at me, but I can't find a system or a place that works well for Matt's stuff, the girl's stuff, art supplies, books for future reference, books for current reference, storage of ongoing projects, answer keys, manipulatives, etc. It is growing, it is chaotic, it is driving me bonkers and we need to figure this out quickly. What we really need is a wall of bookshelves that I can close off and not look at. I really don't want to spend the next several years feeling like I am living in a school room, and yet don't really want to relegate all of us to a separate space as it is super convenient and downright cozy to work in our kitchen and dining area where I can see the kids while folding laundry or getting dinner started. I like that they can grab a blanket and curl up with a laptop on the couch in front of the fireplace...but we need to give serious thought to what to do here so I don't have every inch of kitchen counter space taken up each day with school items. that off my chest, thanks for listening.

I am also suffering brain fry, Big Time. Working with the girls is sort of like a spider web, where one little piece of information leads to the need for another to fill a gap or offer an explanation that makes sense, and it requires serious attention and thought to present material, words and sounds in ways that are meaningful to them. Pantomiming, pulling out our Russian-English dictionary, drawing pictures, referring to their tiny base of knowledge, and thinking of creative ways to present things to keep burn out at a minimum is not easy. I am always "on" and that can be exhausting in ways that are hard to explain.

They are doing fantastic though, and are working hard when we sit down.

We started our day Friday morning with about an hour of Time4Learning. Angela and Olesya both seem really engaged by the way the material is presented. We have Olesya working at the Pre-K level to build alphabetic awareness and vocabulary, while Angela is working at Grade 1 to start phonics and blending of sounds. Thus far she hasn't acted as if it is too juvenile and seems to enjoy some of the learning activities a lot.

We are blessed that our friend Mr. Steve has offered to work with Matthew on a couple of areas, and he came to take him hiking to look for eagles which allowed me some guilt free one on one time with the girls, and we made the most of it. It is so cute that at "school time" they each get their school bags which thus far just have a couple of notebooks and folders in them, along with the girlie pens and erasers they bought, and they bring it to the table and set it down, ready to work. We have small white boards for all the kids and the girls take theirs and we work on writing words, and I introduced the vowels which are proving a little tough to differentiate the short vowel sounds. But it was the first we worked on them and it will take a lot of listening to discern the differences. I am having them work on identifying letters and sounds, going back and forth between asking what sound a letter makes, or making a sound and asking them to write the letter. We introduced th, sh and ch sounds...and "th" is horribly difficult for either of them to reproduce as it still is for Kenny.

We reviewed our vocabulary words from the day before and I was pleased that many of them stuck and Angela in particular seemed quite proud to show me that she remembered most of them. I am trying to work mainly on words we are using every day right now, and body parts as well as a few school oriented words like paper, ruler, eraser, etc. We need to get quickly to time references as that will help us a lot.

We worked with flash cards and with the Oxford Picture Dictionary I spoke about in a previous blog. They added more new words to their personal vocabulary notebooks...and then overload set in so we quit and went for a bike ride together for about 30 minutes. We made lunch together, and then played some foosball after Matthew got home. Olesya and I looked at pictures in a couple of animal books and I started using more adjectives with her while Angela started reading a Harry Potter book we got for her in Kazakhstan and then our day was done and it was time to go get Kenny and Joshie. We didn't get to math but I am hoping to put together some sort of plan for that in the next couple of days. In the meantime we will work on speed with math facts and play games which include math like more Blackjack, etc.

We did learn one interesting thing, and that is that both girls were dismayed at the lack of discipline they saw in the boys' school, and the attire of the kids. They are used to such regimented classroom environments with uniforms that our average public school is quite disturbing to them. They spoke to our translation friends about the lack of respect, kids sitting on desks, etc. Of course what they come from stifles individuality and is not necessarily the answer but in this case for them to have that attitude might work in our favor for them to be happier at home for awhile rather than feeling like aliens dropped from another planet into public school here. The culture shock is enormous in ways we don't always even think about!! I also chuckled when I realized that the day they went into Visions for testing there were kids present for a class and it was Pajama Day, and I wonder if the girls questioned what in the world THAT was all about! Hahaha!

I felt we had a huge breakthrough when we had finished eating dinner and I decided to go to Walmart because once again we were out of bread, milk and fruit and I needed to restock. Angela quickly asked me if she could go alone with me, which was a big surprise but after Olesya and Joshie begged to let them go she relented and with a smile offered to go ahead and let them come, as I had left it up to her. I can't tell you how much it touched me though that she wanted to be alone with me for the first time.

We went and I picked up some play dough in addition to another 5 pounds of apples, 2 bunches of bananas, 4 pears, 5 kiwis, another bag of carrot sticks, and another 3 gallons of milk . That was last night and one gallon of milk is gone, all the pears and kiwis have been devoured, 5 apples have been munched on and I think about 4 bananas. These girls can not get their fill of milk and fruit!! And I am having to totally readjust my thinking...if everyone has even one sandwich in our family that is most of one loaf of bread.

Oh yea...and they ate 4 lbs of strawberries on top of that!!

I led them over to the toy aisles where I picked up 2 sets of cans of Play Dough. Angela asked me "Joshie?" and I nodded and said "Yes", knowing full well my intent was to have the girls play with it but realizing I couldn't present it that way. Off we went home where we unloaded everything and headed off to bed.

I had told the kids they could sleep as late as they wanted this morning, and the girls did! They didn't get up until 10:30, and they both luxuriated in feeling that delicious sense of being awake but not having to move from a nice warm bed until you actually want to. They came out and had pancakes for the first time, which they both liked a lot.

Now it was time for my experiment, and after they asked if they could stay in their PJ's longer and acted so happy when I allowed them to, I had Matt bring up the cookie cutter/PlayDough box and I had the boys all sit down at the table to play with the Play Dough. Olesya was quick to be intrigued and sat right down ready to check it out. Angela came over a few minutes later and casually sat down, obviously interested but feigning disinterest because, after all, 11 year old girls do not play with Play Dough, right??

Especially if they don't know how to play.

It was a little bit startling and heartbreaking to see both the girls sit there at the table, this huge array of Playdough and at least 100 different items to cut and manipulate it with, and they were clueless what to do. They quietly sat there, watching the boys out of the corner of their eyes and eventually leaning over to see what they were doing, and not a blob of Playdough came out of a single can. They didn't even know where or how to begin, and by this time it was obvious they both wanted to. I gave the boys all a heads up with hints that they all picked up on that we needed to show them what to do, so Matthew abandoned his creation and pushed himself closer to Angela and showed her how to press the dough into molds, I grabbed a rolling pin and showed them each how to roll it out and use the cutters to create shapes. The grins slowly crept across their faces as they began to try it on their own, and soon they were making gingerbread men, animals and kneading the dough into all kinds of fun things. They all played there for an hour and a half, and I felt like we had just climbed one tiny mountain as the girls took another step towards becoming the children they have never had the chance to be.

Angela's creations

Joshie getting to work!

Kenny making a Playdough Pizza!

Matthew working on a pyramid...what else?

Playdough noodles are pretty cool!

Olesya LOVED using the molds to make Bob the Builder!

Later we somehow piled 6 bikes, 5 kids and 1 mom into The Bomb (our $900 15 passenger van) and I thought to myself that this was God's little gift to me, this moment where all our dreams as we purchased the van had come to fruition and geeky though we are, we were heading down the road with a van packed with kids and bikes. It took all of us about 20 minutes to figure out how to squeeze the bikes in between seats as we forgot to have Dominick remove another one of them so it would be easy to load. Matthew, Kenny and Angela took over. At one point it looked like my bike, which was the last one, would not fit in and I told the kids to just forget it, that I would be happy walking. It was again much to my surprise when Angela vehemently disagreed and insisted I be able to ride with them, even going so far as to pretend cry to get the idea across that "Mama ride bike!".

We went to a local park with bike paths and all rode for a couple of hours, the girls LOVE riding bikes even though they are not riding their new bikes as they are both scared of them! Hahaha! Olesya is riding Joshua's tiny little bike until she gets up the nerve to move up in size to a more appropriate height...doing just as Kenny did until he gained confidence...and Angela rode Dominick's and offered to let Matthew ride hers since he had shared his bike with her.

Hey...think these kids have spent the winter in Petropavlovsk? See the snow? See that 3 are not wearing their jackets? That's not Colorado tough, that's Kazakhstan tough!!!

