Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Whole Child

Over the past three years, I think I have learned more than I did in all the ten years prior.  I never expected that homeschooling would present me with the incredible opportunities it has, and while I'll admit I have learned a lot academically (or recalled much of what had been long forgotten...diagram any sentences lately?), much of what I have learned would never be found in a teacher's textbook.

Homeschooling has done something for us that might never have happened to the degree it has.  We realized that this is really important...:

Studying xrays of various vertebrates.  Yes, that is a cranium!

We all admitted that the snake was pretty cool.

But this is perhaps far more important:

What's the difference, you ask?  The first photos definitely look very "schooly"...a subject that could officially be labeled, clearly science is being taught and there is a text to go with the xrays, along with the requisite worksheets, etc.

But what about the second two photos?  School was interrupted for other activities that, at first glance, aren't classified as "real" least by some.  One of the most important things I eventually "got" was that fostering a sense of curiosity and a desire to figure things out is far more important, overall, than any textbook I could throw in front of the kids.  Dominick found a broken commercial toaster and brought it home.  In the middle of the school day on his day off he plopped it down on the counter and said, "Boys, let's check this out!"...and soon they were disconnecting the motor, looking at cogs and heating elements, and looking parts up on the internet.  Was it classifiable as "English" or "Math"?  Nope, but there was some real learning going on that allowed them to touch, do, and think.  Yea, sort of like real life.

Then there was Josh.  Recently I assigned the kids a project to work on posters and create maps of any country they wanted to research, then share what interesting things they learned.  These were pre-printed posters with questions to answer about exports, important dates, population, etc.  Joshie got to looking online and found several photos he liked of his country, Iceland, but there was no place on his poster to put what he had found.  So, he asks if he can have some time to do something a little different for his country research, grabs his iPad, and creates a document with a photo of the flag enlarged, and into that he inset four other photos.  I never taught him how to do it, he just needed time to explore the program, and a reason to explore it.

Sometimes, what our children need is time to play with what they are learning...not yet another structured assignment.  Now, I am not what one would consider an "Unschooler".  For the uninitiated, that is a real term in the homeschooling world and it is used for homeschoolers who are largely "delight directed" learners, who have no curriculum, and who live by the philosophy that when something needs to be learned, a child will learn it.  I can't go that far, as I think it is important to have a fair amount of structure with our schoolwork.  BUT...I have learned over time that creating an atmosphere of life learning is just about the most important thing I can do.  Yes, maybe even more important than teaching algebra.  Letting go and following where the learning is taking us, be it a google search about the sound of speech from the Caribbean or viewing a video clip that shows statistics of the disparity in pay between women and men, letting go and following that is more important, much more important.  That is something it took me a long time to learn, as lesson plans loomed large before me, and created a tug of war with what my heart told me.  My heart won out, and I think our homeschooling is better for it.

I've seen the fruits of other things we have learned as parents and educators (Aren't we ALL parents AND educators?).  Angela has saved for two years, amassing a personal fortune of just over $500.  This past week, she made a big decision to buy her own computer, just as Matthew did  last year.  I know many people think it is nuts to have so many computers in our home, but when you are homeschooling and there are several activities that are done on one for each child, sharing two computers for five kids becomes problematic, especially when Angela and Kenny share one and Kenny needs it no less than 2 1/2 hours per day for his math and auditory processing online program.  Matthew does Math, German and Civil Air Patrol study and tests on it, as well as now needing to do all writing assignments on his special editing software, so we were very fortunate when he decided to purchase his own.

At first, Dominick and I both felt pretty bad that Angela and  Matt had to use their own money at their ages to get computers for school work.  In talking with Angela, I expressed this to her and told her we could try and see what we could do over the next few months to get one for her, and that we felt that was more of a parental responsibility.  She quickly fired back at me, "Mom, I want to do this.  You guys buy everything for us, and you have less money because we are homeschooling and you stay home.  You have given up so much, we can all help how we can.  Besides, we are a team, right?  So I am being part of the team."  She excitedly researched with Dominick, placed an order on Amazon after finding just the right one, and anxiously awaited the arrival of her new baby.

I don't know who was more excited, Angela, or her siblings.  It was a big event, and everyone couldn't wait for her to get it out of the box.  Looking at these pictures, I realized something very important.  What at first glance sometimes feels like we are not living up to being all we could be for our children may just be an opportunity for them to take another step into maturity themselves. Seeing the pride on Angela's face as she held her new computer...earned all by herself by working at a real job where there were real expectations for performance...maybe it's not so bad after all.  Seeing how Matthew has taken such great care of his computer, purchased with his own hard work too, I see how my parents benefited me as well when I was younger and they were not in the position to buy me many of the things my friends were being given.  Growing up in an affluent community where my friends were given brand new Camaros, trips to Hawaii, and ski trips to Europe, I am sure my parents often felt way worse than we do at times as we struggle to put clothes on backs and food on the table.

But looking at this picture, I see pride, I see maturity, I see accomplishment. I wouldn't ever want to take that away, even if we DID have the ability to provide such things:

 And it will look even cuter when her new carrying case arrives, which we told her we would buy for her...purple with butterflies and hearts.  How much more girlie could you get??

Maybe homeschooling allows us to see how we are raising the whole child, heart and mind.  Maybe that is what I have learned over the past three years, that one part can't be ignored while the other is being attended to, that all parts of the human need to be nurtured simultaneously, and that learning should not be as compartmentalized.  I wonder if I would have been wise enough to understand that had we not decided to homeschool.  I know other parents can, but I am not as sure that I would have pulled that altogether in quite the same way.

