Sunday, August 19, 2018

Let Love Be Real

From high above the clouds this summer as I flew.
Have you ever been quite low, and had someone say something at just the right moment to lift you up and help you see things anew?  Doesn't it feel just like God wrapping arms around you and holding you close, letting you know that, yes, this too shall pass, and you are not alone?

Our family is doing very well, and yet we are in a period of grief.  It hits at unexpected moments and is so raw, so overwhelming, and yet so necessary to move to a better place.  You see, Angie's recent experience a couple of months ago in attempting job training for a home health aide position was a huge awakening for her, and a scary one.  We have had multiple tearful conversations about the fact that because her environment at home had been customized specifically for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) learning, and because she had been intentionally protected from the possible negative experiences she would have without the right supports in place, she really had no idea that she really and truly did have FASD.  She had been able to gloss over the concerns we had given voice to through the years, but in her first attempt out in the world by herself, she saw clearly that she really does have an adapted environment at home which has helped her thrive.  She also saw very clearly, and affirmed that with the other kids, that the real world does not adapt, and will be very, very challenging for her, Olesya, and Kenny.

This has knocked her for a loop, understandably so, and many an hour has been spent in encouraging conversation, sharing hard truths and working her way out of denial and into acceptance.  She is incredibly courageous and honest in a way few are, and I am ever more proud of her despite how emotionally draining all of this is for all of us.

Kenny, too, has cried multiple times recently over his future.  With graduation looming this academic year, both are feeling great uncertainty about what is next, how they can find a way to support themselves and continue to move forward into the adult world that awaits them, despite the fact that they are each a few years behind developmentally as those with FASD and institutionalization in their background usually are.

What do you do when, as Kenny pointed out, there are days you can't even address an envelope correctly?  What do you do for work when you are far too bright for sheltered workshops, and yet employers are not set up to accommodate your special needs?  We are brainstorming ideas daily, and are going to do everything in our power to find real, meaningful work for the kids.  In truth, there is SO much to work with in each of them!  But finding the right setting is going to be very, very challenging...and we may have to create it ourselves.  The liquor store is good for very part-time work, but there are far too many things there that they can not the complex cash register system quickly with a large  number of distractions, etc.   It is sort of beyond the capacity of any of the three of them. 

We also had an affirmation about the future this weekend as someone from our past we knew very well and cared for deeply popped up via an unexpected connection.  This person we now know has FASD, is now almost 40 years old (we knew him when he was 17-19) and has struggled since day one to hold a job, was homeless for a period of time, and has lived into virtually every statistic for adults with FASD that we have heard.  It is scarily accurate, all that we have researched and been told, and we are all very aware that we can not afford to pretend that lifelong supports of some nature are not necessary.  Others may never see it, may never understand, may call us helicopter parents for the rest of our lives because our kids "look" normal to them...but we all know the truth, and it isn't something to play around with. 

Just last evening, Angie and I had a painful heart to heart, as she recognized that she is at risk of letting denial take over, which doesn't even make sense to her right now.  Here is part of the conversation, paraphrased as best I can offer:

"Mom, I am afraid because my mind always first goes to thinking that those things will never happen to me...that I would never be so stupid and steal or do drugs.  And yet, I know it isn't really about that." she said.

"Ang, you are right, it is about the fact that your brain may not make the best decisions on any given day.  For you, it may be about rushing into a relationship that is inappropriate for you, or giving up and not controlling your own life because it is too hard.  It may be that you struggle with making a good financial decision or get confused over a contract yet think you understand it and don't ask for help, it may have nothing at all to do with making a bad moral decision,  but about a bad decision or unsafe choice in any circumstance."

She got quiet, and then more tears..."I am most worried about my denial being so strong, when I KNOW and can totally see I have problems and my brain doesn't work the same as other people.  I am scared I will let denial win sometimes because I did it for so long."

