Learned Tenderness

Jesse holding FaithWhen you have spent the better part of 10 years telling your child to be gentle, it is no small feat to have him lay prone on the floor and pet with one hand the tiny new life you’ve brought into the house.  (As to this new life?  Well, I’ve not gone daft and had another baby, but I do suppose we’re pitching BRAVO for our own reality show.  Because who else brings into their lives – one already full of horses, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and hermit crabs – such a thing as a puppy unless your life is crazy to the point of broadcastability?)

But it seems Noah has learned at least a little of what we’ve encouraged these many years in a life full of animals: that they are God’s creation, too, and worthy of tenderness.  Even his brother has taken to holding “Faith” (aptly, and unwittingly named by the breeder even before my brother’s death) in a less-than-man-handling way.  Borzois are known for their gentle temperament and can be shy when first making introductions.  A real change from our Texas Heeler, Zelda, Faith has proven to be every bit the breed standard, flopping down the hardwood hallway on horse-like feet, all limbs and ribs and slender head.  My brother says she looks like a velociraptor, which is a bit true.  Though she will make tentative advances to my rough sons, they have learned kindness with her after years and years and long, hard years of asking them how it would feel if THEY were squeezed or pinched or hit?  Which tells me that in some way, their “mind blindness” can be overcome – not internally perhaps, but with the power of repetition and committed parenting.

It brings me such joy to see this learned tenderness because it is one of the few instances in which the “getting through” to them is visible.  Noah will still wear his pajamas to school if not reminded to change, and Jesse still panics when he cannot hear my voice, and there are all the trappings of a life on the spectrum for them both, but here, the Lord’s presence is tangible, and I am encouraged.  I remember reading Eustacia Cutler’s memoir, “Thorn in My Pocket,” about her life with Temple Grandin, and about how she was committed to sameness in her parenting, instructing her daughter in the proper way no matter what neurological construct prevented a natural inclination toward it.  So that is where we head.  Most importantly, because we are told to train up our children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6).  And they haven’t departed from it.  At least not here.  For once.

So our hearts are glad.

-          Sarah

Contact: Sarah@chosenfamilies.org

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Handle It

Jesse ran screaming to dad:

“Grace is not letting me play the Play Station!!!”

Dad bent himself over the bannister and yelled downstairs,

“Grace! You are to let Jesse have an equal turn on the Play Station!”

Jesse harrumphed and stomped hard – twice – on the ground.

“THAT’S how you’re going to HANDLE IT?”

Yes, it was.  What was HIS suggestion?  A summit for universal house-peace?

They run screaming to us every day, sounding a bit like:

“Noah used all the milk – HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO EAT MY CEREAL!”

“WHYYYYYYY do I have to let the dogs out – Grace was supposed to do that!”

“Grace just punched me in the arm!”  Retort: “Well, that’s because Jesse called me STUPID!”

All we do is handle it, it seems.  More than one in the room means no peace in the house.  All these fights pour in like waves on our heads, and we yell, we plead, we cajole.  We separate, negotiate.  We work with what we have, which most times seems like very little.  I whisper sometimes, thinking that the low tone will get them to stop simply because they’re curious as to what I have to say, because it’s an interruption in the cadence of their brawling.  Like a shaman whispering a healing that never comes.  Noah usually shoots, “SPEAK UP!”  And then everyone is back to yelling.

Do everyone’s kids fight like this?  Are their houses packed-stadium loud?  Do other parents bite their lips when the school bus unloads its cargo and their children are chasing each other down the driveway, hurling insults?

My nieces are quiet, as are my friends’ children.  The little playmates that come to visit us are as mousy as can be.  Is the comparative loudness of our kids some function of a lapse in parenting, or are there genetics at work here that we can’t ever contain?  Noah is – Noah has always been – the fire starter.

His mien is angry of late.  As he grows older, he seems to grow crueler.  Or maybe there is no safety in his mind when he comes home from the chaos of school and his siblings invade that part of his environment (his h0me) that ought to be calm.  I can guarantee his four-year-old brother doesn’t do much to make for a quiet house.  Jesse set himself to screaming the other day because he was trying to create the wrestling cage from a WWE match on his iPad in Minecraft: “I CAN’T MAKE THE CELL!”  I am plumbing this question now, and haven’t an answer.