So, while this homeschooling thing might appear to be all about educating the kids, it is really I who is learning more than I ever imagined.  This is my life now:

Curriculum and technology strewn about, my kitchen counter is almost always covered in photocopying projects, laptops, whole punches...and yes, I'll admit it, a Diet Coke.  This is the stuff of learning, or so it would seem.  Somehow though, I think the deepst subjects for me to study are five younger human beings entrusted to us by God to guide to adulthood in the best way we can.  I would bet that the learning I will receive from that experience would equal any college course.  Maybe, at the end, we will see we raised whole children into whole adults.  I hope so.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Look at a Letter

A few days ago I stumbled upon an adoption article that sang so true to me, and shared so much wisdom, that I just had to share it in case others might find something there that resonates as well.  Written by Adam Saenz and shared by the Huffington Post in November 2012, it somehow reaches beyond adoption.  Though not intended to be religious in nature, I found  that in reading  between the lines, it spoke some truths about my faith journey as well.  Let me share the link here:  Adam Saenz: A Letter to My Adopted Daughter

I'd love for you to read it, and post a comment if you see any correlation to your own adoption experience...or life experiences if you have never adopted.

While there was much there in his short essay to work with, there are a couple of nuggets in particular that stayed with me long after I read it.

"The plan was simple. Multiple diagnoses and medications be damned -- we were going to save you, after your two-plus years in state custody, and we were all going to live happily ever after."

Oh my,..."we were going to save you" ...his willingness to openly share their early naivete is something to be applauded.  It is a phrase that makes me cringe when I hear it, and I have heard it often through the years.  While the truth may very well be that a child is saved by being adopted, the salvation oriented perspective is a one dimensional understanding of an incredibly profound journey of the heart that changes and saves all involved.  Adopting from a position high atop a pedestal can also mean a painful crash is felt when the object of your salvation efforts isn't quite as receptive to that image you have bestowed upon yourself, an image that others have often encouraged you to embrace.  When it all gets real, when the cute photo becomes a living, breathing, hurting child standing before you, if your main motivation to adopt was to "save" someone it can be quite difficult to remain committed through all that is to come.  

"When you first arrived, we hid from each other. You pretended that you weren't feeling angry, afraid, guilty, sad, and confused. I pretended that I could parent you from a distance. We looked good to everyone on the outside -- we were pleasant to each other -- but we were superficial and fake. It was a three-month honeymoon of pseudo-family."

If you aren't pretending that you can parent from a distance, you are aching because you are well aware that you can't and you know how damned hard it is going to be to cross the "Bridge of Superficiality" to get to what is real.  It takes months, sometimes years, to make it to the other side, and it is a cautious, tender dance which includes a strong "Fake it till you make it" component.   The only thing missing here is the acknowledgment that the adoptive parents are feeling many of the same emotions as the newly adopted child is.  I can attest to feeling angry at moments, very sad, and terribly confused as I tried to reach backward to offer assistance across the bridge only to have my hand slapped away.  Adoptive parents ache, they cry, they have one of the hardest jobs ever ahead of them.  It is agonizingly difficult to convince a child that it is safe to trust and love, if their precious trust and love was previously rejected.

"As our differences emerged, I responded by trying to control you, trying to fix you and trying to heal you. I wanted to make you normal, which is another way of saying that I wanted to make you like me. "

How I appreciated Mr. Saenz honesty!  Making you "normal" becomes the goal.  We push and  rush through the grief and stages of healing because the sooner you get past it, the sooner everything can transition to our idea of what normal ought to be.  And we do all this without regard to the fact that of one key factor:  There is no such thing as normal, and our adopted children's lives were often so far away from what our idea of "normal" is that we are expecting the impossible.  In our desire to help you, we want to disregard all that made you who you are as you stand before us.  We somehow think that if you become more like us, that is better.  It is not.  Our job is to help you mold your life experiences into something that informs you as you move forward, and to help you feel accepted exactly the way you are...because if we don't do that, the healing will never happen.  It is out of that acceptance that we tell you that who you are and how you are behaving is a very normal response to the life you have experienced thus far.  What we want and need to show you is that there are many different ways to walk through this world, and exploring those ways may help you find something that works better for you so that you can feel whole.  "Whole" does not mean "like me" though.

This was the line that spoke to me the most, for it is not just about adoption, but about how we relate to others in general.  It is about recognizing our own brokenness, and not trying to use others to fix ourselves.

"I must find the humility to empty myself of my agenda: my need to control you, to fix you, to heal you, to make you like me. Our differences have made me face my own brokenness -- my failures, my doubts, my fears and my sins." 

Wow.  Emptying myself of my agenda and facing my own brokenness.  Can you simplify Jesus' message to anything more clear?  Do we really ever effectively change anyone with our own agenda?  Now, there is a fine line here as well, for we as human beings who are hopefully further along in our journey, have an obligation when caring for those we are responsible for.  We must gently point to wisdom, we must try to educate, we must not ignore the damage in the road ahead and we need to warn of it.  However, that has nothing to do with acceptance of our children...or others...just the way they are.  Real change doesn't happen by coercion, it happens when joined and walking together.

Honesty on both sides is the single most important thing, and that means emotional honesty from the parents as well as the kids.  The times when we feel the most vulnerable are usually the times when the greatest healing and growth occurs, for our children need to see us in that broken place.  So do our friends.  Parents of hurting children often assume that their child needs to see how strong they are.  Sure, they need to know you can handle things well, that you are safe and capable.  But they also need to know that you are as broken in your own ways as they feel they are.  If we are too afraid to show that side of ourselves, or if we mistakenly think that it is a sign of weakness, we are missing something more valuable than all the supposed "strength" we can muster.

As a professional writer, Mr. Saenz sums it all up so much better than I ever could when he writes:

"Here are my two cents: Family is where we can be vulnerable and unashamed. In that safety, we have no need for fear or resistance, and we heal and grow spontaneously."

Our hardest job is to model this.  If we can do so successfully, if we can get rid of the notion that "normal" means being just like us, if we can empty ourselves of our agenda, then we will be that family that all hope they can be.  Not "Leave it to Beaver", nor "The Brady Bunch", but a family that lives intentionally, thoughtfully, and respectfully with one another.  Many of us are still working hard to become that, but a willingness to reveal our vulnerability takes a lot of practice...and courage.

