“Are You My Friend?”

marymarthaDo you ever look around and wonder who your friends are? I sometimes do. I’m naturally introverted, and yet the combined effects of several relocations, caring for two special-needs kids (and now my mother), and endless work-related social media interactions (I’m an editor) have depleted my little black book on those rare occasions when I’m craving a girls’ night out.

Yesterday I was discussing this with an author friend who happens to fall in the category of both professional and personal connection. She has met my extended family, and made rosaries for my kids. I’ve slept at her house, and call her whenever I’m in her area to get together.

Apparently this sense of rootlessness is something that many women experience. She also made me sit up and take notice when she identified what is often the source of the problem. “There are persons, and there are personas,” she reminded me. “When you are a writer, you cultivate a persona that you let out into the world … but it’s not the same as the real you, known to your real friends.”

The moment she said this, a light bulb went on. Do editors have personas, too? Of course! So … how do I set aside the persona and let the “real me” out to play, to establish real friendships?

Interestingly, my friend’s first suggestion was … silence. Spending time together in silence, “until the uncomfortable silences become comfortable.” Of course, this isn’t something that can happen on Facebook, or in any other social media venue. It takes physical presence. It means stepping away from the computer and inviting others into the messiness of ordinary life.

This is risky, of course. I’ve had women — from church, for example — who have reached out and made an effort to connect with my daughter and me. It always surprises me a bit, to experience such kindness, knowing that I’m not really in a position to reciprocate meaningfully. What is more, the way my life is set up right now, it seems almost impossible to set up regular get-togethers. And yet, this is exactly the kind of effort true intimacy in friendship requires.

The topic of friendship is very much on trend these days. Emily Jaminet and Michele Fahnle’s The Friendship Project is being discussed in book clubs and parish women’s groups across the country. Elizabeth Foss published True Friend, a four-week devotional to help kick-start friendship in your own life.

And yet all these wonderful books won’t do a bit of good unless I’m willing to venture into that scary territory of vulnerability and initiate contact. Invite someone over (or invite myself over) for a cup of tea. Strike up a conversation with someone at a bookstore who is carrying a book I’ve recently read. Even (*gasp*) take that water aerobics class for us grannies-in-training and chat up the friendly looking lady on the kickboard next to me.

Because every decades-old friendship begins with the touch of a real, live person.

 

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My Dirty Little (Not-so-Secret) Life

toilet-paper-150912__340I’ve reached the stage of life where it seems like half of my waking hours are spent monitoring someone’s delicate internal workings. The kids’. The dogs’. My mother’s. And yes, occasionally my own. (Fortunately, my husband manages his own. At least for now. Fingers crossed.) If I let down my guard for even a minute, things can take a very nasty turn.

Sometimes you just have to laugh and carry on. Take last night, for instance. Outside, rains pelted the house as thunder erupted on the quarter hour, sending our Chiweenie Gretta into a state of mortal terror, quivering and shaking while hiding between my thigh and the couch cushions. The time had come and gone for her walk (there was NO WAY she was setting a paw outside), and so I got out the doggy diapers. Normally she hates these things with the passion of a thousand suns, pooping through the tail hole in payback as she dives under beds and other low-hanging places in an effort to tear off the tabs so she can wiggle free. This time she submitted to the diapering without a whimper, and went in her crate without incident. (That’s one for the home team … no pee spots to clean from the rug tonight!)

And then, just about this time, the electric recliner made its characteristic nightly whine. Time to put Mom to bed. Off with the day pants, on with the night pants — and now, with the morning sheets, another load to wash, dry, and have ready for the next use.

Here’s the thing, and I’m going to try to sketch this out in vague terms because I love my mother. Sometimes things get messy. Really messy. And while I do the best I can to get her cleaned up without making her feel bad, I’ve sometimes wondered if I’m the right person for the job.

It’s not that I don’t want to do it, not really. After all, this is the woman who diapered me and my sisters for the first years of our lives. And yet, I can’t help but feel that somehow I’m crossing a line. Most mothers don’t want their children to see them that way … yet here we are. “It’s okay, Mom. I don’t mind.” I try to catch her eye to reassure her with a smile, but she averts her gaze. If this is hard for me, just imagine what it’s like for her.

This is how tiny her life has become, unable to do some of the most basic things for herself. Things she’s done all her life. Now her daughter does them for her, just as she once did them for me. Our lives have merged in a way they never had before.

