Friday, July 31, 2009

Blessed Be Your Name

When I have news, I call my Mamaw.

This is just how it is. Some people call their moms. Some people call their sisters. Me, I call my Mamaw.

I like the fact that no matter what time of day I call, I can lean into the receiver and catch--in just a few seconds of air space--the ambiance that gives me a complete picture of what I'm missing. The hum of a fan? She's in the kitchen, flour-dusted apron tied 'round her ample front, heavy black cast iron skillets sprawling on the stove top. Stillness? She's leaned back in her salmon-colored LA-Z-Boy napping with my Papaw at her side in his own, toffee-toned chair. The rumble of a train approaching? She's on the front porch, a too-tall tumbler of iced tea at her side and her Frank's Funeral Home paper fan spread out on her lap, waiting for action.

On Wednesday, it was very hot. Hot enough to break our local record. Hot enough, apparently, for a homeschooling family down the street to test the "fry an egg on the sidewalk" notion. Hot enough, in other words, to be news.

So I picked up the phone in a quiet moment and called my Mamaw.

In the second it took for the ringing to stop and my Mamaw's voice to be heard, there was a still silence. Ah, I smiled. Nap time. I conjured images of my Mamaw tilted back with her feet in the air, her Bible open on her chest, mouth slightly agape. This is how she naps. This is how she has napped for the 28 years of my grandfather's retirement: fully, deeply, with no aspirations of anything but total rest.

"Hell-uh," she answered.

And immediately, I knew that something was not right. Because when you know someone well enough to taste the flavor of their day in the space of a simple word, you can feel such things.

I did not ask immediately what was wrong. Hear my heart here and know this: there are things too fearsome of which to speak. Things grown-ups hide from. Things you will cover over with small-talk about the weather, the babies ... anything but the silence that will invite the bad news to come.

"It's hot here. Real hot. You watched the weather station?" I rushed, slipping comfortably into the accent and speech pattern that makes my children wrinkle their noses.

"I seen it," she told me, her voice still distant. "Over a hundred. And you with no air." My grandmother suffered through thirty years of no air conditioner, and she counts it among one of life's greatest luxuries.

"Yeah. It's 90 degrees in my house right now."


Then, pinching my eyes closed so that I could shut out the whirling madness of the fans around me, I asked.

"What's wrong?"

"Bad news, Baby," she croaked, using the family name that has followed me into my coming middle age. I didn't have to hear the rest, but she had to tell it. Our prayers had gone unanswered. The surgery she'd endured just a few weeks before to rid her body of the cancer clutching her insiders had failed to free her. Radiation would be necessary.

"No." I didn't just think it, I said it. Because when our hearts kick against our chests and our tears want to come crashing out, we let meaningless words stand guard. "No."

"That's what the doctor said." Her voice was small and quiet, like a child explaining something they would rather not.

I had looked up the odds when the first announcement had come. Good odds. As long as the surgery makes headway, you're home free, the websites said. So I put my hope in YAHWEH first, the surgery second, and my Mamaw's fierce reputation as a fighter third.

I prayed as hard as I ever have. God, please heal her. Please, make her better. Please, let her be o.k.

And for a few short, sweet days, I listened on the other end of the phone line and felt as if the prayers of hundreds of His people had been answered. My grandmother was one of those blessed to dodge the bullet. She's fine. It worked.

Except that it didn't.

I told my Mamaw on the phone that I'm not ready to let her go. That I love her too much to imagine a world where all of the memories we share just between us two are held in my mind alone. We prayed together--a wet, choking prayer on my end that the Holy Spirit took to the throne. My grandmother's voice held firm and fast:

"Father, you know I don't want this. I was lookin' forward to a few more good years on this nice earth that you give us. But if I'm comin' home, then I'm comin' home. Your will, Jesus."

Your will, Jesus.

Shortly after my most painful miscarriage--the one in January '06-- I had a profound, awful, amazing worship experience. As my church family raised their voices to "Blessed Be Your Name," I found myself on my knees, unable to even give voice to the lyrics that so clearly spoke what was between my heart and the Lord's:

Blessed Be Your name
When I'm found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name

Every blessing You pour out
I'll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say

Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name

I wasn't sure I could ever stand again in the presence of such a mighty, powerful, good and just God. The carpet bit my knees as I cowered and cried out to Him. Every hurt of the past month washed over me as my church family sang the words for me.

Talking to my grandmother brought me back to that place. If you've ever hurt in places words alone can not heal, then you know the place I'm talking about. The aching, raw spots that God's hands alone can reach. The place where you truly end ... and He begins.

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name

The Lord gives. Oh, does He give. I hold in my arms and heart two beloved little boys given to us only through the grace and healing joy of Jesus. A good measure. Pressed down. Overflowing.

But He also takes away. And someday--maybe soon-- He will call my Mamaw to Him. She will go with great celebration: the life of a woman whose prayer warrior reputation precedes her into heaven rejoiced over. She will wait for me and for countless others that she has led to Christ with her patient, quiet witness, her tending of the sick and her visiting of the shut-in.