This article may have been written specifically about adoption, but if one thinks about the points made, they apply to relationships in general, not just the adoptive parent-adopted child relationship. There is a lot of hard earned wisdom here, and I will be thinking about this and where it applies in other areas of my life for a long time to come.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

It Takes Years, But It's Worth It

Another night with Joshua asleep beside our bed, but tonight I have a better understanding of what is going on.  

We are a society used to instant gratification, and instant outcomes.  Generally speaking, we Americans don't do so well with situations that drag out too long.  When it comes to emotional healing, what we sometimes are unwilling to accept, is that it can take many years to come to a place of wholeness.  For some folks, it can take a lifetime.

Joshua is now 10 years old, 9 years post adoption.  In every way, he appears to be a very typical, well adjusted, bright kiddo.  While he was most certainly diagnosed with severe Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) when he was a toddler, few would ever recognize that in him today.  Few, that is, except Joshua himself, for he can never quite escape the fears that creep in, he can never run from the insecurity that catches him off guard.

I had just told Dominick last night that I was sensing something was up with Josh, but I couldn't put a finger on it.  I said that I needed to try and spend more one on one time with him to try and get to the heart of what I was feeling.  Less than 24 hours later, I had my answer, and it was not in any way sought out by me.

Picking Joshua up from working with Dominick at the airport late this afternoon, he held a little pocket spiral notebook in his hand.  On its cover Yoda is depicted saying "Do, or do not.  There is no try."  Yoda must have had Joshie in mind with that one.  We get home and as we are getting out  of the van, he turns to me and asks "Mom, can we talk alone in your bedroom. I want you to read something."  I respond, "Sure!  Let's go straight there."  I explain to the other kids that Josh and I were going to have a conference, and asked them not to disturb us.  We both grab pillows and flop on our bed, and I ask him what was up.

"Go ahead and read this.  I wrote it today and wanted to tell it to you so I could remember exactly what I wanted to say."  He then hands me his notebook, and I begin to read what he has written on the first two pages.

"The bad thing about my imagenation is it makes my dreams turn into Nightmares.  This is this way because I make it feel real, and when I said I couldn't turn it off it ment that when I have nightmares they just keep going on and on and it doesn't go away for a year maybe."

"Joshua, I am so proud of you for writing down your feelings and sharing them with me!  This is awesome!  Let's talk about it some more." I said, and I then asked him to explain more about his nightmares. He said he was not having any right now, but that they had just ended a month ago and he hoped they stayed away.  

He surprised me then by spending about 20 minutes talking about how the colors in his room felt disturbing to him, and how he really, really wished we had kept the lavender and yellow walls that were up before when Dominick and I called that bedroom ours. I had stenciled a white picket fence and flowers along part of the walls, and Josh adored it, lobbying hard to keep it as it was.  I was so interested in that back then, and was even more curious that he brought it up now.  He explained that the tan and red in his room made the other boys happy, but that it made him feel a little scared and he didn't know why.  He pointed to the quilt on my bed, which is pastels of all colors, and said, "This makes me feel happy and safer.  There's something bright and cheerful about it that makes me calm inside. I don't know why my room feels the way it does to me, but it makes me feel nervous or something."  He also shared that he doesn't like to wake up with the curtains closed,not because he is scared of the dark but because of how it makes him feel in the morning.  He told me that he liked the girls' room better because it was happy and cheerful colors, and that he liked waking up in our room for the same reason.

"Josh," I said, "I know exactly how you feel, and colors affect me the exact same way.  You know how our bedroom doesn't look like most grown up's rooms?  Most grownups pick colors that are different.  They are darker, or muted colors.  Your Dad and I don't care how others feel about our bedroom, we like to wake up and see happy colors, too, even if it isn't considered cool or mature.  Who cares what others think? They don't have to live in it!"

He then went on to say he didn't want to change things for his brothers, because he knew they would never want colors he would like, and it wouldn't be fair to ask that of them.  I asked him what he would like if we could repaint, and I had to suppress a grin when he started talking about rainbows, and maybe a rainbow blanket because blankets are important to him.  Why did I have to hide that grin?  Because he had no way of knowing what his Grandma Alice is laughing out loud about right now, and that is that when his mom was 11 or so she redid her bedroom with bright yellow walls with CDOT orange closet doors and window trip...and rainbows everywhere.  I loved rainbows and had stickers, stained glass sun catchers, and all others sorts of rainbow items strewn throughout my bedroom.  It made me happy, and here my 10 year old son is talking about rainbows making him happy.  He said again, "I really wish we hadn't painted over your flower garden walls.  Now THAT would have made me happy to see every morning!"

We continued to talk and he said he wanted to tell me something else, and that was that when he was in his bed at night, he could see the light on in our bedroom window, and he felt better when seeing it because he knew I was "safe". we are getting to the meat of it.  I asked him if that was why he liked to sleep in our bedroom, so he would know I was safe and nearby.  He quickly said, "Yea, I just sleep better knowing you are OK and still there."  Then he added that he didn't think he'd be getting rid of his stuffed animals for a really long time, because they made him feel happier and safe, too.

"So Josh, let's talk about strategies for handling things when you are uncomfortable.  You've grown up enough to share what you are feeling and when you are feeling it, now the important next step is how to handle it.  I can never tell you with certainty that nothing will ever happen to me, just like you can't promise me that either.  But what I do when things are hard or scary is force myself to imagine what would be the worst possible thing that could happen, and then I think of ways I could deal with it.  I know it sounds strange that thinking about the scary thing makes you feel better, but figuring out how to handle something before it happens takes away some of the fear of the unknown.  So, if the very worst thing happened to you, and I did disappear, what could you do?  Who could you count on?"  He slipped under our bed covers as the tears began to well a little, but I went on saying, "You would still have the best Dad in the whole world, wouldn't you, and you know how much he loves you.  You'd still have the best brothers and sisters in the whole world who would be there to hold you and care about you, and help you forever.  You know that, right?" and he nodded saying, "We are all lucky that way.  But it wouldn't be the same."  I then explained that I knew what he was feeling because I had been through it with losses of those I loved in my own life, and yet I made it through and still find so much to be happy about.  