Matthew leading the way, both literally and symbolically.

There's our crew!

So progress is being made on all fronts, although as usual there are a couple of steps backwards. Angela still is quite stiff with me pretty often, and when Dominick is present it is as if I don't exist as she looks to him for everything...asking for fruit, help or anything...her eyes don't even look my way. He redirects her to me, but the comfort level is not there. We are making great progress though, and she actually showed concern for the first time when I split my finger back open for the 3rd time and drew blood again. She walks way ahead of me, reminiscent of Kenny when he first came home, and often because she appears very uncomfortable to be physically close enough to me to walk side by side.

Olesya is gaining ground in seeing me as Mom and pulling a tiny bit away from being the follower to Angela's leader. Tonight Angela went to bed around 10:30 and Olesya was working with Kenny on some project and waited another 30 minutes before heading off herself. This gentle role reassignment is what is necessary for both of them to have more appropriate child-like roles in the family, and it seems to be happening naturally without our having to force the issue all that much other than light encouragement.

Joshua is struggling with "re-entry". Things are fine at school, but he and I had a "date" tonight as we attended a small birthday celebration and he was supposed to spend the night with his buddy who was there as well, but he was in tears when the time came and couldn't do it. We have been concerned about him as we are seeing some compulsions or obsessive behaviors that appeared just before we left for Kaz. We had a problem several months ago with hand washing with him to the point he developed raw and scabbed hands, and that finally disappeared only to be replaced with tugging on his eyelashes. Tonight at his friend's house he was not engaging with the other 2 boys at all, preferring to be near them but not playing with them, and that is highly unusual for him. In every other way and with his siblings he appears to be doing great, and he is absolutely in love with his sisters who are extremely nurturing with him. But change is hard, and even good change is still disordered. I talked to him on the way home and didn't catch anything wrong as I worked my way around how he was feeling, what he felt about Kazakhstan, if he was thinking about birth parents at all on our trip, if the orphanage reminded him of his own, etc. So while there is nothing really wrong, there IS something wrong and I need to find a way to get to the bottom of it.

Matthew has been in tears 3 or 4 times over minor things during the past couple of weeks. He too is quite taken with his sisters and is so glad they are here, plus I have been ever-so-pleased to see the relationship he and Angela have in which she is definitely deferring to him, they are working very well as a team together, and she appears to have quite a bit of respect for the point that she has seen him reading so much around the house that after declaring that she didn't like books she is breaking out the two or three Russian language books we have and showing what seems to be more her real self as we learned she DID like books through our friends who are kindly interpreting for us. She just wasn't ready to show it until she saw Matthew with his nose buried so much in a book. Matt just has no idea the impact he has on his siblings. But again, even though things ARE going phenomenally well for older child adoption and a sibling group, things still feel a little odd.

And I am glad that I see I am not the only one feeling this "odd" set of emotions, for tonight I found myself briefly in tears again myself with an understanding friend. Seems to happen so often these days, but I am worried about Josh and it was at her house this all took place. I also know she won't judge me, and I tried to explain how it all just feels sort of out of synch for the entire family...that it is not like going on vacation and coming home and having to get back in the groove. You come home and NOTHING is ever the same. That does NOT mean it is bad, it is just different, and for me it is even harder because I am hyper aware of all that is going on around me and that kind of vigilance is difficult to maintain without some stress.

However, despite all of it, God has provided us with a front row seat to the miracle of 2 children virtually springing to life right before our eyes. We ALL see it, feel it, and rejoice in it! Feeling different or odd is not a bad thing, but it is moving into a new zone and it can be disturbing. We have all been through a lot the past few months, each and every one of us is walking a new and unfamiliar path, and I am ever-so-grateful for God's presence with each of us as we strap those hiking boots on and trudge along, continuing on side by side until we find rest for our weary souls beside the hidden placid lake of our new life. We will eventually arrive there, kick off our boots and wiggle our toes in the muddy bank relishing our newfound peace as we look back at the long path and say to ourselves "Man, that was hard...but it sure was worth it! THIS is Paradise!"...for isn't that what a loving family really represents? A lush paradise in an often harsh world.

We are slowly working our way towards our own LaJoy Paradise, and I guarantee you we will get there, no matter how hard the journey. God dictated it already, and in the early morning hours as I type this blog post and fret over all my personal worries and fears, I hold tight to my trust in God's promise for our family. We've never been let down before and we will not be let down now as long as we keep our feet firmly planted on God's path for all of us. Thankfully, we have many standing beside the path nudging us back to center when we veer off course.

And that too is God, isn't it?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Teachable Moments or "Malinky Moo Moo"

When you adopt an older child, you are more aware of making the most of teachable moments, and today was full of them. You also begin to recognize that much of what needs to be taught has nothing at all to do with what we would all consider "academics".

We are in "High Awareness" mode over at Team LaJoy Avenue, and quiet truthfully it can be utterly exhausting as well as touchingly wonderful. There are moments right now when I would give anything to have a simpler life, where my brain wasn't operating at Full Alert status and could slow down just a bit. I am more mentally tired than I recall ever being, and I am certain not every adoptive parent is as anal retentive as I seem to be over every tiny little thing. But I can't change it, I was created this way and it can be both a blessing and a curse. Right now, I am not sure what category I would fall in...blessing or curse. Probably a blend of both.

I took the girls to Visions for testing this morning and they found a Russian interpreter to help as the girls are tested to establish a baseline in each subject. Olesya looked terrified despite the fact we had made it clear with the help of friends the night before that it was only for our use and not to be stressed over it. In fact, I was told that the first 5 minutes into the test she was stumped on something and started to cry a little before they reassured her all was OK. Almost 4 hours of testing and they only completed the math portion for each of them, but we were pleasantly surprised to learn that each is working at a very appropriate level...Olesya at 4th grade and Angela at 5th grade.

I do tend to take these tests with a grain of salt as they are not timed and are supposedly self-adjusting, but Angela is where I thought she might be after observing her skill level. It is Olesya's results I am questioning a bit as we have seen her struggle mightily to add single digits easily and quickly, and seem almost stumped with subtraction. She may understand the concepts, which is certainly good and we are happy to learn it, but I'd like her to be much, much quicker at simple calculations. Taking 15 minutes to add 100 single digit math problems is far too long. Based upon this information we are planning on stepping back one grade level for each of them to reinforce some items, to build speed, and to allow for less English explanations for some things. For Angela in particular at 5th grade level the math becomes more language based. We also need to reteach measuring with our system versus the metric system they have learned, so stepping back just one grade level will allow for time to do that and also serve to take the pressure off in math while not totally ignoring it while English is acquired.

They were both quite proud of themselves for scoring so highly, and at dinner tonight we made a big deal out of it with everyone giving them a standing ovation while their grins spread from ear to ear. So sad to me to think that no one has ever been there to celebrate their achievements before, and what a joy it is to provide them with a loving environment where someone actually cares that they did a good job or worked hard.

The flowers are slowly beginning to blossom.

As we have driven around our area the past couple of days we have seen many calves that have just been born. In our Pig Latinesque Russian-English Combo Language we have jokingly described them as "Malinky Moo Moo", as "Malinky" means small/little in Russian. I think it was Angela who coined that phrase and it stuck so that every time we see a little calf we all point and laughingly say "Malinky Moo Moo", sort of like Dominick and I would point to meat in Kazakhstan and ask a clerk if it was beef or horse by trying to whiny or moo ourselves. We were laughed at, but it worked every time and helped us make new friends who couldn't believe these silly Americans.

When we went to pick up the boys from school this afternoon, Joshie's teacher revealed without knowing our fascination with Malinky Moo Moo that she had calves at her house and offered to let us come visit. We jumped at that and hope to get the chance to do so very soon, as the girls are fascinated by animals, particularly Olesya who is quite the animal lover.

Down the hall we ended up stopping at one of the Kindergarten classes where they have a pet guinea pig and a pet turtle. All 5 kids were intrigued and wanted to touch them and see them, and the teacher kindly let the kids do so. Angela squealed in surprise when the turtle sort of hopped towards her, and all the kids touched the shell and pet the guinea pig. I don't think the girls have ever had that sort of opportunity before, and being present for these kinds of firsts is a real kick, and a blessing in many ways. Seeing delight flit across their faces as they ride a bike for the first time or encounter something new is God's gift to us as adoptive parents of older kids. We may miss out on snuggling a new born or watching the teetering first steps, but we don't miss out on all the firsts, and often it is as touching as those younger firsts would be. We don't take anything for granted, we treasure every single moment as we missed so darned much already that anything we can grab on to means so very much.