Noah cannot even be served dinner without serving some snarling contempt right back.

“Mom – you KNOW I hate rice!  Ugh!” (shoving plate away) “Forget it.  I’m not going to eat!”

I’m tired today.  There are no quiet days here.  Why do people only have a single child?

Oh honey, I’m sure I know the answer to that one.  Now, I do.

My hands aren’t big enough to push kids to their respective corners and keep them there.  So Lord, can you help us handle it?  I don’t know how.

anger management

- Sarah

Contact: Sarah@chosenfamilies.org

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(Un)Common Core

 

This is how it is.

This is how it is.

I am working with a conservative policy organization right now.  A little “side thing,” that turned out to be a very big thing by the nature of how far the issue around which I base my work, stretches.  It stretches (to date) 45 states wide.  My work for them involves addressing education, and in particular, Common Core State Standards – that nightmare of a federal land-grab brought to us by the same administration that proffered healthcare.gov.  It is a nightmare about which I can give you 10,000 words worth of dialogue – which represents about how much research-based writing I’ve done on it thus far.  In the course of four weeks.  Without even really trying.  Because everyone from union bosses to tea party activists realizes it’s the worst educational debacle since “No Child Left Behind,” and the work is just pouring in.

I endeavor to reserve further discussion because this isn’t a political blog, but one designed specifically to help families dealing with hidden disabilities in their lives.  I will simply say that today, for my son with Asperger’s, my non-neurotypical, out-of-the box, un-common son, Common Core came home.

Today was Maryland state testing day – the first of two.  And, as the state has bought into the idea of Common Core – their obedience purchased by the government with “No Child Left Behind” testing waivers and a cut of $4.3 billion in federal funding – the curriculum in our state is new this year, and pulled from materials that are deemed “core approved.”  I held my breath as I sent Noah out the door today, yelling after him,

“Don’t worry honey – you’re not being graded on this!  I love you so much!  Just try your best!”

This, because I’ve heard horror stories of children in other states bursting into tears, vomiting, and even getting nosebleeds from their experiences with Common Core assessments.  This, because I feared very much that my son’s panic button would be pressed and he would utterly lose it after three hours of testing in an environment where not even questions of clarification could be answered.

Thanks be to God, the opposite happened.

“So, how did it go?”

“Good, good.”

Like Mr. Rogers.  This is the top-line, every day, for every question, unless-you-dig-answer.  And dig I did.

“Okay buddy, tell me all about it.  I want to hear.”

“Well, there were some questions that I didn’t know the answers to, so I just put down anything.  And then some questions where there were two right answers.  And then the last question on page seven was about how many points the basketball team had scored in the fourth quarter, and I KNOW the answer was zero, but there wasn’t an option for zero.  So I just put whatever.  Then, I just put my head down on the desk and slept, because the questions were ridiculous, and I fell asleep, and the kids told me I was snoring.  When the timer went off, it was a cow noise [his teacher likes cows], and I jumped out of my chair, and the kids started laughing.  I laughed a little, too.

Then at the breaks, we got to run down the ramp in the school near the music room, since no one was playing their instruments, and we could run down as quick as we could to get energized.

Finally, we did the third section, and this time, I didn’t fall asleep or snore…The worst part of the tests was no talking – not even to the teacher – and the final page in the third section, because it was really hard and I didn’t know the answer.  Actually, a ton of times I didn’t know the answer, even though I used my tools for most of it.”

So he’d hit the wall, and instead of imploding, he’d simply decided to take a nap.  I whispered a silent prayer of gratitude.

Here’s the kicker:

The tests today weren’t Common Core assessments.  They were the old MSA standards.

Oh no.

He’d hit the wall on the standardized tests of the old curriculum, and we haven’t even gotten to the new PARCC (core-aligned) assessments yet.  Dear Lord, give a mother strength.