Then there’s my darling daughter. At sixteen, she has different bathroom challenges (we’re still trying to get the whole period thing under control, which isn’t easy for girls with special needs). The latest thing is that one of her medications is causing upset stomach, several times a week. We’ve talked to the doctors about changing it up, but it turns out this is the medicine that best handles her issues. So … three times a week she is asking me to pick her up from school, and most of the time I try to coach her through it: drink lots of water and eat a granola bar. Lay down for ten minutes in the nurse’s office.

No, she wants to come home. Three times a week on average. Of course I CAN’T let her miss that much school, and so I must be the Mean Mom. “Get a drink and lay down, honey. Take deep breaths.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, there is H-E-Double toothpicks to pay when she finally DOES come home and lets me know exactly what a horrid mother I am.

*sigh* This, too, is love … She just can’t see it yet.

It all comes down to love, of course. Not the hearts-and-candy, Romeo and Juliet balcony scene variety, but the real life, rubber-meets-the-road kind. It’s meeting the other at their most personal and even (yes) somewhat embarrassing point of need. St. Paul said it best:

We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. (2 Cor 4:8-10).

Even the smallest, crappiest parts of our lives have meaning, seen through this lens. Each moment an opportunity to “do small things with great love,” as Mother Teresa so often said. Partly because it gives us a chance to love another creature (and no love is wasted, even on a dog, right?) But because it’s in these tiny indignities of life that we have a chance to strike a blow against pride, the father of all vices, until these earthen vessels of ours once more shine with heavenly light.

Jesus, we trust in you.

 

 

Do you need to REFRESH?

me-tooAs parents, we love our children. We revel in their giggles, rejoice in their accomplishments (“Yeah! The big-boy potty!”), and willingly sacrifice precious hours of shut-eye to tend to their most basic needs (“Good night, Sweetie. What’s that? Thirty cupcakes for Teacher Appreciation Day tomorrow!?”). And yet, parenting children with a history of abuse, neglect, and trauma, parenthood often means other, darker realities as well: isolation, embarrassment, worry, and never-ending self-doubt.

Well-meaning friends and family observe the chaos and try to help, slipping copies of Love and Logic and gently chiding your kiddos to stop climbing the walls, teasing the dog, or hiding turkey under the bed. They press for revealing details about your child’s history and first family, while you attend family functions on pins and needles, just waiting for the next disaster to erupt. You wish for a place where you can just relax and find kindred spirits who truly understand—who respond to your most embarrassing blunders and incriminating thoughts with the two most compassionate words in the English language: “Me, too!”

It’s time for “Refresh,” a regional (Seattle and Chicago) gathering where foster and adoptive parents can find camaraderie, training, and perspective. Founded by evangelical Christians Andrew & Michele Schneidler and “Confessions of an Adoptive Parent” bloggers Mike and Kristin Berry, this year’s event for Midwestern families was hosted in Wheaton, Illinois on November 11-12, 2016. The next conference, in Seattle, will be March 13, 2017.

Craig and I weren’t sure what to expect when we drove up to the Church of the Resurrection on Friday night and walked in the door as laughter and upbeat music emanated from the auditorium. Display tables for Bethany Adoption Services, New Hope Equine Therapy, and Capable Sensory Products lined the walls. Just outside the sanctuary, baskets of paddles reading “Me, too!” (to hold up in solidarity when a speaker shares an observation or story with which you can closely identify). Inside the auditorium, participants wore buttons that helped them connect with those who had similar stories: “Foster-Adoption,” “Sibling Adoption,” “Special Needs,” “Birth Mother,” “International Adoption.” Most people, like us, wore multiple buttons. In no time, we were chatting with new friends about daycare vs. in-home care, and sharing how we bonded with our kids using “love banks” that enabled them to communicate the amount and type of affection they most needed from us. No one pulled away or changed the subject when we talked about the harder stuff, the frustrations and worries. They knew. They had been there.