Quietly, we sat there, then I said, "I think you are failing to see something.  You are just naming that you see how your brain jumps to denial, and it bothers you.  Just three months ago you couldn't see that at all.  Once you see things, you can't easily 'unsee' them, and so I think you may already have this part beat!  You quickly caught yourself in the actual moment and didn't let denial set how is it winning??  YOU won!"

Looking at me with red rimmed eyes brimming, trying so hard not to lose it, she said, "I don't know why I just can't stop crying these days.  It is like I am always crying even when I don't expect it!"

"Oh sweetie, that is the way grief works, and you need to allow yourself this time to grieve."  I said.  "If you don't let yourself work through it fully, you will never be free of all of this, so this really is important work to do.  You are grieving the life you thought you were going to have and moving toward acceptance of a different sort of life, not a bad life, just different.  That's expected to feel that way."

Laughing through her tears, Angela shared, "I don't even get it!  I have always wanted a life that wasn't boring and normal.  Now it is definitely not going to be normal and all I want is normal!  I am so messed up sometimes!!" and we both giggled over that.

And then, right there in that moment, I realized something and explained what I was thinking to her.

"Ang, you are absolutely right!  You have NEVER wanted to be 'normal' and have a 'normal' life.  You have always wanted to have an exciting, interesting, and different life!  We ALL talk often about how normal is over-rated!"  I was thinking to myself how Olesya's favorite saying has been that our family is "uniquely developed" and I am sure Angie thought about that, too.

I then went on, "Maybe this was God's way of ensuring that you, indeed, will have an nontraditional, interesting life!  Think about it for a moment...if you had managed to handle that training, you would have probably gone on to become a CNA and maybe you would have settled in to that, and never done anything else.  The truth is, you have a gift for relationship with the elderly, but you really don't get too excited about the physical care taking parts.  Maybe FASD is really a gift to you to make certain you really DO have an interesting and unusual life, because the fact is, you really can't approach your life's work the same way as everyone else and may have to make your own way, perhaps with your siblings, maybe some on your own.  I know one thing though, you have gifts galore and we are going to figure out how to use them!"

And then I hit on something that I could tell may make all the difference in the world when I said...

"I think you may be viewing this all wrong, and that is because you are going from the word 'normal' to the word 'abnormal' in your head.  This isn't to make you feel good, it is exactly what you have desired since the day we first could speak to one another, and it is what I and many others see in you.  Angie, why settle for 'normal' when you can have 'extraordinary'??"

I let that sit there, hanging in the air, and I literally watched her emotions shift as it reflected across her face.  A few moments to sink in, and I then added, "You learn differently, very differently, but we have already proven you can learn...and learn a LOT and learn WELL.  So this isn't about intellect, it is about being different and learning in an extraordinary way.  You have literally gone from being at a preschool level in just about everything when you first arrived eight years ago to being late teens developmentally AND you have become fully fluent in English AND you have mastered all kinds of life skills AND you have regained Russian AND you have learned all about how to live in an emotionally healthy family AND you are going to graduate high school with a non-adapted diploma in almost every way.  I would say you can learn a LOT with the right support in place, and you will need the right supports in place your entire life, but you already have are set for an extraordinary life, and now we go chase it!!!"

As we were speaking, the tears slowly stopped, the cheeks dried, and a smile returned.  There was something here that was speaking truth to her, even if she was struggling to hang on firmly to it.  But she knows I never, ever do anything but play it straight with her and the rest of the kids, and if I can envision an extraordinarily different and wonderful life for her, maybe she can, too.  That isn't denying the reality of how hard it might be, but she and the others have honestly already done more hard things than just about anyone I know. 

It was in that look from her that I realized the power each and every one of us have to help someone see things anew, how our pet phrase in our family, "words mean things" really is true.  And I also saw how others have done the same for me just when I needed it...