She will sing again. She will be free. Oh, how I long to see that day. The day when the ravages of age slip away, and I can look into her clear eyes again. A day when maybe, if heaven is what I think it is, I will taste her chicken and dumplings again and not feel guilty for all the pain her arthritis caused her as she labored, hunched over a hot stove just to see my delight in her skills.

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name

Man does not know the hour. But truthfully, even if I did, I would be no more ready to let my Mamaw go to a place where I can not call her when it's too hot, or a child says something cute, or I need a recipe. Maybe this is why God doesn't bother letting us in on His timing. What good would it do our selfish hearts, after all?

I'm trying, right now, to be ready. I'm praying--constantly, day and night--that His hand of healing holds fast over my Mamaw. I'm asking for twenty more years with this woman who is so much to me.
But oh, I'll take whatever you have to give, Jesus. Just ... not today.

But the day will come, of course. Now, or 10 years on. It's coming. And when it does, I need to hit my knees, then find my way back to standing. Because He gives and takes away. But my heart must choose to seek my Creator's face and choose to say, "Blessed be Your name!"

Monday, July 27, 2009


A friend in NC so kindly pointed out that my whining about the heat here in the Pacific Northwest would not be tolerated.

"You know what hot is," she reminded me. "So put your big girl pants on for a whole stinking week and deal!"

She said this as she was warning her children not to go outside, mind you, because it was time for the mosquito truck to come through the neighborhood and hose the area down. If you don't live in certain areas of the south, you have no idea what I'm talking about. If you do, you're nodding your head and wondering if all that airborne crud is really so good for you after all.

Anyhow, I digress.

The point was, it's hot here. It's hot here, and there's no air conditioning. It's hot here and I can't even say the heat balances out, because I look outside and there is a decided lack of Spanish moss to be found draped on the branches of the trees.

So pardon me if I whine about the heat. I promise I'll regret my little snit sometime in February. And yes, I'm thanking my lucky stars that no one is coming by to spray my street with malathion anytime soon. But did I mention ... it's hot?

Until the heat wave breaks, you can find me in front of the fan with a glass of iced tea. I promise you, heat is made that much more bearable with a glass of sweet tea in your hand.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The homeschool garden

JULY/AUGUST--School planning. The clean slate. There are only so many hours in a day, already neatly spaced and pre-arranged for you. Consider them. Admire them ... and imagine the endless ways you can fill them with curricula and resource and amazing activities that will enrich the lives of your children.

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER-- It feels so good to have those few things that made it past the planning stages in place. You've culled the best of the best from a field crowded with resources that clamored for your attention. You've been careful.
You've only chosen the things that will work best with your family and fit your unique needs. You've left growing room--space between subjects and time to enjoy the good things that don't make it onto standardized tests. And, oh, man ... does it feel good to see those little squares of time filling up with such good stuff.

NOVEMBER/DECEMBER--Things are taking off now. You've gotten the feel of the year, and so have your kids. There have been a handful of flops pulled out already (who picked that awful science text, anyway?!) but by and large, success is the name of the game. You enthusiastically learn along with your kids and relish the f
un. Homeschooling is fantastic! It's amazing! Could it be that you only get such a limited number of years to teach your own?

JANUARY/FEBRUARY--It's kind of boring, this whole homeschooling thing. Same thing day in and day out, actually. A little too routine.You wonder what's on the other side of the fence some days. Maybe if you had selected some more exciting curriculum? You've always wanted to try unit studies. Maybe you should have
taken the plunge. Or maybe you should just put your kids in public school. That might just solve it.

MARCH/APRIL--You just have to put your nose to the grindstone and work through it sometimes, you know? You reaffirm your commitment to the hard work you've undertaken. Discipline is re-established. The children are back in the swing of things and enjoying the day-to-day. You can see the sun starting to push through
the gloom of winter. And wait a minute--is that a blossom of knowledge just just starting to open?

MAY/JUNE--How in the world did things get so out of control all at once? The school year has exploded in a fit of tangled, overlapping books and activities competing for your time. The extra-curriculars are suddenly waaaay too much. When will the
y be over, anyway? And how did you not notice all of those little extras that still need to be checked off of your list? Where has that neat, tidy little homeschool ideal gone? You need space. Margin. Let's just write this year off and get started planning for the next one. And yet ...

Look closely.

Deep in the brambles of your homeschool year.

In places you are so familiar with that you barely even examine closely anymore.


Not fully developed. Not ready to be clipped from the vine. But being nurtured, day by day, under your care.

As you set about your planning for this fall, remember that the garden we so selectively plant is still very much under the control of God. Perhaps 2009-2010 will turn out exactly as you hope. Perhaps it will be neat and orderly. Objectives will be met. Lessons will be learned. Test scores will skyrocket.

Or perhaps God has something different for you. A new baby. A child who needs more character rooting that novel reading. A marriage that could stand a deep watering. A teen who suddenly feels his life's call pressing in and asks to set aside your carefully selected books for some real education.