As Catholics, we had wondered if we’d be welcome—having spent my first thirty years in the evangelical community, I was sensitive to the smiling anti-Catholic undercurrent I sometimes encountered. But to my great relief, we were met with open arms – by their own admission, these parents had known rejection and isolation because of their children’s behaviors, and they were determined to include everyone. When I gave the Schneidlers and Berrys a copy of my book Advent with St. Teresa of Calcutta, they responded with genuine warmth. And I was delighted to see Henri Nouwen’s quote displayed prominently on the screen in one of the talks:

Compassion is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position, it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity …. On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most cute and building a home there.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. This particular event was dedicated to a cause close to the heart of all Christians who are truly pro-life: supporting families who have said “Yes” to journeying alongside children who have been traumatized by abuse and neglect, and trying to make a difference in their young lives. Not all our stories have a neat-and-tidy, happy ending – one speaker spoke eloquently about what it’s like to watch the police take away your oldest son and place him in the juvenile justice system.

I felt the tears begin to surface as I held up my own paddle. “Me, too.”

If you are unable to attend the next conference but would like some “virtual” help, be sure to sign up for Mike and Kristin Berry’s
“Confessions of an Adoptive Parent”
mailing list.

A Letter to My New-Mom Self (on our 10-Year Gotcha Day)

christophersfirstpicture3Next weekend we celebrate a decade of “official” family life. Ten years since the adoptions were finalized and the kids were officially welcomed into the family . . . and baptized into God’s. We plan to go to Cedar Point with their godparents, to celebrate. This weekend, though, as Sarah and I sit in the living room — her painting designs on her fingernails and watching Girl Meets World, and me typing, my mind drifts back to those first few weeks together. Some parts are such a blur, but others come back with crystal clarity. And so, before those bits get fuzzy, too, I thought I’d write a little letter to my new-mom self.

Dear New-Mom Heidi:

I know it seems impossible right now, when every hour drags as you try to cope with enormous mounds of laundry and unending chaos. Poop on the walls. Food splattered on the ceiling. Kids screaming you awake at one-hour intervals. A husband who spends L-O-N-G hours at work and leaves you alone from dawn to dusk with these ornery little dickenses. I know. I know. But trust me, it won’t always be like this.

Be as gentle with yourself and your family as you possibly can. You have undertaken the most difficult challenge of your adult life, infinitely harder than you thought it would be. But trust me when I tell you this: You can make it easier, or you can make it MUCH harder, just by what you choose to see. This is not the time for your “volunteer” gene to go into overdrive at church, or to take on a forty-hour work week. Because you will never get this time back. And neither will your kids.

Don’t worry about your job right now, and get some help if you possibly can so you can catch up on your sleep. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Every moment you spend with them now will pay rich dividends down the line. But now it’s time to pay up.

Breathe. Laugh. Relax. These kids won’t get calmer, or sleepier, or happier if you are a stressed-out mess. So do everyone a favor. Don’t set the bar too high. Get some help — since you don’t have family nearby, au pairs are worth their weight in gold. Keeping them at home, close to you, is going to help the trauma heal. Read about trauma. And stop yelling, or you’ll make it worse.

Protect them, and never let them out of your direct line of vision, even with other kids. Yes, you need a break, and yes those breaks are few and far between. But trauma attracts trauma, and the worst kinds of abuse breeds sneakiness. Keep your kids close, as close as you possibly can as much as you possibly can, if you want those broken little hearts to heal. When you want their attention, whisper. And don’t forget to teach them “feelings” words. Or to get down on their level, and touch them gently when you want to make eye contact.

Resign your dreams and expectations. They may always struggle academically, no matter how many story hours and silly songs you share with them. No matter how many specialists and therapists they see. They may never make the honor roll, but if they keep talking to you, you’re ahead of the game. Spend more time focusing on their gifts, and less on their challenges.

Expect it to hurt . . . but look for the joy. The kids won’t remember if you stood over them while they struggled through their homework. But they’ll never forget it when you put down the rake, and jump in the leaf pile with them! Let them eat the raw cookie dough and sprinkles, and don’t ration the M&Ms so much.

Adoption is hard work. Don’t forget to enjoy the perks!

Hope to see you at Cedar Point! 

The Drop Box: A Movie for Lent!

TheDropBox_SlideThe story is told of a small boy who walks along the beach, tossing starfish that have washed up on shore back into the great expanse of blue. “What are you doing?” demands a stranger walking by. “Don’t you see how many there are? What does it matter if you save just a few?”

Bending down to retrieve another sea creature, the boy responds, “It matters to this one.”

Korea has always had a special place in my heart. For about a year in my twenties I studied the language and cultivated a taste for kim chi, having been invited to work at a blind mission in Seoul. In the end, I did not go — I was unable to get the needed visa to work as a short-term missionary. But I had heard about the sad fate that awaited even young children who are disabled. Many are abandoned by their families, who cannot or will not care for them. Many are turned out or abandoned on the streets.