My son is not common.  He does not bend to a standard or a platform; he cannot be shoehorned into an agenda, and I guarantee you that when he is assessed according to Common Core tests next school year, he will throw the county numbers out of whack because no one – nowhere – among the Common Core proponents has attended to the needs of developmentally delayed children – children who may not (likely won’t) shine on a standardized test, nor within a “standardized,” abstract, theoretical, explain your-answer-to-show-your-critical-thinking-process-and-don’t-bother-memorizing-things curriculum.  In fact, Noah was asked to explain his answer on one particular Common Core math question this year.  His answer,

“I just thought, and thought, and BAM!  It was in my head!”

How do you explain critical thinking to someone who interprets everything literally and suffers from mind blindness?

I say this to those mothers and fathers, those brothers and sisters, those precious educators whose classroom creativity will be sacrificed at the expense of making our children little “global workers,” who will be forced into the reading of scripts because the curriculum is guided by standards that are soon-to-be-identical in every state, that I HEAR YOU.  My heart goes out to you.  I applaud your fighting for the “little guy,” for the kid who doesn’t get what’s going on around him because he literally believes his animals are talking to him – let alone that among four addition sentences and a picture of some blocks, there is actually a related “subtraction sentence.”  Oh yes.  This is an actual PARCC question.

I pray for Noah next year – that the tests and curriculum don’t get the better of him.  And I trust that no matter the outcome, the Lord will use us to prove to Noah that he is worthy, that he is smart, that his way of thinking is perfectly fine because it is the way God made him.

And that – no matter his score – he is forever loved.

-          Sarah

Contact: Sarah@chosenfamilies.org

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Pillow Talk

It was just a pillow.  Never in the history of all mankind, I am certain, has something as simple as a pillow caused so much discord between spouses. The reason for the fight?  That thing was solid as a stone wall.  And neither one of us wanted it.

Last year, Matt and I finally relinquished our sagging mattress to a Tempur-pedic bed.  The promise of a good night’s sleep and the backing of “doctors everywhere” were highly persuasive.  We don’t sleep nearly enough as it is, considering the constant interruptions from the night wanderings of a passel of tiny trolls, but we thought we might contribute better to the sleep we WERE getting by upping the mattress quality.  It cost us an arm and a leg.

“For our health!” we reasoned.

In conjunction with this purchase, we were convinced by the saleswoman that the best accompaniment to our purchase was a set of Tempur-pedic pillows.  These pillows came in a variety of firmnesses.  (If “firmnesses” is not a word, I just made it one.  So there).

We both opted for “soft.”  Considering you can’t even jump on the bed without feeling like you’ve hit a door, we decided we needed something with a little more give to it.  What came back from the factory was one “soft” pillow and one “suitable as a car jack, or as a levee in case of a flood” pillow.  Wanting to wrap the process up and not wait for another pillow (patience not having ever being a virtue of mine), I told the salesperson, “Oh, it’s no problem.  I’ll take that one!”

I’m good like that.  Kind, sacrificial like that.  I beamed at Matt.

Matt was wary.  As it turns out, he was so for very good reasons.  I had no idea what sleeping on that thing would actually be like.  The first time I put my head down (or rather, let it drop too hastily), I told Matt I needed an Advil.  I’ve hit open refrigerator doors and didn’t hurt that much.

So began the struggle for pillow domination.  With matching pillowcases, I could slip Matt’s off his side of the bed and onto mine.  Every time one of us slept on it, we woke up with back pain, neck pain, cramped muscles, or all of the above.  I had a good mind to call the company and tell them that whatever doctors were backing this Tempur-pedic stuff needed to spend a night on their own material and get their facts straight.  But I didn’t.  I was chicken.  Plus, I’d actually said I WANTED the harder pillow.  Like a moron.

Matt – reasoning that I spend a lot of my time feeling unwell, particularly when I’m in a flare – finally offered up the pillow.  For good.  I was so touched, that I promised not to use the hard one in a pillow fight against him anymore.  The one and only time that had happened, Matt buckled to his knees.  All 6’1″ 250 pounds of him.  It was a heck of a pillow.