Be open to His plan above your own. Withstand the heat, the cold, the occasional discontent. Rejoice in the days and see His love for you in every story read and every head you can kiss as it bobs over the table (try that in a classroom).

And be ready for fruit. Lots of it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Golly, Oli

This is a typical morning with Oli:

Oli wakes up, wailing frantically. He is in his bed, safe and sound, but the sensation of crossing from sleep to wakefulness is not one he can endure without expressing his horror. So he cries. His shrieks are piercing and insistent. I rush to scoop him from his bed, hoping to get to him before he startles the three other boys sleeping nearby or works himself into such a tizzy that he is inconsolable. Once he is in my arms, he continues to thrash and scream to the sound of my voice until whatever switch is tripped and he suddenly buries his face into my shoulder and inhales his blanket mournfully, riding my hip all the way down the stairs.

The second my foot hits the floor, Oli bursts back into scream. "Hu-gree! Huuuu-greee!" He will repeat it--between wails--no matter how many times you assure him that yes, breakfast is coming. Again, he is thrashing and shouting. Twenty-five pounds of writhing unhappiness and misery, eyes wild and terror-stricken.

Before plopping him into his booster, I claim a banana from the counter and begin peeling it. This whole time I have been narrating in my most soothing voice, filling Oli's ears and maybe even his mind with the sound of my love for him. I sign one-handed as best I can. Banana. Banana. Banana. Hungry. Banana.

Finally, as I slide him into his seat, Oliver begins to understand. Food is coming. Maybe if he screams again? Once, twice? Like a freight train, the two year-old at my kitchen table shouts and cries and begs for food that he is never quite sure is coming. Not even when he sees it being offered. Not even when I hold it out. Not until the very moment he crams his mouth to overfull with a mash of bananas so thick it makes him gag. Only then can Oliver begin to understand. In this moment, he is o.k.

Seventeen months of routine, solidity, and love have not erased Oli's developmental delays. If anything, they seem more pronounced now. As he has grown older, he has made strides. But Oli is never farther than a squeak above "profoundly delayed." He stays right there, in the uncomfortable silence of "moderately delayed," existing in a pattern where a whole year of his life seems to have been erased, to have counted for nothing.

Oli is, in essence, an 18 month-old. But according to his birthdate, he will turn three in December.

I have never raised a child who did not meet milestones. While I could sympathize with women who worried over things like slow growth and sluggish cognitive development, I could not empathize. Until Oliver, my territory was that well-travelled road called "Highly Gifted." My children didn't just meet expectations, they exceeded them. Even Logan, who needed speech therapy, barely qualified when I insisted he get help at age 4. The few quirks that my kiddos had encountered were of the random variety that I now define under the heading "Not That Big of a Deal After All." Atticus' sensory stuff? Small potatoes. Logan's toe-walking? Ha! Jo's vision issues? In the same ballfield, but not quite on base.

No--I can honestly say that I wasn't the mom of a special needs kiddo until God brought Oliver into my life.

I love Oliver. Love him with a passion that surprises even me, I admit. He is sweet and kind, soft and vulnerable and--truthfully--maddening as I'll get out from time to time.

Oliver does not learn the way that most people learn. Something--alcohol exposure, most likely--robbed him of his ability to reason and retain. Guiding Oliver through the course of learning a new skill is something akin to writing on a white board, wiping it clean, writing again, wiping it clean, writing again ... and hoping, somehow, that some of it sticks.

Oliver only knows a handful of body parts--and those he only knows half the time. He gained a large signing vocabulary over a year ago and has lost most of it. The names of toys, people and places are meaningless to him. Single-step directions ("Open the book.") are sometimes too much. He imitates Manolin far more often than I'd like: walking stiff-kneed like a drunken sailor, dragging a blanket or mumbling, "Mum, mum, mum" as he pokes at the rug. The gains he makes over the months are not solid; sometimes they stick, sometimes they do not.

Some things, actually, have stuck extremely well. Oliver has been potty trained (the #1 part, at least) for a couple of months now. He can figure out how to stack blocks or balance things exceptionally well. He is wonderful when it comes to engaging with others.

And yet, every morning, he is completely mystified as to what is happening to him.

Every. morning.

There are other example, tons of them. Frankly, most of them are too heartbreaking to write about. Because the biggest shame in Oliver's situation is the fact that this was done to him. It's not just part of the package deal; it's the direct result of the sin of others. And boy, is that hard to swallow some days.

Oliver is a broken little boy. Some days he is oblivious and joyful, riding the wave of one thing he does not understand as it crests into yet another thing he can not comprehend. Other days he strains and pulls, showing us just how devastating it is to be someone whose body and mind are scarred by experiences that happened in those most defining of months.

Oliver is hard to parent. He is, as they say, a handful. There are days when I pour and pour and pour into him and feel like I get no glimpse of anything. Then there are days when he will light up and point to the front door and shout "Goose!" to indicate that he wants to play with his buddy, or point to my nose and say "no!" as he beams, happy to have finally gotten the answer in one of the incessant little games I try and educate him with.

But Oliver is a joy. A precious boy. I know that I am blessed to have him in my life; that's never been a question.