I asked him what we could do right now that would help him feel more secure.  He thought for a moment, his brow furrowed, and then he suggested that even if we don't paint his walls maybe he could have some "happy sheets and blankets, maybe a rainbow or something". I told him I thought that was an excellent idea and we would do that.  I said, "What if we remind the boys that your bedroom curtain needs to be left open at night so you can see our bedroom light on, would that help?"and he said he thought that would.  I then suggested he write down his bad dreams, if he had more of them, telling him that many people believe that if you get those dreams out and on paper, you'll be done with them.  He said he was going to try leaving music on at night, and that Matthew had already been playing some classical music at night in the bedroom to try and help him.  

"See?' I said, "You already have several strategies to help you feel safer.  Would it help if we had an intercom system or walkie talkies for awhile, so you could call out to me and I could hear you if you had a bad night?  We could figure something out for that." and he liked that idea.  I emphasized over and over how he was capable of coming up with ideas to help himself, to have control over his reactions.  I then asked if he thought it would be good to go and visit a couple times with Miss Joan, his old therapist, saying she might be able to offer even more ideas and she had a lot of kids who had feelings like his whom she had helped.  He quickly said he thought that was a good idea, so we'll be doing that as well.

What was so important today was that he was able to talk openly about his feelings without someone else initiating the conversation.  He was able to see he had some control over helping himself to feel better, and that there were several tactics he could use to move him to a better place emotionally. For a 10year old, I think this was huge.  While we may have him still sleeping on our floor a couple nights a week for a long time to come, we ARE making progress.

Will Josh always carry insecurity with him?  It's surely possible.  But then, aren't we all insecure about something?  Haven't we all had to figure out our own coping strategies to deal with our fears?  For a child with RAD, what is the key is that he has learned to be open, express his feelings, and can reciprocate love and affection. These are things some RAD kids are never able to do!  So instead of feeling defeated that Joshua still struggles with insecurity 9 years later, I am celebrating that no matter how hard it sometimes is, we have made extraordinary progress and he is capable of learning healthy coping skills...something many RAD children can never quite manage to get far enough along to do.  Yes, it is taking years to get him to this place, and it will take years more to get him even further.  But we keep at it, chipping away, one day at a time.  

The child who at one time rejected all human touch has come a long, long way.  As he snuggled cheek to cheek with me after having willingly opened his heart, I could only smile.  Maybe LaJoy's are just too stubborn to give in.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sometimes We Just Don't Know

We all go through times in our life that are harder than others.  It might be a tragic incident, a serious illness, or difficult financial times. Sometimes it can be less dramatic, protracted situations that slowly gnaw away at us, steadily making it harder and harder to lift our heads up and see the light ahead.  We all have these lows, the ones that are not as easy to talk about, or are related to a situation so complicated that we can't begin to really explain it all.  Those are the times when we feel the loneliest, and we battle an inner dialogue that beats us up perhaps even more than others ever would.

Then, in the midst of anxiety and loneliness, someone reaches out and makes a thoughtful gesture or says a kind word just when you need it most, and a little flicker of light gives you a smidgen of peace that helps you keep moving forward.  Often, they won't have a clue how important that little comment or act of kindness was.  I am a lucky woman, and at times when it hurts the most, God has used someone who listened to that little nudge to reach out and hug me.  Tonight is one of those nights when I could be going to bed feeling much differently than I am, all because someone was open with their heart and offered a little piece of sunshine on a cloudy day.

We do the same for others, I am sure.  I learned a couple of days ago from Angela that I had a greater impact on her life than I ever would have guessed she would realize.  We were working side by side at the food bank with a young lady who is close to finishing high school.  She has had a really tough life, and it shows.  She was adopted internationally as an older child as well, experienced a disruption of her first adoption, and finally landed in her forever family, but her healing is far from complete.  I knew her vaguely from an encounter with her and her family several years ago, but I didn't recognize her when I saw her again because she had changed so much.  A once  dainty, vulnerable, tender young girl has morphed into a loud, in-your-face, tough girl who hides behind the humorous retorts.  The first time we were there together, she came right up to me, the attitude dripping from her as she said, "Hey, I know you don't remember me." then she shared who we knew in common and I recalled where we had met.  She started talking, staccato style comments thrown across the table at me, her voice like the sound of a secretary pounding out 90 words per minute on an old IBM Selectric.  She'd stop and fire off an insult to one of the boys from her alternative high school classes who were there in forced servitude to fulfill graduation requirements.  Unlike her school compatriots though, she doesn't hang back trying to stall until her 2 hours are up.  She hustles, she is quick to see what needs to be done and hops to it, all the while hurling one liners over her shoulder at the ones she deems to be slackers.  It is obvious she is sharp and does not quite fit with the rest of her crew, who all appear to be ready to go back home and flop on their beds to sleep until mid-afternoon, if only they could get away with it.

Each week, she seeks me out.  By week 3, she is bringing up adoption and orphanages so casually that you can immediately tell  by the feigned yet intentional indifference that this is one hurting kid.  She reveals a horror that happened to her as if she were talking about nothing worse than having a hang nail, but the glance upward at me through bangs covering her eyes tells me all I need to know. I am working it, sensing that she is hoping I hold something that might help her, yet neither one of us able to figure out yet what that might be.  I smart off with her, she teases and gets in my face, I go all So Cal Gang Girl on her which totally surprised her that this 46 year old in Mom jeans could "bring it" and it cracked her up.  She put her arm around my shoulder, 4 inch hoops dangling from her lobes as she says, "You're all right, for a mom.  I bet I couldn't take you down after all!" and we both laugh.

Our day done, we head for the car and Angela claims the front seat, telling her siblings that she needs to talk to me.  I put the key in the ignition and turn to her asking,"So what's up?"  Angela looks at me and says, "That was me when I was younger and first came home, wasn't it?"  before I can respond she continues, "Mom, if I didn't have you, that would be me at 18.  I know it.  I would be just like her.  I was so tough when you got me, I was awful!  I didn't know how to talk about things, and I was scared and mad inside.  No one knew it, and I didn't know how to be different.  Everyone thought that was just me.  How did you know I was different?  How do you see it in her?"