From that point, Matt dumped the thing onto the ground every night in order to get some sleep, retrieving one of the lumpy, old synthetic pillows from its place of retirement in the downstairs linen closet.  But when he naps (which he loves to do – I am convinced he is part bear the way he loves to hibernate) – he slides the soft pillow back to his side of the bed, and thus go the next ninety minutes or so because his sleep is so restful.  As it should be, when you sleep on an unreasonably expensive pillow, hard OR soft.

So there, on the floor, the brick-solid pillow lay.  Until one day I saw Noah pushing his fist into it.

pillow talk

“I like this.”

Matt and I watched him.

“Yes, it looks like it.”

“Can I have this pillow?  Because if I do,” (mashing his fists into it, folding it in half, kneeling on it) “I won’t beat Jesse up as much.”

I didn’t even care that he’d qualified his statement with as much.  All I heard was the first part: “I won’t beat Jesse up.”

“YES!”   I lept up.   “Absolutely, honey!  Let me get you a fresh pillowcase for it!”  I went flying down the hall.  When I came back I shot Matt a look.  It was a look that said: “See?  I get all his quirkiness AND I just saved us the money on that pillow because someone actually WANTS it!  It’s like the blue body sock, baby!  I’m actually figuring this thing out!”

So the pillow, moldable as a piece of clay, conforms every night to Noah’s head – after he’s had a good squeeze on it.  Jesse watches from his bed, spared, for now.  Until Noah starts to complain the pillow is giving him a headache.  Then we’ll be in trouble.

- Sarah

Contact: Sarah@chosenfamilies.org

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Little Pitchers

I have no idea where the term “little pitchers” came from.  Pitchers, like kids, hold onto a lot I suppose?  I do know I put the term to good use with the other grownups in my life when one of my three comes rolling in during the re-telling of a story with adult language or themes (not that it’s a Tarantino movie around here or anything).  But the older my children get, the more I find things – undesirable things, embarrassing things – coming back to me.

Yesterday, Jesse and I made the gathering of the multitudes of laundry from all corners of the house into a game.  I was smirking at my own brilliance – I have yet to fully capitalize on this mini-army of child workers of mine.  And by capitalize, I mean “get them to listen,” and by “workers” I mean “doing anything other than playing the iPad or the PlayStation.”  I was so happy to be working in harmony with Jesse as we dragged full hampers to the laundry room, I started in on a little military boot-camp chant:

“I don’t know what I’ve been told!  Jesse’s cute and really bold!  He’s working hard and really fast! We love to wash and – “

Jesse: “KICK YOUR A4$%!”

This was followed by hysterical laughter.  Jesse is four.  F-O-U-R.  He is too young to sound like Honey Boo-Boo.

Oh Lord, help me.

How does a mouth this cute emit something so ugly?

How does a mouth this cute emit something so ugly?

This kind of language is in part due to my children’s attendance at public school.  No longer are my children issued demerits for bad language, as they were at last year’s Christian academy.  No longer are my children reminded that bad language hurt’s God’s heart.  Also, there is the “flow down” effect of Noah and his older classmates – the ones who are surfing YouTube faster than I can lock the computer down, the ones so recently motivated by what is cool and what kind of language they feel will make them “belong.”  And, not to pull an Eve here and shirk my own personal responsibility, but Jesse’s father has been known to let a few colorful words fly every now and again.

My mother in law knows this all too well.  When I picked her up from the airport a few years back when Noah himself was only four, we heard amidst our chatting:

“Oh f$%& it, Gran!”

I nearly ran us off the road.

I choked out an explanation: “Mom, I can assure you he did NOT hear that from me!”

She looked straight ahead, her mouth in a tight line.  “Well he’s certainly never heard it from me.”

“That only leaves one person,” I blurted.  “YOUR SON!”

I shouldn’t have thrown him under the bus like that.  All I can say is that the serpent made me do it.

What I realized in ankle-deep kids clothes yesterday was that there is not a thing my children see or hear that doesn’t register in the tiny, open spaces of their growing hearts.  What they witness, what they hear contributes to the formula of what makes them up.  Every rule and edict we give them is diluted with inconsistency if we don’t live ourselves the very things we tell them to practice.