But what is a question is how Oliver's life looks as he grows up. Mr. Blandings and I talk often--usually at night, when the lights are off and we're getting ready to pray--about Oliver. What will his future hold? What can we do to best parent him? What will work? What is God leading us--and him--towards?

As usual, with Oli, there are more questions than answers. And, this, I'm learning, is the hallmark of special needs parenting. Moving forward with no clear direction at times, sprinting into the light when it presents itself, and having the faith on the journey to cling to the One who doesn't make junk.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Unequally Yoked, pt. 2

I am fairly certain that I have never agonized over a post as much as I have this one. It's been through so many edits, so many incarnations, that finally I chucked the whole thing and started anew.

My main problem in writing this post came not from what I wanted to say, nor from the comments I received regarding part one. No ... what sat heavy in my heart for over a week were the emails that flooded my inbox from distraught, broken women whose feet are still planted on the path I once walked with my own non-believing spouse.

I am not someone whose heart breaks over the most mild of things. Sure, I cry when certain songs hit me just right, or when a moment seems to freeze before my eyes and I see God's grace in it. But tearing up over the stories of women I've never even met? Not likely.

And yet I have spent over a week praying through sobs for folks whose hearts are battered, bruised and aching in the deepest, most tender places.

Years ago, without warning, I dove headfirst over the waterfall of faith. C.S. Lewis sums up my epiphany: "Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important." Christianity became infinitely important in my eyes. It was the starting and ending place for everything. But when I plunged into the Living Water, I went alone. My husband stayed on the cliff, mystified at my eagerness to jump and not willing to join me in my adventure.

Revisiting those sad days in the stories of others has brought me an even greater appreciation of the absolute gift I have in being partnered with a man who now grasps that infinite importance.

This post (and the one that will follow) is written to the women who contacted me--ashamed, lonely and confused. This post is written also to those who couldn't even bring themselves to comment on the topic--the ones who navigated away from the page in disgust, the ones who have abandoned hope of their husband ever joining them in their spiritual journey. This post is written, too, to the scores of women fortunate enough to have never been unequally yoked. Maybe there's something we can all learn from the pain of others, I figure.

Yes, Mr. Blandings came to Christ. If you were to see us in the halls of our church after a Sunday morning service, you would never guess that the cheerful, purposeful man hunting down signatures for mission fund checks in the halls once sought peace through repetitious chants as he toured a forest in soft sandals, head bowed and eyes closed to mere slits. What you would see is an eager, committed Christ-follower willing to follow his savior (and I mean this literally) to the ends of the earth. But that's only a small part of his journey.

How he got from Point A (Buddhist) to Point B (Christian) is really more his story than mine, but I will share bits of it in the hopes of encouraging those who hope for such a miracle in their own lives.

In short, Mr. Blandings was thrown hard and fast from his horse. The conversion of Paul is written in a handful of quick, intense lines in the New Testament. Not having been there, I can only imagine the chaos, the confusion and the awe. But as someone who has seen a man stripped bare to his soul by the Lord, I can also tell you that a certain amount of agony must have been involved. Because for Mr. Blandings, coming to Christ was clearly agonizing.

As someone who was raised with a background in the faith, Mr. Blandings was anything but ignorant of Jesus. But the Jesus he learned about during Religion class in high school was a huggable, soft-lit Jesus who suffered the little children and was led like a lamb to the slaughter. There was a distinct disconnect between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New, and that rift was confusing and disappointing. Buddhism was far more satisfying a venture, he felt.

Then, suddenly, I was pregnant with Logan. This was no run of the mill pregnancy. Bed rest. Hospital visits. Tours of NICU. Warnings that read like a laundry list of Things You Don't Want to Hear Associated With Your Newborn: brain bleeds, cerebral palsy, detached retinas, feeding tubes. Terror. Breathine. A quiet birth 5.5 weeks early with the dramatic discovery of a true knot in the cord and ...

A perfectly healthy 9 pound baby boy.

As his wife and the Christians in his life basked in the glow of God's amazing miracle, Mr. Blandings began to suffer from a peculiar discomfort. If God had simply set the world in motion, how had this--the delivery of a healthy son--happened? Where was the rational scientific explanation that could bring him peace? How did his faith account for such an anomaly?

Mr. Blandings probably would have pondered, delved and ultimately dismissed this miracle. It sounds pathetic, doesn't it? But it's true. A person who isn't interested in seeing God rarely will. And Mr. Blandings was only so curious at this point. As time wore on, his muddled state began to fade. Logan's safety seemed like a given. A quirk of the fantastic universe. A random happy accident.

And then, just as we had settled in to life with three active, happy kids ages four and under, tragedy struck. After a round of routine vaccinations, Logan experienced seizures and brain swelling that persisted for two months. Doctors thrust sheets outlining the side effects of anti-seizure meds into our quaking hands. A neurologist asked us if we needed help understanding how to parent an older child whose development was arrested at two months of age. This is the kind of thing that brings people sure of their beliefs and God's goodness into valleys of darkness. For people whose hope is anything but hopeful, the gut-wrenching low of being subject to the whims of an uncaring universe is perhaps the greatest blow of all.