"I just knew, I don't know how, but I did.  Sort of like you just know it with her.  That's not who she is, but she can't be who she really is because she is afraid of showing she is soft inside, and she has been hard so long it is not easy to drop that if someone doesn't help you."  I explained.

"She doesn't have anyone she can trust, does she?" Angela asked.

"I have no idea, but I'm betting not." I replied.

Then, in such a great act of grace and selflessness, our daughter who is much farther down the road to healing said, "She could have you, Mom.  You can tell she really wants to talk to you but doesn't know how.  She needs someone like you in her life, or things are going to get worse for her.   I think you should try and help her.  You might be the only one who could, because she is coming to you and that means something, doesn't it?"  Then she added, "I am so glad that when I am 18 I won't be like that.  I never liked myself when I was tough back in Kazakhstan.  I didn't like that I was always trying to be a bully girl so that others wouldn't hurt me, I just didn't know what else to do.  I bet she doesn't either."

We spent the next few minutes in deep discussion about how people go into survival mode when it is necessary, and how that can become ingrained behavior.  We talked about the courage it takes to be vulnerable, and how much trust it takes to share our hearts with another...and if we have done it before and had it used against us, we will find it very hard to try it again with anyone else.  Angela told me how she really had wanted to be "less tough" when we came but she didn't know how to be different.  Now she understood why that was so hard.

I asked her, "So what made the difference?  What was it that helped you let down your guard?"  She looked down at her hands as she spoke, saying,"It was when you came back to Zhazira's office  after I was so mean to you.  You were very tough, Mom, but you were also very loving.  You talked about the things that had happened to me, and you cried with me.  Maybe part of me knew you were tough enough to not let me get away with things, and I knew for a long time that you loved me because the letters you sent said things like I thought a real mom would say."  We were quiet as I reached for her hand.  A few minutes later she said, "I wonder if anything you have said already has helped when she talked and laughed about XXXX happening to her, and you looked at her and didn't laugh and said that must have been a really scary thing to go through, and you didn't think it was funny, you thought it was so sad and you were sorry she had that happen.  She looked at you different for a minute, and I was hoping she could talk about it with you more serious, but then you could see she decided not to."   Angela turned to me as I continued to drive and said, "Some Moms are afraid to talk about things because they don't know what to say.  Sometimes, you have to say it for your kids to help them be able to talk about it.  I wonder if anyone has done that with her. Doyou think her mom has?  You did that for me, and I am different because you did.  I wish she could have that, too, because I think she could be a good woman someday, but right now she is headed into a lot of trouble.  I think she could be really nice if she stopped being tough."

I asked Angela, "Why is this bothering you so much?  You seem to be really concerned."  She waited a couple minutes before responding as she stared out the window. "Because she is me.  I know she could be OK, but she won't be if she doesn't get help."  I then said, "All we can do is be willing to let God use us, to continue to show love and understanding.  But we can't force anything to happen. Sometimes, what we say or do doesn't seem to make any difference, but a year or two or even ten years later that person will remember what you said or did, and suddenly they get it in a new way, but you might not ever know it."

Angela squeezed my hand tightly and softly said, "I am glad you know it and got to see it.  I love you, Mom. Thanks for adopting me so I will have a good life and be a good person."

"Thanks for letting me be your Mom, sweetie."

Sometimes, you just don't know.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Celebrating the Little Successes!

Yesterday was a day of little successes, the kind that an outsider might look at, shrug their shoulders, and say "Eh, so what?", but for us it was definitely a Red Letter Day.

We spent the entire day over in Delta for Olesya, Angela and Kenny to have their annual English Language Learner testing.  We were told it would take us until 1:30, but we actually ended up leaving at 4:30.  The reason was that the kids were doing so well on their testing that they had to spend much longer on it than originally expected.  After testing, their ELL specialist called me into a room for a short conference.  She spent the first 10 minutes telling me what a blessing it was to watch the kids blossom and to spend time with them.  That alone was a very nice way to end the day.  Then she said, "I just want to warn you, it looks like all three of them did so well, it is probable they will be exiting ELL status."  She then asked me, "How long have the girls been home?" and I told her they would be home three years on Valentine's Day next month.  She just shook her head and said, "I have never seen this before, and I doubt I ever will see it again.  It goes to show how powerful it can be to have someone who really cares working one on one with a child.    There is no way they ought to be testing this strong after less than three years."  She said the area where Kenny was weak was in story recall, which didn't surprise me at all as he told me over lunch, "Mom, I don't think I did very well on some parts.  There were some long stories that she wanted us to tell back to her after hearing them, and they were so long that by the time she got to the end I had already forgotten the first part!"  But she said that overall, his English skills were very solid, despite his other handicaps.

Three years ago, as I paced the floor of an apartment halfway around the world in complete terror at the thought that I was being called to homeschool all five kids, two who had not a lick of English, one who was clearly learning disabled to the extreme, and me with no experience whatsoever, I never, ever could have imagined being where we are at today.  If someone had told me that within less than 3 years, all three kids would test out of ELL and be reading at grade level, I would have laughed so hard and probably said, "Are you nuts?  That would be impossible!".  As I look back on it,  I don't even really know how we managed it.  What I do know is that Olesya, Angela and Kenny have worked harder than any kids I know.  They have had terrific attitudes about having to start back at a kindergarten level, they have been incredibly diligent in doing their work and every single day give me their very best.  It has required an awful lot of them, but they have been so determined to give it their all.  I can't be happier for them that their work paid off.

Now, of course I realize we are still years behind their age related peers.  I know I have 14 year old 6th graders, and that they still will not graduate until 20 or 21 years old.  For some, that would be a deal would continue to eat at them because it would feel like failure.  Not us!!  We have to take our successes where we can find them, and this is one worthy of celebration!  We are not on anyone else's time table but our own, and when they graduate, it will be with real diplomas that have a real, complete high school education behind them.