“Train up a child in the way he should go.  Even when he is old he will not depart from it.”  (Proverbs 22:6) (NASB)

I find myself apologizing a lot to them lately.  “I shouldn’t have said that.”  “Mommy made a mistake here.”  It is the only way I have found to catch my mistakes before they fester into a kind of spiritual leniency, a leniency that proves harder to undo the older they get.

That conviction’s a heck of a thing.

Sarah

Contact: Sarah@chosenfamilies.org

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Cold as Ice

snow pictureThe thing about snow is that it’s bigger than us.  It covers the whole of our visible world with itself.  It spans our horizon, it covers everything we know.  Which is why we love it so much.

The kids pray for it, talk about it, angst over whether their schools will be closed, or delayed.

Matt and I lay in bed laughing above the open vent where we can hear all their conversations, where the dialogue is something like:

Noah: “I hope we’re off tomorrow.  I want to go outside and play.  And I’m going to download a new game to the iPad.  And I’m going to sleep late.”

Jesse: “I’m going to make a snow LOBSTER!”

Matt and I are punching each other’s arms under the covers, giggling because one of the many quirks of this old house is the perfect way in which the sound travels upward like a waft of smoke through a chimney.   We hear the boys’ plans and semi-quiet scheming, and for a moment we think about how little we were once, too.  It’s as if we also have a snow day.

Noah and Jesse love the pressure of the hard, crunchy snow on their bodies, and they love the feel of it against their faces as they are towed behind the 4-wheeler on the flat, slippery sled Matt tows.  They screech with laughter, and for as long as they last, they can scream as loud as they want and no one reprimands them.  I am glad for snow days, where the whole of the outside world is cold as ice and our small space is warm with fires and popcorn and our communion.  I love that on these days that are cold as ice, I bring my children in toward myself and hold them under my wings, as God has taught me how (Psalms 91:4).

I am a child born of Wisconsin, in the month of January, of Scottish and Icelandic and English descent.  Cold runs in my blood.  So on these days, cold as ice and dubbed with the nomenclature of “Polar Vortex;” those days that have become the harbinger of dreams for school children the country over, I love the smallness of my children in the vastness of this storm.  I am grateful for how the white expanse reminds me of the order of a universe I do not control.  I love the large white-ness of a storm bigger than us, and one that brings us together.

I love these things, cold as ice.

-          Sarah

Contact: Sarah@chosenfamilies.org

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These Hands

When I was younger, my mother would sometimes take my hand in hers and turn it from side to side.

“You have the most beautiful hands,” she would say.  “Long, thin fingers.  Lovely nails.  So feminine.”

“Mom,” I would retort, “I’d like to thank you for the genetics that made them possible. They’re your hands, really.”

“Oh my hands?  My mother called them ‘capable.’  They are a worker’s hands,” she’d respond.

For they were.  They were knitting hands, and gardening hands, and cooking hands.  They were baby-holding hands, and candle-making hands, and hands that played piano and rubbed grubby faces with soapy water.

My hands – those on which my mother would comment – were twenty-something hands.  They were hands with professionally manicured nails, absent of scars or dry skin and the crookedness of once-healed bones.  They were easy hands, used to typing, holding drinks, applauding at concerts.  They were indeed lovely, but they were far less capable than my mother’s.

Now, my (very nearly) forty-year-old hands are something altogether different.  The skin is more wrinkled, the joints predominant.  There are three scars I can easily find.  These hands have not sported long nails in over a decade.  Once you start to push little people out of your body, thus begins the long, sacrificial road of personal overgrowth.  The nails are the first to go.  Later, you will go on to perhaps let your hair run amok, and if you really don’t keep an eye on things, you may also realize your eyeglass prescription is now totally useless, and the last time you had dental work was when your nine year old was a five-year-old and you managed a two-fer dentist appointment before his kindergarten enrollment medical records were complete.  So it will not surprise you that at least three of your molars are killing you.

An (almost) old lady's hands.

An (almost) old lady’s hands.