Mr. Blandings wanted to run. He wanted to hide. But Jesus would not let him.

This was not the Sunday School Jesus. This was not the gentle Prince of Peace. This was, rather, the almighty YAHWEH, the roaring I AM whose complete and total dominion will not be ignored.

Mr. Blandings could not escape the painful, awful, beautiful truth: GOD had given him his son. And GOD could take him away.

Logan eventually recovered, yet another in the long line of blessings that the Lord has so graciously placed on our son's head. But Mr. Blandings, I'm happy to say, has never been the same.

It was a massive gulf to leap, the one from practicing Buddhist to submissive Christ-follower. But Mr. Blandings covered the distance in one night. Like Jacob, my husband wrestled with God. The emotions, sobs, anger and relief of those hours changed forever the dynamic in my marriage, my family and, I believe, the generations of our offspring to come.

Mr. Blandings had not found Jesus. Jesus had simply announced I AM, and Mr. Blandings was forced to admit that it was the truth.

In my next post on the topic, I'll share a few personal thoughts for women who are currently unequally yoked. Please, please, please feel free to contact me via email if you would like. To reach me: books and bairns (no spaces!!!!) @ gmail. com

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summer school

My family's summer study this year is based on the free Mission Friends curriculum. We made a go of it last year with Benny and her crew, but I tell you ... every time we got together, my cell phone rang with a potential foster placement. In the end, I think we were both too wary to follow through!

And that's a shame, really. My kids have loved the focus on different countries, the neat little passports, and the time spent in the kitchen trying out new recipes. (Did I mention this is free?) It works great in a group of three or 12. All you add is the time spent printing, extra reading resources if you wish and some ingredients.

Coming alongside this fun summer unit has been a new resource I stumbled on. It's called Quest for Compassion and yes, it's free. (I love free!) This site features an interactive game that seeks to educate children about life in three of the most poverty affected areas of the globe. The impact--if led by a caring parent who takes the time to add depth to the online wandering--can be profound.

That's our take on summer schooling this year. What's yours?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Unequally Yoked, pt. 1

It will come as a surprise to many readers of this blog, but my daughter Jo had two baby welcomes performed by two different faith communities.

The first took place in my in-laws Catholic church, a mammoth, auditorium-style Roman Catholic parish awash in pink marble and quietly flowing fountains. Both branches of the family tree were well represented. Jo was radiant in her white satin gown; I have a whole shoebox of pictures of her in the arms of relatives with beaming smiles. Afterwards, we held a small gathering at my mother's house and ate a white-iced cake that I remember as being on the dry side.

The second was held at the small, woody Zendo my husband called his spiritual center. No family members were present. No pictures were taken. And after the hushed whispers and the ringing of the bells, we drove home alone. To this day, my memories of the place are limited to smells: the incense, the slightly musty, damp air, the overgrown green forest edging the property.I didn't even write about the event in my daughter's baby book.

When Mr. Blandings and I met, he was fully agnostic in his beliefs regarding spirituality of any kind. Twelve years of Catholic schooling had convinced him that there was purpose in life. His own sense of logic told him that a Creator was involved. And this was exactly as far as he was willing to go when it came to matters of faith. By the time we married, however, he had found a philosophy that matched his personal desire to draw close to the divine:
Rinzai Zen Buddhism.

Go ahead and tell me that I should have run far, far away from the man I now call my husband. Had I been more than a marginal Christian myself, I would have. But despite my long-standing career as a Sunday School teacher in the Episcopal church just off campus, I had no more knowledge of Biblical teaching than anyone else who sat through years and years of church services without truly understanding the meaning behind it all. I was Christian in name, I was Christian in leaning, but I was pretty sure that Christianity had nothing to do with actually living my life. And that life, of course, included marriage.

What did it matter if my beloved spent his Sunday mornings sitting, chanting, working and walking through various forms of meditation? How different was it, really, than my own acts of worship? What did it matter if he called his god by one name and I used another for my own? Who was I to say what he should believe?

Fast forward a year and a half and the playing field had changed. Giving birth to my daughter rocked my world in more ways than one--and beginning the process of defining my own faith was just a starting point. The importance of raising a child within the context of a shared focus on Christ was beating at the cage of my heart.

And then, of course, came the horrible, kick-to-the-gut day when I realized that the man I married was going to hell. If this was true, I found myself crying out, what was the point of our life together?

You can't imagine the sad, tired brokenness that followed me through each and every day (or maybe, if you're walking the same path, you can). The shame. The fear. The guilt. The defeat. I can remember closing my Bible in tears one night, and praying out loud, "God, please don't show me anymore. Because every step closer to you is a step farther away from my husband."

God's Word was, that same husband said later, like a rabbit hole that I was eyeing, wondering how deeply I ought to dive in. I maintained the status quo of normalcy in my day to day life, but inside, I was a mess. The house divided? That was me. One piece longing for that deep relationship with Christ, the other in agony because I was so going somewhere that my adoring husband could or would not.