While I was traveling this long, emotionally difficult summer, I received the gift of someone else's reaching out, helping me hang on and see things anew.  Spring had been so emotionally heavy laden around these issues, which are no doubt being exacerbated as graduation looms this year, and fear increases...which is not at all unreasonable for them.  Just keeping things stable, loving, supportive, and encouraging has been a full time job for a very long time.  I needed the anticipated break so very much, then things fell apart in all kinds of ways.  Then, just when I least expected it, in the midst of my own pain and deep doubts about all kinds of things, I received a package of documents for my mom which Dominick quickly sent via FedEx as I needed them immediately to begin the process of handling her affairs. 

In the box he slipped an envelope from a dear, dear old friend, Janet, because he had a sense I might need whatever was inside.  He knows how very much I have appreciated the quiet reaching out Janet has done through the years, mailing me articles she knows will be of interest (they ALWAYS are, she just knows!), sending notes of encouragement, and more.  Oh, how she has held me up through the years without realizing it!  This time, she sent me something so precious, so needed in that moment, that tears instantly fell, and I have unfolded this piece of paper 25 or 30 times since receiving it to remind me we are still on solid ground, even when it feels shaky.  I was reminded that all the heartache is for a purpose, and I saw our family anew through her eyes...something that right now I desperately needed to see.  Here is what she sent me, and I will likely carry it in my heart forever, but also keep it near my desk where I can re-read it during those hard, hard days yet to come:

For those who don't know, this is sung to the tune of "Oh, Danny Boy".  The lyrics are so incredibly moving to me, particularly this:  "Let love be real, with no manipulation, no secret wish to harness or control; let us accept each other's incompleteness, and share the joy of learning to be whole."

Oh man, if that doesn't capture it for me...what it means to be family, or perhaps what it means to be THIS family, Team LaJoy, the Family That God Built.

You know what?  I didn't even know how much I needed this, but it was perfect and a reminder of what was waiting for me at home after being gone so long.  This beautiful, imperfect, loving, extraordinary, "uniquely developed" family of ours is doing everything we can to learn how to be whole.  It isn't easy, it can be painful, and yet we are not running from anything.  And funny, how in the middle of all the terribly difficult emotional work, the kind that splits some families wide open...we seem to draw ever nearer to one another.  Only God helps with that.

So, here we are, and we are going to "Let love be real" in all possible ways.  Frankly, I don't think we know how to do it any other way.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Little Something to Celebrate!

We celebrate things big and small here at Casa LaJoy, and this one is a little celebration but it matters to a few people, who are urging me to claim it, (Kenny, Dominick, Candi...hahaha!) so here I am, claiming it!

This past October I revived a simple web site I had built called Blue Collar Homeschool, and I started a Facebook group in case a few others out there wanted to discuss ideas for non-college bound teens.  I have mentioned it on the blog before once or twice, but it has been chugging along behind the scenes, and much of the time I spend on Facebook these days is in the Blue Collar Homeschool group offering encouragement where I can, sharing resources, guiding conversations, and leading an online book club that grew out of the group where we read and discuss books on education, parenting, homeschooling, etc.

I have been overwhelmed by the response, to say the least, and so very happy that this little ministry of ours is growing and seriously helping homeschooling parents feel less alone.  I know I was often so discouraged over the years as most groups focused on college prep, and that wasn't in the cards for some of our kids, and honestly, in some groups you are made to feel like an inferior educator if you aren't trying to prepare every single child for college.

The stories shared in this group are of moms who are sometimes incredibly lonely and isolated, of joy at successes that are not usually celebrated in the pro-college crowd, and of working hard to discover possible careers and curriculum to feed interests, and much more.  We have lively conversations, polite debate, and compassionate responses to painful moments.  It is a real gift to me, and I hope to others, and perhaps a little haven for some.

When I started the group in October I recorded that I thought if we ever managed to hit 500 members I would feel we were successful.  I tend not to track it much, but I was asked by Candi, as an encouragement, to write down that number.  Tonight, we hit a milestone.  In less than a year, we now have 4000 members.