I was so touched to be stopped by some staff members and told how much the blog has meant to them. Our lives have been deeply affected by many of the wonderful teachers and staff at our sons' school over the past 5 1/2 years, and it is quite an honor to me that any one of them would even read a single post, let alone that so many followed us all so closely on this journey and offer their love and prayers as so many obviously have. It is this caring environment that made it such a very difficult choice to remove Matthew from school earlier this year. I really feel connected to many of these motivated teachers and nurturing staff, probably more deeply than I should. I am not quite sure why I do feel that way, but there are people there whom I have met whom I have often wished I could be friends with outside the school walls as they are just really decent, warm, wonderful folks.

I dreaded walking in the doors the morning we removed Matt from the school, but we had to make the tough decision to do what we felt was best for him, and we could clearly see that we were in danger of losing Matt academically and socially and we were not willing to take that chance even though nothing terrible had happened yet. We wanted to be pre-emptive. It bothered me terribly to think anyone there who does such a good job under often difficult circumstances would feel that it was a reflection on them. It really had nothing at all to do with the school or the education offered there, it just wasn't a fit for him anymore, just as it won't be a fit for the girls to start middle school with all their needs which are far larger than academic. We are bringing square pegs into the mix and trying to pound them into a round hole, and we need to provide them with a more personalized square hole to fit into, one that is a custom fit. We have 4th and 5th grade mathemeticians combined with Kindergarten level readers and who knows what level of social studies or science they have or what level they are writing at. That is basically impossible to accomodate in a public school setting, and that is no one's fault. In fact, there are moments in the past when I have felt quite guilty about bringing Kenny into the school with the academic challenges he presents, knowing there is really only so much that can be done when you have to teach 20+ students in every classroom. You teach to the middle, which is as it should be, and having a child like Kenny can be more of a challenge than anyone SHOULD have to handle if it is not their own choice.

But much of it has to do with our family life too, our children's backgrounds, the fact that at least 3 of the 5 are well familiar with institutional settings such as any school offers but it is HOME that is unfamiliar and needs to be "learned", and you can't teach that well in the few remaining hours left between after school activities and homework. Many people don't really grasp the immense amount of work ahead of us in terms of teaching "real life" and family dynamics. That takes time...lots of it...and with kids this age and the activities they participate in, it gets harder and harder to find the time to spend together so that those "real life" things can be taught and experienced.

Right now we are picking and choosing very carefully what "teachable moment" we are going to take advantage of. The girls are on overload much of the time, there is only so much input they can handle, so there things we are making a priority and things we will let go for awhile. For example, I am looking for opportunities to repeat specific vocabulary words throughout the day and to repeat them several times in several different contexts. "Mirror" was one of our words and we used it in the car for rearview mirror, for the cosmetic mirror, talked about seeing ourselves in it, etc. Repitition so it sticks is important.

But we also realize that it may take 3 or 4 tries to break old habits or to relearn something previously learned. I am sure we have a few more times of reminding that toilet paper does not go in the trash can but in the toilet. Old habits are hard to break and are automatic. I am grateful though that I am not being handed dripping wet underwear anymore from having been rinsed out in the shower. Table manners are in some ways atrocious but that is one area we are letting go of for the most part right now, there are plenty of other small corrections going on and they don't need to be pounded 24/7. I am looking for ways to take their base vocabulary of 20 or 30 words to build on as we discuss the world around us. That is not always easy, believe me. Creativity helps...but I am not at all creative.

The most teachable moments come in what is not said, but what is shown. They come from not getting upset or yelling when they spill something, as I watch them cringe as they anticipate some sort of consequence. Teaching comes in the form of respecting their limits and not pushing too far, it comes in handling moments with Angela in a non-vindictive way and showing only compassion and understanding in the face of animosity or confusion. Teachable moments come from acting loving when you have been rebuffed, for those actions speak for themselves and present a new way of being to the girls...a way of living without anger, of living with forgiveness and kindness.

The teachable moments are often directed at me as well, as God sets up scenarios and relies on my own past learned experiences to allow me to try and approach things differently and see what the end result is. I find myself learning a tremendous amount every single day right now, and sometimes I learn that there are many qualities I have which I don't really care for or where I need to work on myself more.

Whether it is explaining a can opener or potato peeler, how a toilet works, or who the various members of a family are, there are a million things to teach. There are times when I kick myself for not taking advantage of a specific moment when something was said or we saw something and it didn't clikc until later that it would have been a valuable learning experience.

At moments like that I have to offer myself mercy and forgiveness and remind myself that just as I see the girls as a work in progress, so too should I view myself that way. God has much, much more in store to teach me, and I just might learn a thing or two if I can let go of what I THINK I know and be open to the Spirit teaching me something new, even if it seems in conflict with what the world says to be true.

Yea, I think I will stick with God's teachable moments as opposed to the world's. So far it hasn't failed me yet!

The Weaving of a Family

How absurd is it to thrust complete strangers together, slam the label "family" on them, and then have the expectation that "happily ever after" will somehow magically occur?

The incredible thing is that it works.

We are far from having arrived at happily ever after, but yesterday, for the first time, it felt as if it might one day be in sight.

It was a less than orthodox school day...I am sort of good at those I I go against the grain of my supposed Virgo tendencies for order and organization. I am already seeing how I am internally speaking to myself successfully to "let go" of certain things. For example, my house will never, ever feel the same. 2 more bodies pushes it over the edge and the sheer quantity of shoes near the door is somewhat stunning. The laundry is OK as long as I don't miss a single day doing 2 loads. The vast amount of food that is being consumed will not wane until 2025, as just as the girls find they have sated their long felt hunger the boys will enter the teen years and we will be paying more for our monthly groceries than our mortgage.

In the midst of it all, surprisingly, there is peace. The order within the chaos that exists in our home is not something I expected. It is a testament to each of our children...Kenny and Olesya who drug out the girls laundry hampers unsolicited last night and started a load of their clothes. Matthew who drug out the 5 heavy trash cans down our long gravelly snow packed driveway and then reminded the other kids when we got home that they all needed to come back in. Without a word from me, Joshie comes traipsing in the house to grab snow boots to go out and help Kenny and Angela bring them in. Angela who gets up quietly from the table and starts cleaning up dishes. That this teamwork exists between siblings, old and new, is actually a bit of a shock and is certainly a blessing as we work on weaving together a new family.

So we started our day out by dropping off 2 members of Team LaJoy at school then heading off to Walmart. I wanted the girls to feel a bit like they were starting school officially and even though I have plenty of supplies around they needed to be able to select a couple of inexpensive things for themselves. We picked out notebooks to use for writing vocabulary words in, folders to hold completed worksheets, and a crate each for them to store their books and folders in. I love that they hesitate to spend too much money, they are so thoughtful of the cost of things for us. We have not experienced at all what some do and what Kenny first was like in that they seem to understand what we explained a long time before ever arrived. We will love them fully and completely but are not a wealthy family. They will have all they need and some of what they wish for, but it will not be Christmas every day. Believe it or not, most kids are told at the orphanages that they will get anything they ask for, Kenny sure was and I have heard of many others whose caretakers created that false expectation as well.

As we picked out items, comparing cute colors for notebooks, I was moved when I saw Angela select folders for she and Olesya that had Disney princesses on them. This tall, slender, 14ish looking young lady reminds me in subtle ways that she does still have a little girl in her that needs to be experienced and enjoyed, if only for a little while. My gut instincts are right on this, even if 90% of the time I feel intimidated because she appears so much more mature. It showed 2 nights ago as I crawled up the ladder to her loft bed to say good night and I caught her tucking her stuffed animals in tenderly under a separate blanket. I thanked God for that moment as it gives me a better understanding and perspective of this new daughter of mine.

I have half joked about calling our homeschool "Lajoy Lifeschool", because that is more my idea of where education ought to be. No more teaching to a test, more recognition of what the goal of education is all about, and understanding that yes, even Walmart, is a place full of learning opportunities. I am really working on letting myself get rid of traditional ideas of education because it won't work for most of our kids and is unfair. So we wandered around Walmart yesterday, learning vocabulary words without them realizing they were, explaining about how this store is different than Taiga in Petropavlovsk, comparing and contrasting life experiences, using the limited abilities we have to communicate, and somehow it all works. Matthew is proving quite good at explaining things and thinking of models to use in those explanations, which some might not think of as learning but sure looks like great problem solving and logic learning to me. Angela stood beside me as I asked a clerk a question about where yeast was and she was the one who spoke up clearly saying "Thank you!" when we walked away which is a great sign that she is more willing now to practice the English she knows out in public.