People around me prayed. A handful told me about it, but mainly, I know because I felt it. The most vocal were my grandmother (who had no idea what a Buddhist was, but was pretty darn sure she didn't want her great-grandbaby raised as one) and my cousin, who to this day probably doesn't know the lengths I went to to downplay the role that Buddhism was playing in my husband's life. During one of her visits, I remember her asking about the small altar in our bedroom, where my husband practiced zazen (silent meditation). I can still feel the humiliated tightness in my throat as I laid out the process to her. Rather than offering me pity or talking down to me, she offered to pray for us. I believed even then that she was someone who didn't say such things flippantly. (Incidentally, it was this kind of strident, firm faith that I was finding so attractive after years of surface-level religion that never penetrated my heart.)

As for me, I was having a hard time praying. I vacillated between anger ("Why doesn't he get it?"), frustration ("Can't he see what he's doing to his family?"), self-pity ("I can't do this alone. Why did God give me this baby?"), hurt ("God, why are you allowing this?") and resignation ("This is just the way my life was meant to be."). For short periods, I would pray over my husband intensely. I would try to engage his mind in the examination of the two faiths, and prayed that he would reason his way into a faith in Christ. I would introduce him to other Christians, and hope he'd make friends who would lead him back on to the path. Nothing clicked

At other times, I would just try and be thankful for what I had. He was, after all, a great husband. A good provider. An incredible father. A generous, giving person. He surely wasn't as bad as some husbands, even some Christian husbands I knew of. Why was I so hung up on the one detail he didn't have--when clearly, I had so much?

But, of course, it all came back to this: we were unequally yoked. Our worldviews were completely different. Neither one of us could ever see eye to eye on the key points in life simply because we were coming at them with an entirely different purpose. And truthfully, if things didn't change, I felt in my heart of hearts that our marriage was doomed.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Skirting the Issue

The project started innocently enough; Jo and I, standing in the sea of the Junior department, scouting out something--
anything-- that fit the definition of "appropriate clothing for a young lady."

Lest you think my family's definition of such is unapproachably strict, let me lay out the terms for you:

  • Item must not reveal undergarments--from the top or the bottom.
  • Item must not contain phrase, saying, illustration or words that could be construed as narky, rude or nasty.
  • Item must leave to the imagination that which was meant to be.

We're not Amish. We're not even really good Anabaptists, people! These guidelines are shockingly minimal, and yet ...

Store after store, we failed. Failed
miserably, actually. I walked out of the house with $75 to spend on clothing for my daughter, and came home with that same $75 still sitting in my wallet. Jo had tried on a handful of shorts and skirts and refused to even leave the dressing room in them.

"I feel naked, mom!" she cried at one point, as I begged her to come out so I could see for myself. "Seriously, if I bend over, the whole world will see my underwear!"

I knew something drastic had to be done. And since surrender of the values one has been convicted of is not an option that should even make it to the table, I moved to Plan B: sewing.

I would never call myself an especially adept seamstress. While I've managed to cobble together little bits here and there over the years, my products have, honestly, been anything but
fashionable. But this time, I knew I had to do it right. After all, an 11 year-old girl with a developing sense of self-worth would be the recipient of my efforts this time. I owed it to her to make sure that the clothes she sported didn't look like cast-offs from a middle school home ec class.

Mr. Blandings was shockingly eager to get on board with this new enterprise. I say "shockingly" because it required the purchase of a new sewing machine, and truth be told, he's even tighter with a penny than I am. Yet one mention of, "I'm thinking of sewing clothes for Jo," and he was on board, writing a check and giving me carte blanche at our local fabric store.

Scary stuff.

Scarier still were the prices at the fabric store.
Fabric is not cheap, y'all. I don't know where all of those $2 shirts at Wal-Mart come from, but it's not around here, I can tell you that much. (Actually, they come from places where labor practices are despicable and human rights are unknown. They just forget to include that little reality check on the tag under the Amazing Low Price!) Buying fabric is something of an investment, it seems. You look for sales, you learn the good spots, you swap, you ask around and in the end, you've probably still paid a pretty penny. This is just something you have to anticipate when you're making your own clothes.

Finally, a good chunk of money later, Jo and I sat down at our kitchen table and set to the task at hand: sewing a few cute, longish skirts for her to wear throughout the summer. We had a collection of fabrics, a book of patterns, my new sewing machine, some elastic, and a whole lot of learning curve.

Can I just say that I have never, ever enjoyed a Mother/Daughter project more thoroughly? At the end of just two short hours, we had a completed skirt. Simple. A-line. Elastic waist-band. Nothing fancy at all.

oh, the satisfaction.

Our conversation in those 120 minutes was among some of the deepest, most heart-felt I think I've ever had with my daughter. Was it really such a short window of time? We talked about my childhood, my mother, her birth, beauty, womanhood, being a mother, peace ... so many things that I could have worked and worked and worked to negotiate our conversation around to. But with the sound of the sewing machine wish-wishing in our ears, and the feel of the cloth under our fingers, these things came naturally. What else can you think of as you slide pins into fabric but the real essence of womanhood? It's inescapable.