That could possibly equate to 12,000 or more kids represented there (We homeschooling families live large! Hahaha!)  That means emotional support and encouragement for 4000 families, all of whom are bucking the trend of most homeschool groups and letting their kids chase their own dreams, or accepting hard truths about special needs kids who really and truly can't handle higher academics.  

Our Blue Collar Families are finding resources and workbooks and texts and classes they never knew existed, and this matters to me.  They are finding support for their rodeo cowboys, their lifeguards, their future welders, beauticians, and entrepreneurs.  Their kids are being awarded free from us certificates of achievement for things people don't usually hold up and celebrate as something to value...things like mastering reading at 12 or 13 years old, helping Dad build a barn, or having severe handicaps and starting a pet sitting business.  We mailed out over 70 certificates this first year!  We celebrated with 17 graduates and sent them a certificate of graduation and awarded their moms a special Blue Collar Homeschool tote bag celebrating mom's accomplishment right along with her graduate's.

I am passionate about all kids being supported.  Sure, that might be obvious, as I have several who will struggle their entire lives, and our "wins" are often not "wins" in the eyes of others.  That being true, I know how important those key breakthrough moments are, I know how tears come to a mom's eyes when she has worked for YEARS to make something happen and she finally sees success.  I know what it is to have kids who don't have challenges but are outside-the-college-box thinkers but others simply look at you as if you have failed your child miserably because "This kid ought to be in college." yet no one sees how college might stifle who they were meant to become.

This isn't about being anti-college, far from it!  But it IS about celebrating the wide variety of paths  in addition to college that are out there for kids to choose from.  It is about being honest that not every teen ought to go to college, regardless of majority opinion.  It is about valuing other choices, and college too, if it is what a child is capable of and has a desire for. 

I have more ideas than I have time or money for to help our Blue Collar families.  A lending library for special curricula that is too expensive to purchase for one income families, gatherings where we talk about the unique needs of non-college bounds kids and how to meet those needs effectively, retreats for parents like me of kids who are special needs, scholarships I hope to one day offer to kids who are NEVER considered but who have dreams of starting their own business and need help with tools or supplies, or who want to go to trade school but need help.  I have no clue how we might live into this, as it will take time, money, and creativity.  We'd love to become a non-profit one day, or be taken in under one, but that seems very hard to find with our specific mission and we are too small and likely always will be to become a non-profit.  But I will continue to dream...

Kenny and Olesya have been so helpful, and I couldn't do it without them!  Kenny is masterful online, moderating and commenting when I need help, and he is the World's Greatest Encourager and voice of wisdom for his age.  Olesya has done so much behind the scenes, adding links to the web site and keeping it organized.  My friend Candi has helped with planning, certificate creation, and being a terrific sounding board.  Dominick has been a great cheerleader, and has surprised me by staying caught up on posts and is a ready conversation partner as I work through responses, gauge where things are going, and more.  He also agreed that we could use a little household money to buy our first batch of awards.

There are no guarantees this will grow any further.  But what thrills me (and it does!) isn't really the number of "4000" members, but the astronomical number of very real, heartfelt engagement that happens in the group.  People are being authentic in their sharing in ways that are remarkable and quite vulnerable at times...and the responses back have been compassionate, thoughtful, and helpful.  In the past 28 days we have had 21,500 posts, comments and responses.  THAT is the number that makes me grin!!  REAL conversation about important things in the educational life of a family.  21,500 times people interacted in the group...that is sweet, sweet connection that is what life is really all about.

Our Monday Musings are when I post introspective questions
for our community to consider and share their perspectives.

Facebook is often the target of complaints about how it ruins real relationship.  I beg to differ.  Facebook is no different than anything else, you get what you put into it.  If  you bring your authentic self, you just might be surprised at what you get in response.