We stopped off at Matthew's school, called "Visions", and showed the girls the very small library there and the building itself, which was a bit confusing to them...homeschool has a school building? What is up with that? I grabbed a ton of books as did Matthew...and they helped me sign them out. We will work with them over the next couple of weeks as easy readers.

At home we began making labels for items around the house...window, door, fork, spoon, etc. They each wrote their own index cards then we wandered around taping them everywhere. We took a break and all 3 kids got up and we played a sort of Simon Says by finding body parts and working on English words for left and right. It was a hoot and they all had fun goofing around with it. We started adding words they know to their vocabulary notebook, and they laughed up a storm when we added our favorite terms for conversation right now..."fart" and "burp". You'd roll your eyes if you knew how much these two topics are the focal point of our lives right now, but hey, whatever works, right??? Don't fool yourselves with the fact they are girls.

We had early release day for Kenny and Josh so we quit then and had about 30 minutes of play time. Matthew didn't get much accomplished but 1 grammar assignment and some reading, but he taught others new words and did a lot of critical thinking and I am having to also tell myself things won't be orderly for awhile, and that is OK. Relax, Cindy, relax.

We picked the boys up from school and getting back in the car, for the first time Angela wanted to sit up front next to me. We headed back to Walmart where the girls had decided to pool there money and purchase one bicycle for the two of them for now. Before we left Matthew came out from his room handing me a $100 bill to cover the money he spent in Kazakhstan that he had earned, so I tucked it into my jeans pocket and off we went, as I was going to surprise them and buy the second bike with that money. And they WERE surprised! Huge hugs and smiles along with "Oh Thank you Mama!". Angela picked out a soft blue bike that fits her tall frame, and of course Olesya selected a pretty pink one. Matthew and Kenny told us to "step aside and let the men get this" as we tried to muscle the bikes out of the racks at Walmart, and the girls proudly wheeled them up to the register where they did NOT want to take the money and pay for it themselves but I forced it standing next to them and they did just fine. Then out to the car where we already had it full with 6 of us but somehow with Matthew taking charge and Kenny assisting inside we managed to get them in. As they were doing it Angela was standing at the back of the car and said "Good Brats"..."brats" is brothers in Russian. I put my arm around her and said " they love you!" and she smiled. In the car we were talking about something which I can't recall and the boys were chatting about our family somehow and how goofy we are and Angela said firmly "LaJoy family GOOD family...all good family!".

We are getting there, one step at a time.

After choir I zipped home to dinner and Angela sat across from me, and I feel these feet begin hugging my knee. I look up, she grins, and I grin, and we continue participating in conversation that centers around who burps the loudest. There is still a strong tension that exists, there are moments she definitely pushes me away strongly or rebuffs what I suggest. It will take us years to develop a healthy and whole relationship, but this looks different than attachment disorder. It feels different. It is as if there are 2 people staring back at each other with great respect, understanding that life events have led to inner conflict that is understood by both, and both are willing to let time do it's healing magic. When she does this, I turn away and focus on another child and try not to take it to heart too much. It hurts, it is hard, but I know she can't really help it. I treat her no differently than any of the other kids, I hug her at bedtime and she sort of allows it. I put my arm around her shoulder often and she sort of accepts it, but moves away quickly. That is it forcing anything else. In sharp contrast, Olesya can't seem to stop hugging me, she is craving affection and time together, she is my little shadow often...which frankly brings with it it's own tension but is terribly sweet.

But the loom is our family, and the shuttle moves back and forth, weaving in and out, creating a cloth of magnificent beauty...but it takes time and can not be rushed. Mistakes we make will forever be captured in cloth, and we will look back on them saying to ourselves "We corrected that" as we see the weaving continue on afterwards with the mistake woven firmly in the design, surrounded by corrective weaving and the beauty of seeing that the weaving continues on and somehow the error takes on a life of its own as part of the design.

Harder days are ahead, better days too. All become part of the tapestry. That tapestry has woven within it the words "Team LaJoy", and somehow I think the girls have already picked up that mantle and are wearing it proudly, even if at times confusedly. We are all trying hard, we are all feeling the real love grow, the bad moments are overshadowed by the good ones.

The weaving continues...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Day Off for Mama and Report Card

Yesterday was my "day off", as Dominick was off work and it allowed me to get a lot of running around done which right now is easier without 5 kids trailing as some of it was involved and would have had 3 or 5 kids bored sitting around for a couple of hours. We also feel it is extremely important for the girls to see Dominick in the role he truly has, co-parent, not just "Bread and Butter" man. Olesya is not as comfortable with him just as Angela is not as comfortable with me (although far more extreme than the Olesya/Dominick dynamic), so it is good for him to have extended one on one time with them. He ended up doing school work with them the entire morning and then taking all the kids plus Matt's buddy sledding later in the afternoon. I was engaged far later than I thought I would be so he also got them all dinner. Yea....I hubby totally rocks, doesn't he? But having been down this road before with Josh, he also knows how intense this can be for me specifically, and that I need the breaks as we can fit them in so I can come back full swing. We may have our moments, our arguments and our Annual Garage Cleaning Battle, but we tag team extremely well and it is one of the reasons we can handle jumping into something like this.

So after a stop at our bookkeepers office where I was able to express our gratitude face to face for her handling ALL our household bills while we were gone to help us out, it was on to Matt's school for a 3 hour meeting. For those of you who came late toe the party and found us after we began our adoption trip, Matthew is homeschooling through a public school hybrid program while Josh and Kenny attend public school. We found Matthew was not engaged in class at the beginning of the year for a variety of reasons, so we elected to pull him out and give homeschooling a try. It has been the best thing we ever did for him, and I am SO glad we took the big leap even though it was at the most inconvenient time in my life to tackle such a task without any sort of preparation.

Because of the girls' ages and skill levels, we have determined that for now, homeschooling is the best option. We think that for us and our expectations, it would be a recipe for disaster to drop them in middle school or 5th grade without language skills or a strong and firm bond with family. Olesya would be technically a 5th grader and yet can't yet add without counting on her fingers or subtract well at all, nor does she have a command of the English alphabet. She began her education 2 1/2 years ago at 8 years old as their system is different than ours. She is the one we are most worried about academically of the two, however she IS a sharp little cookie and will do well if we give her the support she needs to thrive.

Angela, on the other hand, is proving to be further along than we expected which has been a wonderful surprise. When working with her yesterday Dominick saw that she was sounding out the words on the backs of the flashcards, definitely knows upper and lower case alphabet letters, and we began more intense math work to see where she is at and she can do long division although both that and multiplication she performs with approaches we have never seen before but she gets the correct answers. I think her language learning will come along very quickly, and I predict she will be reading at a 1st or 2nd grade level by the end of summer if we don't have anything interrupt her progress. However, for her our fear would be the social draw to less then desirable elements as she struggles to feel comfortable within our family.

So knowing we were going to need a unique and flexible school plan, I met with several folks yesterday at the Vision School (Matt's school) to see what restrictions we would have if we enrolled the girls and what sort of support they might be able to offer. Should we just stay "off the grid" and homeschool with no public school agenda? Is it going to be flexible enough that our goals will satisfy them even if they at first are light on academics? And exactly HOW do you go about homeschooling 2 language learners with deficits in areas we have yet to discover and some we know about? To tell you I am a wee bit terrified about this is also a wee bit of an understatement, but I am more terrified of girls heading into middle school with the issues we have before us. Dominick and I feel this is the best and only alternative for us right now, even if I feel utterly incapable.

I was pleasantly surprised to find they have pulled together a team including an ELL person who right now will be 100% at our disposal as she has no other ELL (English Language Learner) students! They had suggestions for software and programs we might consider using, explained that our goals for the year could be as detailed or lower reaching as we wanted them to be...and not necessarily what others would see as academic. For example, if one of our goals was to teach the girls how to use knives and forks properly, we could even put that as a measurable goal. They see that learning comes in all kinds of ways and will allows us the latitude to work on areas that are just as important, if not more so, than the 3 R's. We can document language learning without having to be "textbookish", which is sort of what we did with Kenny over the summer before he started school by living life and introducing vocabulary. Basically, it will all be driven by me, but measured by them and support offered including free tutors in any area we need. Perfect! I am not 100% alone, will have some support and a little funding to help, and we can create something that makes sense for where they are right now. My little square blocks won't be forced into circle holes. Not sure exactly yet what all of this will look like, but real life will figure heavily into it, cooking, art, PE, vocabulary building and some math facts drills to gain speed while we work on vocabulary to eventually add in more language based math concepts. We started yesterday for them and Dominick said they enjoyed it and asked to use it again even after an outdoor break.