When Jo slipped the completed skirt onto her hips, her whole face lit up with a glow of accomplishment.

"We did it!" she sang, skipping over to me. "It's perfect!"


A perfect fit, both in the flesh and in the spirit. A garment worthy of its cost.

Since that first skirt, Jo and I have made several more. Each becomes easier than the one before it as we familiarize ourselves with the process, the equipment and the materials. We've branched out, too--the most recent skirt to be completed is bordered in a pattern of whimsical buttons of contrasting color. Jo says this one is her favorite.

"It's me," she beamed to the woman who commented on it at church yesterday. "I made it with my mom, and I put the finishing touches on all by myself."

Far from feeling awkward that her wardrobe is not a carbon copy of her peers, I find that Jo has taken a sense of pride in her handmade garments. She's gained a skill, found a new form of creative expression, and looks forward to what she calls "The Sewing Hour," when she and I sit down to work together. We've bonded in a whole new way over femininity, fabric, trims and tales.

This is not what I expected when I threw my hands up in the air and said, "Fine! I'll just make
what I want!" I went looking for the practical answer. What I got was a soul-filling respite from the world.

Judging from the chorus of dissatisfied Momma's voices that I hear around me, we are not alone in our search for clothing that is modest yet flattering. To those of you who are on the fence, take heart! Sewing skirts for your daughter is not the daunting task it appears to be at first blush. This is one of those deeply satisfying, heart-filling exercises that pays dividends far beyond the investment. Really.

For an excellent primer on getting started--in a budget-friendly way--check out this Molly Green e-book on the topic, "Frugal Fashion." There are tips for newbies like me, as well as links to dozens of free, online patterns. If I can't convince you to give sewing for your family a try, maybe Molly can. :-)

Thursday, July 2, 2009


re·lin·quish (r-lngkwsh)
tr.v. re·lin·quished, re·lin·quish·ing, re·lin·quish·es
1. To retire from; give up or abandon.
2. To put aside or desist from (something practiced, professed, or intended).
3. To let go; surrender.
4. To cease holding physically; release: relinquish a grip.

After the protracted waiting our hearts have had to endure since first meeting Oliver, yesterday's news that his Birthdad had relinquished was delivered with a disappointing lack of fanfare. For some unknown reason, I had assumed I'd be told in advance that an appointment had been scheduled, that relinquishment would take place at this location, at this time. When I daydreamed about this momentous event, I pictured myself glancing anxiously at the clock, praying over the signing taking place, and feeling God lift my spirits just before I got the call that made it all official to my ears.

Instead, in the course of a routine check-in with social worker Georgie, she shared the news. It was almost an after-thought, really; I'm pretty sure it wasn't even on her radar until I mentioned the Open Adoption Agreement we had forwarded to the state's lawyer.

"Oh, yeah. He, umm, wait. Let me check. Yeah. It's here. He signed it at 2:30 today."

"He signed it?" This was, after all, a document that I wasn't even sure was in its final draft. No modifications? No negotiations of contact? No asking for a few more picture, visits, a phone call every Christmas?

"Yeah. He signed it. Oh, and he signed the term papers, too."

"The term papers? You mean, Bill terminated his rights? He relinquished?" The word, so abstract for so long, loomed before me.

I had known it would happen. This was the plan, after all, from the beginning. Oliver's birthfather had never wanted to have a child. Never intended to reproduce. Took no joy in parenting. Saw no magic in passing on his genes to a boy who would carry them forward. Chose instead to find a family for his son. Relinquishing was, from day one, his stated intention.

He was simply waiting for the court to catch up with Oliver's birthmom, to make sure that she could not get him back. And that day, they say, is fast approaching.

Despite his decided lack of fervor for the act of parenting, I have seen flashes of love in Bill over the course of the last 17 months. He truly cares for Oliver; that much, I've never doubted. The was his love is expressed can be a puzzling, somewhat off-pitch thing. But love is love. And Bill loves Oliver.

The journey that this adoption had led us on has been a twisted path indeed. The emotions, the rawness, the fears and the joys are all tangled into a knot that stays lodged somewhere beneath my heart, in a place I can't quite touch. Foster-adoption has changed me. My eyes have been opened to a new, painful world where not all children see their first birthday come and go without feeling the searing pain of broken bones or a gnawing, relentless hunger that never quite loses its grip, even after the food becomes plentiful. My heart has been broken by the stories of men and women who have continued the cycles of abuse visited on them by their own parents. My perspective has been forever shifted by the simple act of falling in love with children whose biological parents have failed miserably at that most simple of tasks: taking care of a helpless baby.

It is not much to ask, to tend to a young infant. They need warmth, food, a clean bottom and a place to sleep. In a pinch, there are services and churches and programs and even individuals who will step in and hold your hand, guiding you through the process of keeping your baby safe, healthy and alive. Oliver's birthfather, Bill, leaned heavily on those public shoulders in the first months after Oliver came home from the hospital. Oli was a premature, restless infant with reflux and a tendency to cry for hours. Bill struggled to understand the mewling little bundle before him. When he couldn't break the code that made Oliver happy, and he couldn't engage Oliver's birthmom in the task, he did what seemed most rational to him: he left.