Tonight, as I sit and type this, I am just so grateful.  I am filled with joy that Kenny IS learning, albeit much slower and with a lot more repetition than other kids his age, but he IS learning, and he IS bright...and most importantly, he no longer assumes he is stupid, but instead sees possibilities.  Sure, we still have an incredible amount to overcome, and it is a very steep uphill climb that faces us, but we all know now what can happen with hard work.  Our daughters who have already climbed several mountains of their own are so happy, so loving, and are blowing me away every day with what they are accomplishing.  I know we aren't near where most their age are, but I just don't care.  We are exactly where we need to be, and with homeschooling the kids don't need to feel the need to compare to anyone else.

Adding to the sweetness of the day was Matthew receiving another hard earned promotion at Civil Air Patrol.  It was a mighty fine day for the LaJoy clan, with only Joshie having nothing in particular to celebrate. When I said something to him about it, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't need to celebrate for myself, I am just happy for my brothers and sisters."  I am too, Josh, I am too.

Overcoming obstacles is hard, especially when those obstacles are so much a part of your everyday  life.  Today, as Kenny couldn't come up with the words "dust pan", and yesterday as he attempted to follow a simple recipe in the kitchen but couldn't even recall that he needed to turn ON the stove or actually measure the water, I stopped to remind myself that we continue to make progress, but we will have backward steps, and probably lots of them.  Somehow though, we are still managing to move forward, and those little successes are the things to hold on to when frustration or discouragement strikes.

So I'll wallow in the joy while it lasts :-)  

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Good Things in Life

I tip toed in quietly tonight, arriving late after a stressful school board meeting.  It was 11 degrees outside, and though the lights were off, the house was cozy and warm.  Opening the bedroom door I see Josh pop up from his pallet laid out carefully on the floor beside my bed.  "Hi Mommy!" he grins broadly as 11:00 PM marks the time.  "I was waiting for you to get home safe!"  I give him a thank you hug, and he is asleep in less than five minutes.

One of the good things in life.

Side by side with Kenny this afternoon, working on his reading program with him, having dreaded this first go round with it since being off three weeks.  Often, a weekend is all it takes to find ourselves in our oh-so-usual two-steps-forward-one-back mode.  We test his letter sounds and digraphs.  He looks at me and I look at him as he remembers every single one I ask him.  Hmmm.  We move on to new words with multiple syllables, as he practices breaking them down.  One by one, he reads them perfectly without hesitation.  His expressive eyebrow raises as he looks sideways at me, each of us hesitant to say a word.  We go on to reading nonsense words, he misses only two of 15 and corrects himself even though it takes 3 or 4 times each to get it right.  Most of the time he misses 12 of 15.  Wow!  Next come sentences, which he reads with ease.  Finally, we both dare to look at one another with excitement as I tell him, "Kenny, by Jove, I think you've got it!  I don't think you've ever read this well even after being off a weekend, let alone a whole week!"  He laughs out loud and responds, "I must be a good day and we should enjoy it!  We know that a few days from now it will be downhill and will stay there a week or two like always, but I sure like this!" and we laugh.  I remind him, "But remember, every time you do slip backwards a bit, we still remain a little further ahead than you did when you started."  He puts his hand on mine and says, "What would I do without you, Mom? You never quit on me.  I am so glad you think I am smart.  Maybe some day I will really be as smart as you think I am...and maybe for more than just one day!".

One of the good things in life.

An arduous Church Council meeting ahead of me Sunday afternoon, and the kids are all fortunate enough to be going bowling with some of the adults from church, which will keep them occupied while I am looking at budgets and discussing church business.  Just before I get ready to sit down and settle in, I check my purse and there I find a pink post-it note from my lovely Olesya.  "Mom, I hope you have a fun time. I wish you were going boiling with us.  We love you!" and not only was I touched, but it was just the sort of reminder not to take it all too seriously as I imagined my children all "boiling" together.  How my heart needed that little love note.

One of the good things in life.

My wonderful Italian life partner asleep snoring beside me, ready to get up at 3:30 AM on his day off (as if he ever really has a day off) to go deliver a car he detailed to a customer in Telluride tomorrow morning.  He gets up that early so he can catch a ride back down with the transit company rather than having me have to take time away from teaching to go drive an hour and a half away to retrieve him.  After all these years, I know there are moments I take him for granted, just as I know he does me...but it is only for a moment.  Distracted by life's challenges and busyness, it is hard to remain alert to the gift of a marriage I have.  There are moments though, particularly when I see the easy warmth our sons show others, the lack of discomfort with showing affection so openly when I am incredibly grateful I married a Big Ol' Brash Italian who knows how to hug, who can gossip with the girls with the best of 'em, and whose undying loyalty and commitment to his family is reflected every single day in every thing he does.  Like staying awake to make sure I made it home tonight at 11:00 PM when he has to get up at that awful hour tomorrow.

One of the good things in life.

Reading her anthology this morning, Angela and I work our way through a Vietnamese fable with a terrific and not-so-subtle lesson about the value of having a family you can trust.  We snuggle side by side on the couch, playing footsie with our well socked feet in the early morning chill of the house.  She reads so fluently these days, and this intuitive daughter of mine loves a multi-layered story as much as I do. Her new math book awaits, calling to her as she  feels the gentle pressure to catch up and perhaps even move a grade ahead in the subject not hindered by learning a new language.  Her quite confidence, her determination, her emotional courage all make me so proud to call her my daughter.  Even sweeter, she so often declares how proud she is that I am her mom, that like her, she perceives me as tough, strong and willing to establish firm boundaries...something she appreciates even more as she grows older and her insight into human behavior allows her to see what happens with young women when boundaries are wishy washy, and lives fall to ruin.  What she doesn't know is that under the exterior that can be firm when necessary, I can so easily be moved to tears when those sock feet of hers wiggle their way toward mine.

One of the good things in life.