I have found what I hope will turn out to be a terrific tool in the updated version of the Oxford Russian-English Picture Dictionary. It is brand new, has workbooks to go along with it along with teacher's guides which I don't have and might get, and it has hundreds of vocab words, scenes and other things including pictures of verbs which will be our "textbook" for the year I think. It is really fabulous and well done, current and updated and I highly recommend it to anyone with an older language learner.

So, we will enroll the girls in the program with the understanding that our goals will be more lifeskill and language learning oriented than anything this year, and moving gradually into the academic next year. I have no idea if we will continue homeschooling them long term, but will give it a try until September and maybe through next year if things are going well, then re-evaluate. Our kids have been products of institutions their entire lives, and we feel it is far more important to let them fully experience a different model (home life) and be immersed in that for awhile. Then we will see where we sit and make changes if necessary.

Matthew had taken his first comparative testing to chart progress since we entered the program, and while there Kris, our Consultant, pulled up his results so we could check them out together. This was sort of important to me this first time, as it would help me see if I was succeeding or failing. Is Matthew making progress? Has he moved backwards? Will MY report card as his educator be an A or an F? I had resolved that if we had little measurable success over the course of this year then we would look at re-entering him in public school. However, this first semester was a real mind blower, wasn't it? Starting late, taking several weeks to determine what materials might work best for him in certain areas, then leaving for 2 1/2 months with a couple extra weeks off throughout that time frame for travel. Needless to say, it was not my preferred perfect testing time but it is what we have thus far so I leaned over and looked at the computer screen for my own personal Judgement Day.

Surprise,'s working!!! Matthew started the year as a 5th grader significantly behind in one area, language arts. I did not know until our baseline testing with the program that he was testing out at only 3 grade 3rd month level for grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. I was not surprised as I knew he struggled a bit in this area but didn't realize that as a new 5th grader he was that low. Yesterday we saw that he jumped exactly 2 full grade levels already and is now working fully at grade level!! Yea!!! Math was a bigger surprise...he was working right at grade level at the start of the year, but is now mid 7th grade level! His reading score dropped a bit but is so high (the reason we pulled him from public school actually) at 9th grade level that there is no concern at all. We figure that part of it is that he is reading older material with his 1950's novels and he is learning vocabulary that isn't used today and not tested for.

I think I really needed that boost to give me courage to move forward with the girls. Seeing that kind of really strong progress helps me in the Confidence Department...jumping 2 grade levels in such a short time in 2 subjects is significant, and shows me that at least with an average learner I can handle it. Now, what about a more challenging learner? Can we do it? We'll give it a try and see how it goes. Might not be as measurable for the girls, but surely they will learn something this year.

Matthew deserves a HUGE pat on the back for his progress, as he has worked so hard and has such a great attitude about education. When I got home last night I shared it all with him in front of the other kids, and it also seemed quite impressive to the girls which was part of the plan of "selling" homeschooling to them as it is a totally new concept to them. It also was obvious that it visibly lifted Matthew up in Angela's eyes, which she already held him in pretty high esteem and because he is such a great role model is a good thing. It has the added bonus of creating in Angela a drive to succeed herself as she is competitive in a good way, and I could see the light in her eye as I told her "Don't'll be doing just as well soon! You are SO SUPER SMART! You and Olesya BOTH will learn a lot at home!" and we pantomimed a lot about what grade I thought she might be at in a year...she giggled and said "Angela Zero Class...Matthew 7 Class" and I said "Angela 1 year 2nd Class...2 year 4 Class...3 year 7 Class!!!" and grinned at her as she grinned back. Olesya didn't seem disturbed or worried, and she too turned the corner a bit in her thinking about learning at home. Both seem to be enjoying the activities we are doing in a more laid back fashion, and might just be beginning to get a glimmer of the fact that learning doesn't have to be regimented and BORING. If I do nothing more than get the joy of learning embedded in them this year, I will consider myself successful.

Later, after my meeting at the school, I had the chance to decompress a little myself which was needed far more than I realized. It feels as if I have been holding my breath for 3 or 4 months and can't really let out that sigh of relief I so desperately need. Lots of emotions surrounding all of this and much more going on internally for me. I was able to spend a long afternoon with our Pastor, whose insights and presence allow me to process things on a level I can't really do with anyone else. So much of what we are experiencing is deeply intertwined with faith issues...ministry issues. Without this sort of support and care I think I just might explode, and it helped enormously. Keeping stable myself right now is NOT with the flip flopping and stress of trying to be the one with my finger on the pulse of everyone in the family as we maneuver through these new uncharted waters is a huge challenge. Everything we are doing right now is very emotional and will be for a long time to come. Then there are the details of managing this new and improved version of our life.

Oh yea...then there is keeping up on laundry :-)

A final visit with another friend completed a down right perfect yet busy day, and gradually I am feeling a tad bit more in synch with my old and new selves.

But watching this dance Angela and I are doing with one another is a privilege, seeing Olesya as she grows slowly closer to Dominick is a gift unlike any other. The joy on their faces as they watched video of themselves sledding yesterday was something totally cool to see, no one cared enough about them to take videos of them before! Their grins were ear to ear as they giggled watching the screen. Olesya burying her head in my chest as she says goodnight, squeezing so tightly she can't squeeze anymore. Angela hot footing it out the door last night to greet me before any of the others kids in PJ's and bare feet on a snow covered patio and grabbing my grocery sacks from me was a heart warming reminder that despite her struggle to feel safe and secure, she IS making progress in her understanding of who I am in her life, and she IS trying to grab hold of the possibility of a real mom-daughter relationship.

I left yesterday morning a bit disheartened as she virtually ignored my presence and turned only to Dominick for comfort, and returned home to her reaching out to me. Back and forth, the waves rock us gently if we allow it and give ourselves the respect and space we each deserve to build this thing called "family".

And you know what? Last night I realized it has already happened for faster than I ever expected. I love them both. Wholeheartedly and much sooner than I expected. This is mommy love...watching them grin as they saw themselves sledding, sitting at the table surrounded by everyone as they shared about their day with laughter and great joy, celebrating Matthew's victory and letting the girls know they too will have success one day, being hugged by Joshie and Kenny as they danced around the dining room...this is family...these are my sons and my daughters. Our gifts from God that are like no other. All trekked off the bed as Dominick and I caught up with one another and by one they come up and hug and kiss us quietly saying "good night mommy"..."good night mama"...Angela in her side stepping barely touching way, Olesya in her bear hug style, and each of the boys so gentle and tender with their mom and dad.

I am sorry folks, but I have to say I have the best family in the entire world. We are NOT perfect by any stretch of the imagination. We struggle, we triumph sometimes, we continue on each day.

But here, in the heart of our home, there is love...there are attempts to grab on to that love...there is God...there is light. Sorrow visits but doesn't dwell amongst us, it is experienced and banished in lieu of something much stronger.


I'll take that any day over "perfect".

Monday, February 22, 2010

Wrapped in Love

Sorry for the lengthy delay in posting. The truth is that I have neither the time nor the heart to blog lately, but realize I need to keep at it for many reasons, so here I am.

I left off last week the day before heading off to my "retreat" in the Denver area. "Retreat" is sort of a misnomer as it was a 24 hour overnight turn around to attend a lay ministry class on church history and polity. I am blessed with an array of close, committed friends who have supported me in a million ways, and who did so yet once again to take care of the kids while I was gone so I can pursue licensed lay ministry and graduation hopefully by the end of the year. I left knowing the kids would be in super good hands...multiple hands at that. I felt quite guilty for leaving so soon after arriving home but had no choice as the program is shutting down and if I miss a necessary class I will have wasted all this time and effort and be unable to graduate, and for some as-yet-unknown reason, it is very important to me that I complete what I started and move into ministry in whatever capacity God elects for me to be engaged in.