I know most of my blog readers would never be interested in this, but I would really appreciate prayers or warm thoughts directed toward this little outreach ministry of our family's.  It is one small way we have of trying to repay God for all the goodness that is in our lives, and for all the ways we have been supported through the years.  It may not be much in the grand scheme of things, but to some people, it may keep them hanging in there longer with a kid who really needs alternative education, or support for a different path.  It helps provide an idea space for families like ours with kids who have special needs and need far more help graduating or launching into careers.  

So I am celebrating, grateful to be used to help others in a really unique way, happy to see people connecting with resources they need, and hopeful that Blue Collar Homeschool's future is bright and we can offer even more in the coming year!  

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Learning to Belong to Ourselves

This has been the summer of the unexpected detours, both literally and emotionally.  I have been home a week after six weeks of unexpected travel, and I simply couldn't pull it together enough to write.  I think as I am maturing, and blogging culture has moved along at such a fast pace, I have come to value living in the moment more, and feel less inclined to have to share immediately, even though I recognize the value for me in writing things down.  Unlike others, I don't blog for an audience, or advertisers, I blog for myself and release it to the world as I know many have families like ours who are struggling and might find some comfort in knowing they are not alone.  But I do nothing to build an audience or brand myself, and I feel no need to share what I made for dinner, or to blast carefully planned product placement photos.  I usually grab my phone when my eye catches something, but rarely pose anyone other than what I would do for our own family album.  I just don't have the desire to "Keep up with the Blogging Jones' " and I prefer to share what is real, hard, lovely, and wonderful so our kids may one day read this diary of our family life and gain new understandings of how we all came to be who we are.

So here I am, finally with a quiet late evening uninterrupted, feeling a little more like I have resettled back into my life after this strange summer that had more twists and turns than Red Mountain Pass.  It was a time of growing self-awareness for many in our family, myself included, and a period of great growth.  Interestingly, a theme that has arisen is this:

"I need to belong to me."

Now, that may sounds strange, but it is clear to several of us that this is where our work needs to be done for a long while, and we will be settling in with this particular idea and working with it until we each really and truly belong to ourselves.

What do I mean by this?  Well, Angie has been moving through a very difficult season as she has come to a new understanding about her learning disabilities and arrived at a place of acceptance.  She is also working through some very strong feelings around her birth mom, feelings that have been slowly inching their way toward the surface for years and are ready to bubble over now.  This is hard, hard emotional work, and until she moves all the way through it, she will never fully belong to herself, but instead will have part of herself closed off as she avoids the realities of her past.  She knows this, and we are gradually working through things as she feels comfortable.  This combined with the natural fear that comes from entering her senior year along with Kenny, and being
completely uncertain about her future capacity to be meaningfully employed and able to eventually be self-supporting is a huge weight to bear.  Belonging to herself fully will help, as she will not be running from all of who she is, and we can more easily work with it rather than fight it.

Kenny, too, is dealing with deep concerns for it is obvious that with his challenges a traditional employment situation will never be feasible.  However, as with Angie, he has so many wonderful gifts, and in some ways, Kenny is a couple of years further along the path of fully belonging to himself, and is in many ways leading the way.  These are stark truths to accept, that "normal" is likely always going to be out of reach, but the bigger concern isn't "why can't I be normal" but is instead, "So what replaces that?"

Each of them have been in tears fairly regularly as we sit quietly discussing a scary and unpredictable future.  Of course we point to the positives with great regularity, and we explain that almost everyone has an unpredictable future though they may be lucky enough to be able to be blissfully unaware of that unpredictability as they march through their senior year.  No one has guarantees.

For now, Olesya is escaping the darkest parts of the emotional turmoil, perhaps because as a junior, graduation isn't for another year for her, or maybe because she more fully belongs to herself already and has a firm grasp on who she is.  I can't really tell, and she can't either, and so we may be seeing something quite different next year, or eerily familiar, one never knows.  What I do see is that she has undergone a slow transformation and seems more confident these days, happy to declare herself way outside the box and unconcerned about what others think or what the future may hold.  She has a new self-possession that may be from owning herself anew, or it is possible a lower developmental age than her chronological age means she isn't at all contemplating such things as of yet.