Suffering with back pain from unknowingly twisting just a tad bit wrong, an old condition flares up with gusto as I walk stiff and not quite upright.  Oh, how I feel my age!  Oh, how my family genetics are rapidly catching up with me as arthritis riddled joints are beginning to really ache in those first morning hours before the Motrin kicks in!  Matthew, now a smidgen taller than I comes up to me, puts his arm around my shoulder and asks, "So Mom, how's the back doin'?" as we joke about being the Sore Back Twins.  Yesterday his was causing him considerable pain, today it is my turn.  Another appointment at Shriner's is in order soon, as this recent episode is worse than it has been for him in a long while.  Earlier this week, we huddled over a computer screen looking at high school literature options.  High School!  It can't be!! Not yet!  We confer, I email, and soon we have permission for him to attend a homeschool show with me in March where I will be working, and we can review a curriculum in person before dropping several hundred dollars on it.  I ask him if he would be willing to help me set up and take down the booth, he smiles and says "Sure!"...and we both gleefully look forward to a road trip together, a time when we can play OUR music, talk about OUR subjects, and he can be my trusted co-pilot as I wind my way to Loveland.

One of the good things in life.

The hard stuff still remains. it probably won't get any easier and in fact, is looking like it will actually get tougher.  Bills pile up, laundry piles up, challenges pile up.  It never all seems to get done, it always seems I am stretched too thin, and just when you think you may be getting a handle on it, something comes along and swipes the rug out from underneath you.

But the good things in, they make up for so, so much.  Looking down at sleeping Joshie right now, whose tender little heart is wrapped in his Superman Snuggie while his beloved blankie sits askew atop his head, I know without a doubt that every single moment when it is hard is worth it.

It makes me much would I miss if it actually were easy?  How much less aware would I be?  How much less grateful might I be?  How much more do I value all we have because it was so darned hard?  

The good things in life.  The bad things in life.  They all make up a real life.  But what do we choose to focus on?  What sticks and what slides off?  What distracts from the most important stuff?

The good things in life, so often they don't appear to be all that important...until you don't have them.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The Year of Being Ordinary

I haven't forgot to blog, I have just been taking a little time off as we battled the stomach flu, recovered from the holidays, and gave my mind and heart a much needed rest.  Dominick has been working incredibly long hours, the kids have been getting in a little work time to earn some spending money, a year was winding down and a new one revealing itself.   I had hoped our vacation time off from school could include a little fun-get-out-of-the-house time, and indeed there were a couple of sledding trips, an enjoyable New Year's Eve that sadly ended in my case of the flu beginning, but not much else as one by one we dropped like flies! Haha!  Four of us down, three more to go...and maybe...just maybe they'll be free of it.

Tonight though, was special.  It was special in the way many take for granted, but for us it was a treat.  Dominick came home, and we all went out to Chili's for dinner, a real rarity to go to a non-dollar-menu restaurant! While that was nice, the real treat came in just being together, all of us crammed in a corner area tightly packed in with 7 around a table designed for 6.  The restaurant was unusually empty, and our waitress was very kind.  I don't even know why it felt so special, it just was.  Our kids are just such fun to be with, the conversation flowed from silly to serious, as we  joked about everything from how long it took 7 of us to devour a platter of chips (3.25 minutes) and laughing over Angela drawling out the word "southern" to add an extra syllable making it "southeren".  Then, in usual LaJoy fashion we somehow jumped to Apocalyptic movies and books, and analyzing the merits of fine salsa.  As the kids grow ever older, I find myself thinking back to the days of Matthew little enough to sit in the shopping cart, conversational as can be as we maneuvered our way through Walmart and thinking even then how much I simply liked my son.  Never could I have imagined having being blessed enough to have four more amazing, beautiful, kind and helpful children to add to that feeling of "Man, I am the LUCKIEST mom in the world!  I LOVE being with my kids!".  Dominick and I talked a little afterwards about the simple joy of having children who delight us in so many ways, who are so incredibly helpful.

We were all sitting there on our 3rd platter of chips (I think we slowed to a pace of about 4.5 minutes per platter by then), and we were all thanking Dominick for taking us out to dinner.  He looked at the kids and said "And thank YOU all for all your help and support.  I couldn't do it without you, you all have worked hard to help out at work, and you all have done without an awful lot as we have struggled at the end of the year."  I laughed and said "I am the only one who HASN'T done anything at work other than a little on Christmas Day.  I am the one who needs to thank all of YOU for taking me out to dinner!" Kenny then chimed in and said, "Yea Mom, but you work harder than all of us every single day...and you put up with us driving you crazy!!"  he laughed and added, "I think you have the hardest job of all." and everyone around the table laughed and agreed as they started ticking off all of my different job titles.

There have been some tough times for me personally this year, and I am struggling to find my way in a few areas.  I am feeling defeated, uncertain of where God is calling me.  Our sermon last Sunday has stuck with me, as it was about our God given callings, and how we all have one.  Sometimes we discover them early in life, sometimes later.  Often too, what we are called to do doesn't have to be earth shattering or attention getting...sometimes simply being us, giving of our gifts and talents no matter how limited they might be, is enough.  How do we know what God is truly calling us to do? Sometimes, it can take the distance of a few years to see how our callings come to fruition.  I know I was called to adopt when I was barely a teenager, it was something I knew was going to be part of my future.  In fact, I can recall having conversations with Dominick in the early weeks we were dating in which I said I wanted to have a couple children and adopt a couple.  Mind you, this was at 15 years old.  But I knew, I just knew.  I didn't know infertility would come into play, nor did I understand the family that would one day be formed solely by adoption, but I knew that somehow adoption would become part of my life...if I had the courage to follow the call.

I was surprised, when I started letting my mind wander back in time, to see that homeschooling was actually a calling as well, a calling God placed on me when I was again very, very young.  I laughed out loud this week when the realization hit me...I was the one who wanted to play school  And I assigned reports, real reports, and I had two different sets of encyclopedias at hand to use, one of which was in my own, schoolroom.  No wonder it was hard to get others to play with me, I was not really playing, I was taking it totally seriously!