Before I jumped in the car though, I had a small breakthrough with the girls which sent me on my way with warm fuzzies. We had sensed Angela was really missing their friends back at the Boarding School and she had already written a letter to one of them along with Zhazira, the Assistant Director who was so kind to the girls and us. The girls came to me Friday morning and asked if they could send a couple of things to the orphanage. Out comes the items Olesya bought with her money earlier last week...a little pony and a doll with some lip glosses. I suggested that they wrap them and their faces lit up as we found some cute leftover wrap. Then they return with a couple of Barbie style dolls that had been bought for them last Christmas and were still in the boxes. They hesitantly asked if they could send them as gifts to their friends, worried I am sure that I would be angry or hurt. Seeing this as a real opportunity for bonding for all of us, and recognizing the truth that these were their adopted siblings for many years, I encouraged them to do so and received hugs from both and at least 3 "Thank you Mama's!" from each of the girls.

I then did them one step better and walked down the hall to their room where together we all looked at what they had multiples of that could be shared. This was so important to them, and I sensed that they feel a little guilty that they have a family and their friends do not. So I pointed at packages of pretty pencils and strips of unused barrettes and asked if they'd like to send those two. Heads nodded vigorously up and down as I walked out of the room with them. Olesya had walked away to get some tape and Angela stooped what she was doing, looked me square in the eye and in a whispered tone said again "Thank you balshoi mama!"...thank you big Mama. I explained carefully to Angela, who understood almost every word, that I knew they loved Shoura and Tanya and so many others, and that I loved them too! I pantomimed and pointed to photos saying that I had watched them all grow up with Angela and Olesya over the years, and that Papa and I cared about ALL the kids left behind and would help them stay in touch with them and help the kids as we could. Angela then reached out and gave me a stiff hug, and I knew that our truthful responses touched her...she saw our hearts and realized we didn't want to separate the purposely from those they loved, and that we would help them remain connected in the ways we could. Another step in the right direction.

Of course, it was snowing like crazy and my 5 hour drive turned into an almost 7 hour drive. In my jet lag induced stupor I found myself driving across the slushy roads with 80's hair band music playing loudly from Matthew's CD left in the car. It actually suited my mood perfectly. I was within less than a mile of the retreat location when I got stuck in the middle of the road trying to get uphill, along with another couple of classmates. Two attempts and sliding all the way led to a dented back door on the van and a frustration level which I did little to mask for a few minutes. Trudging through the cold, dark snowy night I asked myself over and over again what in the world I was doing there. Suddenly a neighbor stopped and offered a ride, and I ended up with the van abandoned at the bottom of the hill for the night, but with myself ultimately warm and cozy among new and old friends on a couch with a warm fire crackling before us. We spent the evening and the next day talking denominational history and polity, which much to my surprise I found quite interesting after all and thoroughly enjoyed even if only running on about 3 hours sleep that night.

We finished that next afternoon and I headed home ever so gratefully, only to find myself stuck at the top of Monarch Pass where at 6:00 PM I was one of the last to attempt to make it over the mountain, and was followed by many others into the older 70's style lodge where I decided to be smart and get a room for the night. I was so disappointed as all I wanted to do at that point was get home, but Dominick and I both thought it would be smarter to wait it out there as the snow plows had not been through and it was dark by then. It was then that I realized that I had forgotten my saline solution at the retreat and my contact lenses would have to go in the trash as I had nothing to store them in...and no place nearby to purchase anything.

This little trip was adding up in costs by the minute, and at that stage I was just shaking my head with an utter lack of surprise. Of COURSE everything was going to go wrong that could go wrong!

I got up at 6:00 AM to tackle the mountain again, this time after a snow plow had come through. Made it to church just in time, smelling like yesterday's clothes and looking much worse for the wear I donned my choir robe and reminded myself no one could see much of what I was wearing...and God wouldn't care anyway.

When I walked in the door at church after having been gone two nights, there were our children, all waiting to give me a hug and tell me how much they missed me. Even Angela awaited her turn for a hug.

There we all eventually sat, in "our" pew (that always cracks me up, happens in every church with everyone, doesn't it"? Having "your" pew?) and there, to the right of us high up on the wall was a new banner added to the others that adorn our sanctuary walls displaying the word "Peace" various languages. Lael, a frequent blog commenter during our trip had seen to it that a new banner displaying "Mir", the Russian word for peace, was waiting to greet us for our homecoming. It has a wonderful depiction of a "Tree of Life", even more fitting as that is the name of the agency we used to adopt Joshua. I will take a photo soon and share it with you all. It eve incorporated the colors of the Kazakhstan flag!!

I never have to wonder why we attend the church we attend, the congregation is a wonderful example of God's extravagant welcome. It touched me deeply the first time I saw the banner and it will forever feel as if it is a symbolic hug of welcome for our children.

We spent the remainder of the day at brunch for the adults while the kids hung out at church with their own lunch, and the girls got to meet a special young friend of mine whom I love very much from our youth group last year and has offered to be a mentor for the girls as she has time. Over the weekend they also met a couple of other young female friends of some of our adult friends and reports were that they seemed to enjoy them a lot and interact well. Then we were blessed to go to a performance of Peter and the Wolf which the kids all thoroughly enjoyed although Joshua fell asleep in the middle of it. Sitting there between Angela and Olesyas with his head lolling back, it was hard not to be touched as each of them gently covered him with their coats and made a pillow for him out of one of the sleeves.

At dinner yesterday night, Angela was eagerly eating salsa...with a spoon...straight up...when she rubbed her eye and must have rubbed some salsa into it. She was really in a lot of pain with it at first, so we got it washed out the best we could and put some Murine in her eye to try and calm the pain. She spent the rest of the evening on the couch with me hovering over her like a mother hen. Dominick asked at one point "Is she milking the cow over there?" meaning was she making a bigger deal over this than it deserved. Yes, she was...and that was exactly what I wanted to see! She was allowing me to mother her, to care for her, and for once she didn't push me away. She was not necessarily showing in any way that it meant anything to her, but reading between the lines and seeing how long she carried it out well past the time most would have, I think we saw some great stuff going on as she let me nurture her to some degree.

Our first day of "school" had a somewhat inauspicious beginning. 2 minutes from arriving at school Angela vomited all over the back seat and on the floor. Poor thing was so quiet I didn't know what had happened until the kids all told me, and there she was, tears streaming and feeling lousy. I made sure she was OK and then went into the school to check on the boys starting back in class while Angela, Olesya and Matthew remained in the car. 5 minutes later I was back out and we were on our way home. Matthew ran to grab her blanket and pillow off her bed while I got her settled down in our living room and made a fire in the woodstove. It was warm and inviting there with the snow falling in large, wet and heavy flakes outside the window, and she was lovingly covered by her brother and slept about 3 hours before getting up feeling much better.

Both girls have quickly taken to their blankets made by my sister-in-law's mother. She has made one for each of our children, and I have been so surprised and touched to see the girls start their day wrapped in love in them each morning. I guess you never outgrow your need for a favorite blankie!

Angela joined us later but missed out on the morning of school work we had for Olesya. I learned Olesya doesn't know all the letters nor their order but does know many of them and most of the lower case as well. As expected, she mixes up a few that look the same in Russian but have different sounds. I also discovered that she does not know her basic addition math facts well at all, as it took her 15 minutes to do 100 math problems which Angela and Matthew blazed through in 3 or 4 minutes each. Angela is definitely much further ahead than Olesya is, and actually appears to be close to grade level on basic math functions. Angela was about a minute to a minute and a half slower than Matthew on a couple of things, and on multiplication basic math facts they finished at the exact same time. Olesya worked hard with me this morning and we had a lot of fun with it as well, using flash cards and letter tiles with a worksheet or two thrown in for good measure