These hands, now?  Well, they’ve been exposed to nearly every kind of domestic animal excrement you can imagine.  Horse, dog, cat, fish, guinea pig, goat, donkey, you name it.  They have also been exposed to the human variety.  Poop is, of course, the detritus of infancy.  But even though he is nearly five, I dread Jesse’s pronouncement that “I gotta go poop!” because it will be followed shortly thereafter by an equally loud, “MOM! CAN YOU WIPE MEEEEEEE?”

These hands now show knuckles that belie their age.  They look arthritic, because they are.  When I am in a flare, the joints swell so that I cannot wear my wedding rings.  These hands are unadorned.  These hands now show the wear and tear of age-related clumsiness: the nick of a carving knife, the bruise of a car door.  They show the scratch from a piece of horse tack hastily assembled (I do nothing slowly, or with relaxation), or the indentation of a bite from one animal or another.

This hand, courtesy of a horse who decided to break part of it.

This hand, courtesy of a horse who decided to break part of it.

 

But these hands, oh these capable hands.  I would not trade them, not for the Gwyneth Paltrow version, not for a thousand free manicures.  I care less now about what these hands look like, and more about what they can do.

These hands have held babies in soapy water, and wiggled toes the size of grains of rice.  These hands have fought with car seat buckles and stroller hinges.  They have taken notes on IEP’s and held a husband’s hand on the walk back to the house from the barn, which is what amounts to “quality time”  these days.  These hands have pressed the keys on phone pads to dial up a “maybe” friend for one of mine who is steeped in awkward isolation.  They have petted fevered foreheads, and picked at buried splinters, and carried sports equipment, and into them have slipped the little hands of the youngest one in the middle of the night when he needs a comforting only these hands can bring.  These hands have carried bodies of children that are heavy as anvils when they fall asleep in the wrong place.  They have carried art projects light as air with glued-on glitter and feathery additions.   These hands have reached out to squeeze hands that do not want to be held on the days that change our history; and they did, on the day we learned – nay, were TOLD – that autism would be our forever friend.

This hand was held on that day.

This hand was held on that day.

Oh, these capable hands.  Thank you, God, for all they hold.

-          Sarah

Contact: Sarah@chosenfamilies.org

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Little Boy Blue

Creepy, but effective.

Creepy, but effective.

In the chaos of Christmas, when the paper is flying, and you’re watching all the effort you’ve lovingly invested into the presentation of gifts become airborne in a shower of ribbon and tissue, and your oldest is starting to freak out and yell at you because things aren’t moving quickly enough for him and he is crying because there must be, THERE HAS TO BE! a bigger box at the back of the tree into which someone has packed the PlayStation he has tormented you for this entire season, there is only one thing to do.

Zip him into a body suit and back away.

This is what saved Christmas.

I mean, not literally. There is the meaning of Christmas.  There is its eternality, and the hope of someone Bigger than us giving us His greatest gift, and the love that binds us together when we’re forced to share living space for a week with out of town relatives (especially when you run out of toilet paper).  There’s that, too.  But what actually saved Christmas morning looked more like something from the coroner’s office than something you’d love finding under the tree.  But I raised my hands in a silent Hallelujah when Noah pulled it from the gift bag because I knew what would happen next.  If I’m being honest, I was also raising my hands in a “I TOLD YOU!” gesture to my husband, who suggested, tactfully, that perhaps a lycra body suit wasn’t on every 9-year-old’s wish list.

Noah’s eyes were welling with tears and each little thing – a sweater, or a board game – was sending his anxiety skyward.  I could hear his brain churning, “What if I don’t get it! Oh no! I told Santa I wanted it! And if I don’t get it, then that means Santa doesn’t really exist, and if he doesn’t exist, they’ve been lying to me the whole time, and I am the victim of a great and terrible conspiracy! Alternatively, if I don’t get it, I have been bad this year, not good! And I am a terrible person who is UNWORTHY OF A PLAYSTATION! AAAAAARGHH!”  This is how it goes.  Little bit upset, mind out of control, a lot bit upset, repeat.  So I grabbed the package with the body suit in it.