Josh too, is in the process of learning how to belong to himself as he wrestles with group acceptance and the desire to belong, and balances being perfectly who he is with the idea of who he wants to be.  Didn't we all do that at 15 or 16?  Try on personas to see which best suited us?  Spread our wings more as we realized we had a life outside our parents, yet could still remain deeply connected to them as we worked our way slowly into the world at large?  Yes, Josh is on the cusp of some real meaty understandings about himself, important pieces of the puzzle of who he is are falling into place.

Matt?  Oh my, that young man has always, always belonged fully to himself in a rare and distinctive way.  He has marched to his own tune since first being placed in our arms, and in many ways has modeled for all of us how to be self-contained and yet connected. 

Our theme arose out of something I think our pastor offered recently, but Kenny swears it was me (and I don't really think it was) but I know we have discussed it often.  "When we truly belong somewhere, we don't have to change who we are to be accepted.  When we merely fit in, we have to change ourselves to be accepted."

Belonging is powerful.  Belonging to ourselves, our truest most authentic selves, and not running from our pasts, our failings, our lack in some areas, is the hardest thing to do, but when we accept ALL of who we are, something extraordinary happens; we can belong to others in far more connected ways, and we can live more fully into who God intended for us each to be.  You see, this isn't about NOT being a child of God, as some might take what I am saying the wrong way.  That is a given.  It is about accepting our whole selves as the child of God that God actually sees...the whole, entire child with flaws and strengths...and not hiding behind bravado or self-deception.

This idea may have come from Brene Brown's most recent book which I read a couple of months ago, and marked up like I was going to teach a class on it.

You know how sometimes just the right book or film comes along at a critical time in your life?  When you are really open and ready to take something in fully?  Brene's book was a sucker punch when I read it, my own life spelled out in the first chapter in ways I had never seen, nor understood, before.

I have spent 52 years belonging to just about everyone but myself.  My life has been such that even at a very young age, I belonged to others before I ever had the chance to make a choice.  Then, I belonged to my husband, then my children...all by choice, but often at the cost of putting myself aside as I had been trained to do when I was very young to make others happy or to "save" them.  As with our kids and their pasts, it skews how you move through the world.  As we gently move into the next phase of our lives together this coming couple of years, and homeschooling winds down, I realize that I have no clue at all who I really am...because I have never fully belonged to myself.  Oh, I have so much work to do!

And what an interesting and timely understanding, that may help me guide each of our kids to avoid that and become fully self-possessed! 

Watching Josh as he worked on the final phase of his documentary project, I was able to see that he is taking steps in this direction.  He is gaining a sense of self, and tickling around the edges of who and how he wants to be in the world.  There was this one moment, when a rainy candle light vigil had ended, and he was kneeling before the makeshift alter...the image shared above in the blog...where I saw that part of who he is becoming is a man of great faith, of trust in others, and who has the capacity to see and feel the sacred in those moments when others might pass right on by.  There was a time when I thought the trust in others would never come.

We have a formidable task before us, we LaJoy's.  We have to pull our collective brain trust together, and see what kind of ideas we can come up with for the future of several of our kids who truly can't figure that out on their own.  Who knows, maybe we won't have the best answers either.  But we do have tenacity, we have a spiritual grounding which sees us through the hardest of times, we have one another, and through the tears and the frustration, through hard realities, we know there is always a light if we just look for it, for there is never only darkness.  As we all spend time this year learning how to belong to ourselves, we will only grow stronger, for when we really know ourselves, we feel safer to be vulnerable with one another.  This family already does that well, and it will only be that much better when this inner work is complete.  God sticks themes in our lives for a purpose, if we only tune in and pay attention.  This must be our theme for the coming months...and because it is from God, there will always be a light shining to guide us, and to prove to us that we are not alone.