We all took a break and made brownies thus afternoon, and I got the sense that the girls are feeling pretty good about being home and not yet going to school. They saw how much fun it can be to learn in a smaller group, and they both enjoy Matthew a great deal and we had no signs that they are disturbed with being home. Olesya gathered up her new book bag give to us at our Family Celebration, and sharpened pencils and got erasers ready so she could begin school and seemed quite content. Whether that sticks or not remains to be seen but we will see how it goes. She is an eager learner, so no matter what that makes it much easier. Angela enjoyed the challenge of racing Matthew to see who finished first.
They all got a kick out of cooking together and made a big mess but cleaned it all up themselves. In this I am very grateful, the girls are just like the boys in their lack of attitude about working around the house. They offer without being asked, they are willing to do anything, and they are not complainers at all.
We ended the day with Angela once again sick to her stomach and going to bed at 8:00 PM. Poor thing, she was really feeling lousy and I hope she is better tomorrow.
Some of the odd things going on around here or the observations we have made are:
1) Ketchup sandwiches, ketchup on EVERYTHING. Angela covers every item in ketchup!!!
2) Fruit is devoured as if there will never be anymore. We have been through at least 15 pounds of fruit in 1 full week, no joking.
3) We have broken the pattern of washing our underwear out in the shower!!! Yea!!
4) They have surprised us with their willingness to try new sauce, salsa, soy sauce...interestingly some things are disliked that are a surprise...brownies were not a hit, roasted potatoes were very much disliked by Olesya who loves them in other forms.
5) They both seem to enjoy being in the kitchen very much, and want to cut, stir, chop or pour anything!
6) English words are coming slowly, but they are coming. Angela has taken to using the word "Maybe" the apst couple of days and is using it appropriately. Olesya is stringing words together trying to make sentences with the super limited vocabulary she has. I am proud of them for trying so hard and it will be interesting to see where they are in a couple of months. Both are obviously quite bright and will likely do very well.
7) They are surprisingly conversing with each other very little in Russian. Snippets of conversation here or there but nothing long.
8) We are still all in "Potty Word" humor world, with everyone still laughing over gas in it's many forms, over English and Russian words for toileting activities, etc. What the heck, whatever works, right?
9) Angela prefers me to play with at foosball, basketball and other games. She may be uncomfortable with closeness in many ways, but she IS accepting me gradually.
"Ya nee panimayou" has disappeared from Angela's vocabulary except when perfectly appropriate. I am grateful as it means she is engaging more and I am glad I took a stand on that one. It might return, but at least I know that being firm can work well with her. But then, she told us that when she was still in Kazakhstan. Glad I am not a push over, even if at moments I admit I am a bit intimidated in parenting her...she is not a younger child, she is very tall, and very teenager-esque at moments.
11) Ice cubes are a total novelty. They had never had ice in their drinks before and actually acted as if they had never seen an ice cube before! Neither one knew what it was and had to check it out the first time...very cute.
12) Wii is working well, we are limiting time but they are all having fun together with it. It came with only one remote and we had to buy another so they could play games with 2 players. The boys didn't bat an eye at us getting a pink one!
13) You don't know how to use a knife and a fork to cut a waffle well if you've never had the kind of food that needed cutting on your plate before.
14) The boys and girls all enjoy each other so much! Watching them this afternoon together it was even more obvious just what a perfect fit we all are for each various times they all rotate playing with each other. No one is left out, no one is treated badly, everyone shares. Yes, we are super duper lucky to have the kids we have. And no, I am not making this up to make them "sound good", they are all just gentle, decent little souls whom we are blessed to share this life with.
15) Both girls have already taught themselves how to ride bikes! I couldn't believe it but the second day they tried, both were doing it fairly confidently. We don't yet have the money to get them bikes of their own and with winter and snow it can be put off, but they are riding the boys bikes and were enjoying it so much before this last snow! Angela is saving for one, as I shared in an earlier post. We were so surprised at how easily and quickly they learned...tentative the first day and ripping down the street the second!! So cool to hear them say "Mama...Papa...look!" as they show off their newly acquired skill!!!>
16) Olesya is a love bunny, and is thrilled to be part of a family.  Very snuggly, very caretaking, very warm and wants to be loved. It is wonderful to watch her blossom.
17) Angela wants to be loved desperately and wants acceptance so badly. She is getting it unconditionally and slowly, very gradually I am seeing her try to figure out if it is really safe to care. One day I pray she will let go of the anger, be able to fully enter relationships and feel safe and cofident....and I'll admit it, one day I hope we reach a deep level of mother-daughter intimacy. I realize that may not happen and won't be crushed, but I will dare to dream.
I am drifting off to sleep here and need to get the light turned out. In the midst of it all, we have Kenny's next surgery scheduled for June after school is out, and Joshua we are concerned about because we are seeing some sort of classic obsessive-compulsive behaviors and need to address that as we can gently do so.
I was thinking today though that for all the myriad issues we deal with on a daily basis, for all the worries for the future for each of the kids, for all the moments of doubt about our ability to handle it and large we are the happiest family I know! On paper we look like a screwed up mess, but when one looks beyond that, we are a group of Joyful LaJoy's. It isn't easy, it was never meant to be. But within all of it is a sort of special connection, resilience and compassion that is rare. I shake my head sometimes in amazement at this group I have the honor of living within.
And if I am being totally open and honest, there are many, many times I feel quite undeserving of almost every single thing in my life from my husband to my children to my friends. However, I am very, very grateful.
As I turned from the kitchen counter today, blood dripping from my finger that was whacked at with a very large knife as I chopped potatoes, Matthew came running with peroxide in one hand, a box of bandaids in another and instructions to "Put pressure on it, Mommy!". He then proceeded to doctor me up with love and fumbling skill. Olesya hovered nearby, throwing out an "ouch" here and there for good measure. Angela sat passively on the couch, watching it all unfold, and I wondered what she thought. Not a word of comfort was issued to me. Did she simply not know how? Does she not care? What IS going on inside her head these days? How I wish I knew, for knowing even if not expressed would help a lot. Will I always just be "that lady" or will she one day firmly take me on as Olesya has as "Mama" in more than name only? I certainly hope and pray she does, for the sake of both of us. What we will miss out on if she can't do it!!
I know I probably missed a thing or two here, and by now I imagine many of you are growing bored anyway as thing settle in and the excitment of travel gives way to ordinary day to day life. I actually hope that with each passing day it grows more and more tiresome for you, that we settle in so well and firmly that there is nothing going on to draw you on to read more, for that would mean we have fully made it as a family.
Only time will tell but in the meantime, just as the kids are wrapped in blankies made especially for them, we all remain wrapped in a love greater than ourselves...the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases...I remind myself daily of that as each hour brings subtle slights mixed with confusing connection.
Steadfast and true, that's what Mom's do.
And I too am wrapped in love from others, thank you all for that. We'll eventually make it and look back at this time of transition with fond laughter, remembering just how hard it was, and yet how lovely it was all at the same time.
Here's a couple of photos of our first day of school together. The 3 R's + brownies. Now why didn't I think of that sooner???

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Too Tired

I want to blog, but my heart and brain aren't in it tonight. It was an unexpectedly lllooooonnnggg weekend....lots of ups and downs today (Sunday). I promise to blog sometime tomorrow. We begin homeschooling the girls tomorrow, I am utterly not prepared with a single thing and am disappointed in myself on many levels about all of this. Somehow we'll muddle through I guess. A little nervous about Angela's attitude with me tomorrow...will she be dismissive and inattentive? Will she be engaged and work with me? Will Olesya settle down a little from her bouncing back and forth around the house? Will I be able to figure out a path that makes sense?

Man, I wish I had a better brain sometimes...tonight is one of them. Not enough brain cells to handle it all.

Will recap the weekend tomorrow for you all. Thanks for caring and being there, your comments are read and reread as I look for insight that might work for us!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Olympic See Sawing

This morning I sit here in bed, the house still silent as I try to think of how to put my emotions and thoughts into words. I know that soon there will be one set of foot steps...then two...then a few more...and I must gear up for the day. I am leaving at noon for my ministry class overnight retreat. It is not feeling like much of a retreat at the moment and instead is a heavy burden. Let's face it, right now going to study church polity is not really something I wish was on my agenda, but if I want to graduate I have to go and I have invested too much time and too much of my own soul into this to not see it through. I'll admit though that I am going simply on auto pilot with a small part of me asking "Now will someone tell me again WHY I am doing this?". Sometimes following God's desires for our lives makes no sense at all.

Yesterday was a rougher day. I had a lot of running around to do so had to drag 5 kids to the insurance office, the health clinic, the dentist for Matthew, the store, the social security office, etc. Two of those kids had no idea what we were doing or why, and I hate that but there is no other choice right now. Everyone behaved well and actually they were quite easy to haul everywhere. We went to Sonic for lunch and I got my first sticker shock at having 5 kids when we paid $37 for lunch...guess the "I am too lazy to go back home and make lunch" ocassional treat will absolutely not happen in the future.