Noah took it out and quietly fingered the heavy lycra material.  Then he noticed the Velcro front.  He did not need to be instructed on what to do next.  Wordlessly, he unhooked the tabs, and stepped in.  Then he asked if I would close it up.  And when I did, Noah got down onto the floor – right there in the living room among the fireplace and the presents, over the smell of coffee and the sound of laughter, in the midst of every stimulant that had sent his nervous system into overdrive – and he curled up into a little ball and was quiet.

That was how the body sock saved Christmas.

Now it sits in a heavy puddle in his desk drawer for easy access.  Sometimes, I find Noah inside it, completely enclosed, playing the iPad.  It is among his most treasured possessions because it told him – without telling him – that I knew what he needed.  It told my little boy in the blue body suit that without a specific request from him, I could give him the thing he wanted most: a quiet, darkened space that would help him find level space for his always-running mind.  For that, I thank the Lord and the intuition with which He has so graciously bestowed me.

I also thank Amazon.com.

Happy New Year!

-          Sarah

Contact: Sarah@chosenfamilies.org

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Courage, With Us.

This is Christmas.

This is Christmas.

On a pre-Christmas Saturday, Matt and I have chucked conventional wisdom and taken all three children to run some errands.  Into a suburban WalMart we’ve pressed ourselves against the tide of people moving in the opposite direction, and I remember there that the kids need Christmas cards to exchange with their peers.  Finding an inexpensive box of cards with beautiful artwork and a few designs for each of the kids, I show them to Noah.

“Here, bud.  I just got a box of cards for you and Grace to hand out during your parties.”

Noah scans the box, and then opens it to peruse the messages inside.  They are all spiritual in nature: “May God bless you this Christmas!” and “Let us rejoice – the Lord is come!”

Noah closes the box and hands it back to me.  Then he lowers his head, but turns up the corner of his mouth at me like he’s Jimmy Cagney.  He doesn’t want to be heard.

“Mom, I don’t like these cards.  I want something with Santa on it.  Or a snowman.”

“Why, honey?  These are great cards!”

But I know his answer before he even utters it.  Before this boy – who is spending his first year in public school, who has been reminded by the administration he cannot talk about God, who is anxious to his core as a function of his autism and his personality – before he can tell me, I know.

“Because Mom, not everyone believes in God, and I don’t like these cards because they might make people mad.”

We are in WalMart, and I keep losing the little one behind me because he is distracted by all the toys, and Grace wants to make her case for pierced ears this year as she passes the jewelry, and Dad is on a mission to find a Christmas tree for under $100, and then there is this, with Noah.

I take a deep breath.

“Noah, why do we celebrate Christmas?”

“Because of Jesus’ birth.”

“Right.  That’s what that manger scene in our dining room is, right?”

He doesn’t answer.  I don’t want to patronize him – and in an effort to simplify things for him in an often-frightening world, I realize what comes through is sometimes something closer to baby talk.  So I say the hard thing:

“Noah, it doesn’t matter if other people don’t believe in God.  It doesn’t matter if other people don’t believe Jesus was God’s Son.  We believe it, and we want to wish everyone God’s blessing during Christmas.  Jesus is at the Center of Christmas.  Not snowmen, not Santa.  Nothing else.”

“But mom, I’m scared.”

I hear him say this to me, and my own heart repeats it.  I have spent so much of my own life being “scared” because of my faith.  I was terrified of the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

Go.  Make disciples.  Teach them to obey.

Fear, anxiety, rejection, confrontation!! ACK!!

And then there are “other” Christians – the ones that make it so hard to fulfill the great Commission because they ensure we are met with contempt and scorn and accusations of theology-wide hypocrisy.  The ministry leaders who have affairs, the pastors who embezzle, the churchgoers with their “God hates fags” signs, the pro-lifers who bomb clinics, the ones with the vitriol and hatred.  The sinners.  Like me.

I blow it most of the time, this attempt toward righteousness, this endeavor to live as Christ-like as I can.  But I have tried to live so that others might see my light and glorify my Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)  Most people I know recognize that I’m a Christian.  To God be the Glory.