I then recalled 4th grade, and a young man I tutored who was Spanish speaking who was in class with me.  Because I was quite advanced in language arts, reading at a college level by fourth grade, there was little my teachers could do with me so they allowed me to tutor this student who had newly arrived from Mexico.  I even remember his name, Benjamin Quintana.  I spent hours and hours teaching him new words, explaining things to him, sitting next to him in class to encourage him.  I also went most days to the 1st grade classroom to listen to the little ones read and work with them on phonics.  Was God preparing me for a future calling to homeschool my own English Language Learners?  I don't know, and in fact most of the memories were deeply buried until this past week when I dredged them up looking for signs of who God wants me to be right now.

One thing I find myself really struggling with at this stage in my life is that I feel I am not contributing in any significant way to the world around me.  For the first time since I was 15 years old, I am jobless and am not contributing financially to our household.  While I never earned enough to make a big difference, at least it felt like I was doing something.  I am not running a business, not moving my way up the ladder, not doing anything notable in any way, shape or form. I am home, and yes, I do know that what I am doing is important, but there are moments when I am reminded of the disappointed comments a former teacher made to me once a couple years post-graduation when she came upon me working in a drug store.  She said, "I can't believe you didn't go to college and make something of yourself.  You were so bright!  I always imagined you'd go on and do something important." if being a decent human being, paying my own way, and being kind to those in the world around me were not enough.  It bothered me on two, that I indeed was somehow not living up to my potential and was somehow letting people down because of it, and two, because I found it profoundly sad that someone would think that living a good, decent life was somehow "not enough".

But God spoke to me through that sermon a week ago, especially when our pastor said, "Are we all geniuses?  No.  Are we all called to greatness?  Yes. Not greatness as the world defines it but a greatness that stems from growing into the people we were born to be, giving the gift that we alone were born to share."

Partnered with that sermon that won't seem to let go of me right now, I stumbled upon an article written in the New York Times this past June.  It is titled "Redefining Success and Celebrating the Unremarkable".  This article was about the direction our society seems to have gone in hailing extraordinary as successful, and failing to see the success in being merely ordinary.  I loved reading this quote, "The problem is that we have such a limited view of what we consider an accomplished life that we devalue many qualities that are critically important."

We do have a limited view of what an accomplished life is...I definitely have a limited view of what an accomplished life is, at least at the moment I do.  I needed these reminders so badly!!  I need to really embrace them for awhile.  For years here on the blog I have tried to celebrate and share the ordinary moments, to find the sacred in that which is often overlooked, because I truly do believe we walk in a world FILLED with the sacred but we have to help the scales fall from our eyes to really see it.  

The ordinary can indeed be extraordinary in its ordinariness.

Tonight, that was what I felt...the reminder as I looked around the table at my so, so happy family doing an ordinary thing, and yet each of us so genuinely pleased to spend time together.  In today's world, that alone is extraordinary I think.  The laughter spilled out over our little cramped corner table, our waitress told us twice what a privilege it had been to serve us and how much she had enjoyed it.  There were no stony silences, no subtle "digs" or passive-aggressive comments.  There were seven people gathered around a table tonight who have no biological connection, very divergent ways of viewing the world and many difficult things that have been overcome or are still being worked on.  But the things we have in common are our belief that Love Wins...every time, our genuine care and concern for each other and those we love who were not at the table with us, and our desire to do good in our own little ways.  

I see that ordinariness all around me every single day.  It may be in spending a couple hours cooking up ground turkey, as Olesya did Saturday, so I could visit with friends. It might be in jumping up to say "I'll help Dad...we'll all help!" when Dominick announces his sudden labor shortage as they all did.  It might be in the way Matthew reminded me tonight, "Mom, don't forget to look the waitress in the eye and thank her. You were looking down in your plate when you said it, and you taught us to always look them in the eye so they know you really see them as a person and not a servant.  Practice your manners!" and he was dead serious when he said it.  Or in Kenny as he sat next to a four year old little guy at church today and helped get his food and coaxed him playfully into eating all his "real" food before he could eat his desert which Kenny then proceeded to play train and airplane and feed him.

It's ordinary goodness, it's not extraordinary or special.  I need to grab hold of the fact that it is enough, that maybe this is all I was called to do, and that it is very important work in itself.  Being a housewife and mom is not glamorous.  I am a jeans and tshirt person, who isn't even all that terrific at the whole housewife thing!  I am not a good cook and I am not a good home interior decorator.  But maybe I am good at love, or at least I try.  However, when I stop and think about it, really, really think deeply about it as Angela and I did the other day during an intimate conversation, the destruction that can be foisted upon the world by having a home in which our children are not taught how to love well grows exponentially with each passing generation, and  THAT can be scary.  Five children who leave our nest as healed and whole as possible, who have children and grand children and great grandchildren who live wholly unremarkable lives but yet do no harm and spread mostly love can potentially touch tens of thousands of lives with little acts of goodness.  When on considers that those same five children could grow exponentially into people who can't parent well, who create bigger and bigger messes with each generation, and all the damage they can cause to every person their lives touch...suddenly what I am doing in admonishing in between loads of laundry or grammar lessons takes on much greater importance.

So while I didn't make any resolutions this year, I think I am going to declare this The Year of the Ordinary, and I am going to work hard at seeing all the good that comes from "ordinary".  I absolutely loved another slice of the New York Times article that illustrated their point, and I'll close in sharing it with you:

“We had come up with the idea of grooming the obituaries and re-creating a life from the people at the funeral,” said Catherine Porter, who wrote the column about Ms. Gordon. “We thought it might be a fun journey.” Ms. Gordon’s obituary stood out, Ms. Porter said, because “a lot of obits read like a résumé — an accumulation of concrete action. Her legacy was in her relationships to people.”
She didn’t have a great job, she wasn’t married and never had children, so she wasn’t successful in either the traditional male or female sense, Ms. Porter said. But people would keep telling stories about her kindness.
“She had a lot of magic in her life, and that’s reassuring,” Ms. Porter said. “That you can live a full, interesting, ordinary life.”

Don't you just love that line..."She had a lot of magic in her life..." and that magic was derived not from worldly celebrated achievements, but from being kind and being in relationship with others.  How much more lovely can a life be than that?