We had what many usually have with multiple kids in the battle over the car seats with only one child...Angela. We never have had to deal with this, thankfully, and I know to most of you readers there are howls of laughter over this one because every day you face it just as my own mom did with me and my brother. But Angela has staked out a seat behind the front passenger seat and when Kenny wanted to sit there instead of crammed in the back she balked and at first refused to move, folding her arms across her chest and setting her face in a way that allowed for no discussion. Good thing she has a mom who feels it utterly unnecessary to discuss certain issues, and I made it plane and clear she was going to move her little bootie to the back and let Kenny have a turn there and she didn't like it one bit. It is growing easier to see that she considers herself somewhat above the other kids, probably due to being the "alpha dog" in the orphanage as Raynola has so aptly put it in her recent comments, and she is not at all comfortable for becoming one of the group. She sets herself apart somewhat, not all the time but sometimes. This is a rough path for her, and yet I also know it will be freeing in many ways if we are successful at moving her role to child from perceived adult. At 11, she is far from an adult and needs to reach back to regain childhood. While we see the wisdom in this, no 11 year old ever would!

She did ask me to go bike riding yesterday morning with her when she was outside and the other kids were inside, so I grabbed the bike and rode a couple trips up and down the street with her. My gut instinct is telling me to let her have pieces and parts of me, but not to allow myself to become her separate, more mature "play mate" so she can feel more equal with me right now. So I will play basketball for 30 or 40 minutes, then go back to mom stuff. I will ride bikes a bit, then off to do laundry. She needs to see I enjoy being with her and doing things with her...and let's face it, that I am capable of all doing all the things she is interested in...but that I have another role in her life, and that is the role of "mom".

At dinner things quickly deteriorated when she perfectly understood something silly I said about coke when we were all goofing around and she gave me the whole sarcastic look and "Yanipanamayo" (I don't understand) thing again. Well, I put a stop to that right there calling her on it saying "Yes you do understand, you are being mean...stop it." and I stared her down. And I know she understood the English when she bowed her head low to her plate, wouldn't look me in the eye and whispered a quiet "I'm sorry" while the rest of the table was silent. Thankfully Dominick spoke up as well saying "That's not right Angela, don't be that way" which she may or may not have understood but certainly knew he disapproved too.

Later our friends who speak Russian Skyped with us and helped us explain a few things which needed explaining...such as the limied hot water supply and how a septic tank works so we can't take 45 minute showers, that in America toilet paper goes into the toilet and not in the trash can, and we bagan the conversation about school next week and for the first time explained about Matthew being homeschooled and that the girls will likely not be going to school in the fall. We wanted them to understand that starting in middle school with a lack of language skills, their homework load would be unbearable and eliminate much possibility for outside activities, including sports for Angela. Homeschooling is unheard of in Kazakhstan so this is somewhat a foreign concept to them. It was asked about and explained that Matthew loves homeschooling and is able to go at his own pace, which will be very important for them as well as they learn to read and write in English.

Somewhere along the line right as we began the homeschooling discussion, Angela again feigned boredom as I sat beside her and was talking with them through our friends and "fake" yawned and said "Sleepy" so she could get out of talking. I turned to face her and said firmly at 7:30 PM "Stop are not will stay here" and she turned back to the screen less than happy. It is her way of shutting off conversation with me, too intimate for her. She was not "sleepy" when I was in the other room on the phone and Dominick had started the conversation, this sudden onset narcolepsy only hit when I sat down next to her and became involved in the conversation. Her avoidance of the even slightly intimate would be almost comical if it weren't so painful on both sides.

Later on during the Skype call I asked them if they missed their friends, if they missed the Boarding School and that is when both Dominick and our friends noticed that Angela started to tear up, then reigned it in. I was purposely not looking directly at them so didn't see it, as I wanted to make it less uncomfortable to have my direct gaze on them since the intimacy of real conversation is so hard for her. When they replied that they did miss their friends I reassured them that they could write letters anytime and we would try and call the Boarding School every 3 or 4 weeks, explaining that it is expensive to call there but not explaining that we don't want to make it an every day connection as we are wanting them to settle in to their new life and not reach back too far and too often for the old one as that would make it harder. I also have a pile of over 100 photos for them to send that was sitting next to the computer so they know we are not trying to cut them off from their connections.

I then took the laptop to our bedroom to continue the conversation for a bit and evidently Angela decided she was SOOOOOOO sleepy she was going to pull out of the family time and go to bed, again dragging Olesya with her. Dominick didn't allow it and forced Olesya to stay, who must have felt a bit like it was a reprieve. They started playing games of some sort while Angela was in her bed listening to the laughter. Dominick urged Kenny to go check on her after awhile and he convinced Angela to come back out and join the fun, which she did and I heard her giggles while I was still in the bedroom planning strategy for relationship building between our Russian speaking friends and the girls.

At moments right now I am acting loving even when the love is not always present, and when I came out they were all heading for bed. I walked down the hall and in the darkened small bedrooom hiked myself up the ladders of each of their beds and gave Olesya a hug which was returned enthusiastically, then Angela one which was not nearly as enthusiastic but was returned and not rebuffed. I then asked if they were cold as the house was chilly, and Angela said yes, so I retrieved the extra blanket from the top shelf of their closet and climbed back up to spread it over her so she would be warmer.

"Spasiba" she whispered as I leaned over tugging the blanket over her long, lean body.

"You're welcome Angela, that is what Mama's do...they take care of their children." I said.

I walked out the door throwing over my shoulder a quick "Night...Love you" and as I rounded the corner to enter the boys room I heard Angela respond back quietly for the first time "I love you.".

The see sawing is exhausting, I am still not at all myself and not geared up for battle as I should be so it hurts more. This is very hard, my friends. One moment my heart is breaking at the dismissiveness I am being treated with, and the next it is melting drop by drop as we make a little progress. Two steps forward and one backward. These precious children have so much to go through, so much to learn and take in and absorb. The "fairly tale" everyone sees at surface level certainly exists but it is only the participants who know how much heartache goes into the making of the fairy tale.

There are so many things that are new in addition to emotion, and the girls present as so "normal" that it is easy to cast aside their years of institutionalization as they sure are different than Kenny. Until you see at breakfast that they can't handle a knife and fork together because that was unnecessary before. Until you see Olesya walk in front of cars without awareness that typical 10 year old girls have of oncoming traffic. Until you anxiously watch them as they try to figure out how to do something as simple as play. The pretty gift wrapping does not always hint at what lies inside the package, and the girls certainly have pretty gift wrapping and present as normal, well adjusted kids on the outside...and they are struggling, heartbroken, tender and confused on the inside.

I hate that much of what we are doing right now seems maybe mean or makes no sense to them either because they don't understand due to language or because they don't understand our parenting technique to help them integrate into the family. For example, the othger night the girls shut their bedroom door before going to sleep when they went to bed very early as they have been doing. Dominick went down the hall and opened it, only to hear foot steps and have ti shut again. He went back and insisted it be left open. Now please, no one comment about the fire hazard of an open bedroom door as we were taught to close them in grade school. The fact is that it is quiet down the hall where their room is, and we don't want them using escape to their bedroom at night as a means of pulling away from the family. We want them to hear the noise, the love, the laughter and not have to participate if they need down time but not to isolate themselves either. Hearing the intimacy of the rest of us is good conditioning for eventually falling in with us. With 2 of them it would be easy for them to drift into their own world together merely existing within our cocoon. We can not allow that, no more than we allow the boys to have a TV or computer in their bedroom for the same pulling away from the family into your own isolated world. Families are for interaction, families are for engagement. We know the girls will need time to themselves to process everything, but we feel it best to not allow complete withdrawal. A step back, certainly, a fortress being built figuratively, no.

Next week things should be working more towards a regular schedule and that might help too. The necessary relaxed down time this week was important for all of us, but no doubt disturbing to the girls whose lives have been regimented for years. As we begin working on some homeschooling tasks and I try and assess where they are at in various areas, we will hopefully create our own schedule each day which will give them some confidence as well.

So I guess I need to get going here, I have to pack my overnight case and clean up the house for our friends who have kindly created a team to help me get through this weekend with child care. Thankfully this is not infants or toddlers, and we simply need someone to come be present should the house burn down. I am not really looking forward to dipping out myself this weekend, but realize that I too might need some down time to get ready to engage in the battles to come next week. I am grateful that for now, the battles are certainly not all out war and there are slivers of reminders that we are making inroads to becoming a family. Someday, with God's grace amongst us, we will look back fondly on this time and laugh over it.

Right now it is often hard not to cry.