But at Christmas, I am bolder with my faith.  Christmas is about the God I serve.  And for a brief moment, the rest of the world – even in passing, even without accepting – must recognize His presence.  It is a time when, to quote my favorite Christian author, “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.” (C.S. Lewis)

Oh come, oh come Emmanuel.  “Emmanuel” meaning, “God with us.”  Meaning, God loved us enough to send His only to be with us, to love us, to die for us, to make a way for us.  Meaning, I will wish others a “Merry Christmas,” I will send Christmas cards with scripture, set my manger in a visible place.  Meaning, I will buy the cards that proclaim the birth of Jesus for my son’s Christmas party, and I will teach him to have courage, too.  Because God is with anxious him and me, both.

-          Sarah

Contact: Sarah@chosenfamilies.org

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Fail

keep calm and clear customsOur treatment of the mentally ill in the United States is legit crazy.

Let me start by saying this: writing is the great refuge of introverts.  As Kafka wrote once, “Writing is utter solitude,” and its exercise is a great comfort for people like me who are happiest in front of a plain white screen than in front of a room full of people.  Writing is also where I’m bravest, and while I normally reserve political commentary (choosing instead to discuss only matters of the heart), I will today share with you a little bit of my current righteous indignation related to an op-ed piece that recently appeared in the New York Times.

Ellen Richardson, a Canadian woman was recently denied entry to the United States because she had been hospitalized for depression in 2012.  Before her entry, she was required to obtain medical clearance from one of three doctors approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  Her reason for visiting?  She was on her way to New York, where she had intended to board a cruise to the Caribbean.  Border authorities quoted a portion of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows patrols to block people from visiting the United States if they have a physical or mental disorder that threatens anyone’s “property, safety or welfare.” Find the Act’s full text here.

How her medical diagnosis was retrieved by authorities remains questionable.  A long-ago 911 call to police based on a suicide attempt in 2001 may have set off the investigation.  However the final version of the federal health care stimulus bill negotiated by the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate includes a provision creating a federal database that will hold the personal medical records of every American.  If the database isn’t already in place, it soon will be.

The fact that Ms. Richardson’s depression diagnosis was relevant at all to her passage through this country is what raises the hair on the back of my neck.

Here is the unbalanced truth about the mentally ill in the United States:  state standards for institutionalization of the mentally ill remain inappropriately geared toward personal liberty unless the mentally ill individual is essentially holding a gun to someone’s head at the time of commitment.  That leaves many who are in desperate need of care on the street, or in a potentially explosive situation.  Adam Lanza was the perfect candidate for institutionalization, but the ACLU was instrumental in recently ensuring that Connecticut’s SB452 bill for “assisted outpatient treatment” was defeated before it could help him. (See http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2012/12/16/Recently-Defeated-Connecticut-Mental-Health-Bill-May-Have-Stopped-Friday-s-Shooter.)  This treatment may have led to his institutionalization, and ultimately, the prevention of one of our nation’s greatest tragedies.

The same country failing to adequately treat the mentally ill is also blocking them at the border through articulation of the same standard, and according to the whims of the customs officers who happen to be perusing medical records that day.  So apparently we won’t institutionalize the mentally ill because of their right to privacy, but we’ll fail to admit them to the U.S. by invading that very same privacy right?

Even when a state’s involuntary commitment laws appear in theory to protect those most at risk, they don’t always do their job.  Take the recent attack on Virginia Senator Creigh Deeds by his son who – after stabbing his father – went on to kill himself.  While institutionalized under an emergency protective order the previous day, he was released due to a lack of beds in the psychiatric hospital.  http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/11/21/virginia-looking-into-treatment-creigh-deeds-son-before-stabbing-attack/

Our mentally ill are not only stigmatized – injury enough, I believe – but they are the victims of a great hypocrisy: they are not enough of a concern for proper medical treatment, but are apparently enough of a threat to be turned away at the borders.

Pray for our leaders.  Because frankly, our mental health system is – to quote those YouTube, Twittering millennials – an utter and #epicfail.

-          Sarah

Contact: Sarah@chosenfamilies.org

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