It is this sad fact that makes this remarkable documentary doubly inspiring. The Drop Box, a limited engagement documentary about Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak, tells the story of a man who has dedicated his life to saving children, many of them with special needs, who were abandoned by their parents who were unwilling or unable to care for them. He created a special “box” outside his church, where desperate women could leave their infants rather than expose them to die on the streets. Over time, Pastor Lee adopted a dozen such children, and found homes for hundreds more.

And each one has touched his heart.

You would think a movie like this would be depressing. Thousands of children without parents, many of them destined to live out their short lives separated from their families, never able to know where they came from or to whom they belonged.

But watching this movie, you can’t help but be moved by the joy. The joy of the children. The joy of the pastor and the “God’s Love Community.” Although the joy is often through tears. “My heart drops,” says Pastor Lee. “When I hear that sound [of the drop box], . .We installed the baby box with God’s heart. At the top of the box, it reads, ‘For my father and mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in.’ (Ps 27:10). God loves life more than the world. He sent life to the earth for his glory.”

Go and see this movie. Click here for viewing locations and times.

31 Days of De-Stressed Living, Day 28: X-amine Priorities Through a Child’s Eyes

cuddle“Mommy, will you play with me?”

“Mommy, can you rub-tickle my arm?”

“Mommy, I wanna snuggle…”

I imagined that by the time my children reached middle school, they would stop seeking my company quite so actively. When I was in seventh grade, I used to climb out on the roof outside my bedroom window to escape my mother. Outside, with the biggest book I could find — usually a Reader’s Digest Condensed. My parents had a whole shelf full of the things. I’d start at one end, and work my way to the other side.

Looking back, I probably should have asked my mom to take me to the library. We didn’t have a television, and only the Christian radio station was allowed. So books were my escape.

For reasons I don’t entirely understand, my kids don’t like to read. I’ve tried all the usual things: reading aloud, and offering a variety of books, and getting them books on tape. No dice. And I’m not entirely sure why.

Is it possible that a love of reading is genetic, rather than environmental?

No, when my kids are stressed out, they want … Contact. Close physical proximity for as long as I will let them. Like junkies looking for a fix, they sidle up beside me, and nudge my arm until I lift it over their shoulders. Sarah bounces against my “air bags” (as she calls them) contentedly, while Chris simply leans against my shoulder, pulling the closest soft blanket over us all. Even in church (then it’s without the blanket), they lean in purposefully.

Sometimes I enjoy it. I mean, what mom wouldn’t relish the feeling of being their child’s whole world? Other times, it can get a little claustrophobic. Like they don’t stop until they’ve drained the last drop of attention. Still others, I wonder if I’m feeding a monster, if I would be doing them a kindness by weaning them from the constant need to touch, clutch, and snuggle.

But then … I have to examine things from their eyes. All the change, all the fear, all the loss, all the feelings … it has to go somewhere. it has to diffuse somehow. And mom is the rock that makes them roll.

And when my life is stressed, from all the change, and the fear, and the loss, and the feelings that threaten to swallow me whole, sometimes it helps to find a place to cuddle, snuggle underneath a soft, fleecy blanket.

They may not be readers … but they’re pretty smart.

An Advent Adventure

snowy fieldThe kids leaped out of the car before it came to a complete standstill. I had been gone nearly a week, including an unexpected 48 hours holed up at my friend’s house. We spent the whole day inside, baking and overloading on an entire season of “The Paradise” on PBS. I had planned to spend the day traveling home. Instead I spent it curled up under a blanket, drinking tea and watching the snow swirl past my friend’s picture window.

On the way home, I thought about what a tremendous gift I had just received — a full 24 hours of absolute peace and quiet. I couldn’t bake, or wrap presents, or shop, or clean, or do any of the things I normally do on the weekend. All my plans went blowing on the proverbial wind. And it was wonderful.

Yesterday was Rose Sunday. In years past I’ve hosted a special tea the third Sunday of Advent, inviting a small group of girlfriends to take time out from the hustle-bustle of Christmas preparation. But this year, there would be no traditional chocolate poundcake. No beautiful table set with Royal Doulton china. No fussing or cleaning. Just a crackling wood stove and the aroma of Russian teacakes.

How’s your advent going? Have you had any unexpected adventures this week?