Their relationship when Oliver was first placed with us at 14 months of age was no better. A typical visitation went like this: Oliver would scream. Bill would turn away. Oliver would scream some more. Bill would text on his phone. Oliver would scream. The visitation supervisor would suggest looking in the diaper bag for snack. Bill would find a snack, and shove it at Oliver. Oliver would eat it, scream some more, then fall asleep in a heap on the nasty carpet of the DHSH floor, exhausted.

As Oliver began to gain some skills, though, Bill realized that his birthson was, somehow, human. I saw this transformation happen in small but tangible ways. Showing up for visits. The gift of a small blue basketball. Wearing a hat that he knew Oliver liked to play with during visits. Asking what might be a good activity to engage Oliver in.

Bill still missed visits. Still lost his visitation rights regularly. Often frustrated me with his glaring inability to see the obvious. But somewhere, somehow ... a change seemed to be taking place.

After 17 months, it felt, finally, like we had come to a place where Bill had assumed something of the role he'd carry on after the adoption decree. Bill, the Birthdad. The man we'd arrange visits with, the man who'd receive the pictures, the man we'd refer Oli's questions to, the man who would no doubt sit alongside us at our son's wedding some far off day.

In May, I was asked to chaperone a visit outside of the DSHS office for Bill and Oliver. A supervisor would meet us, but I would be in charge of Oli. We would meet at the Seattle Aquarium and tour the exhibits. Bill had requested it especially; he loves the aquarium, and wanted to share it with Oli.

The visit took place on a fine, sunny day. I spotted Bill outside, and pushed Oliver in the stroller up to him. Oliver recognized him and said, in his thready, small voice, "Hiiiiii." Bill answered, "Hi, Buddy." We stood, silent and not too awkward, admiring the beautiful boy between us.

A single, petite woman approached us slowly, her eyes somewhat narrowed.

"You're Mary Grace? And Bill?" she asked. This was our supervisor, here to make sure that protocol was attended to and all boxes checked.

"How did you know?" I asked, knowing that it was absurd. Here we were, two people who couldn't be more opposite. A 34 year-old woman with a skirt down to her ankles and a fancy stroller and a Vera Bradley backpack standing with a man with jeans sagging well below his underwear waistband, bleached white hair and a t-shirt proclaiming that he was happily available to put the s@xy in back, whatever that means.

The supervisor gave me a knowing smile, then turned to Oliver. "And you must be Oliver!" she cooed. "The reason for all the celebration, huh?"

Yes. Oliver. The reason for the celebration.

After hearing that the relinquishment was signed, I had a bit of a panic last night. This morning, Bill was scheduled for his last visitation with Oliver before the agreement takes effect. The weight of that crashed in on me, and I wondered how Bill was feeling. Was he preparing himself to take a mental snapshot of the moment? Was he dreading it? Was he afraid he'd break down in tears?

Wanting to commemorate the occasion, I quickly penned a heart-felt, semi-poetic note and printed it out, intending to buy a frame on the way. I figured I'd get one that has two windows; I'd tell him to save the other side for a copy of one of the aquarium photos I'd send him after I had it printed. It wasn't much, but gifts aren't my love language. If I'd known this was coming, I could have gotten my best friend Benny (who is a gifty sort) to handle the honors. It was a pinch, and it would have to do.

I drove to the visit with a lump in my throat, casting glances at Oliver in the backseat the whole way. Can he understand how huge this is? I wondered. Should I tell him that he won't see Bill for a while? Am I going to burst into tears and ruin the whole thing?

We pulled into the familiar parking lot and were greeted by the social worker. Bill, it turned out, was a no show. He had called to confirm three times, but neglected to make it to the visitation.

And just like that, it was over. Maddeningly, achingly, over.

Bill, it seems, has relinquished. Let go. Ceased to hold. And with very little emotion, this chapter has come to a close.

With this empty conclusion, we step into our new roles. The next time I see Bill, I will be Oliver's real, true mom. The term "foster" will have faded, and I will have all the legitimacy and rights that I have felt in my heart all along. But Bill will, legally, be no one. Just a man, who once watched my son come into the world. A man whose genetic code is linked to my boy's. A man who will confound, frustrate and perhaps--someday--surprise and delight me in his relationship with my son.

Bill has relinquished. And Oliver's life moves on.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Signed, sealed, (nearly) delivered

It is with immense joy that I share the news I received this evening:

At 2:30 p.m. today, Oliver's birthfather relinquished his parental rights. He also signed, with no alterations, the Open Adoption Agreement we so prayerfully crafted.

We are 50% of the way there.

On July 23rd, Oliver's birthmom will be given a final opportunity to relinquish rights and also sign an Open Adoption Agreement. If, at that time, she chooses to proceed to trial, she will lose the option of having any contact with Oliver post-adoption.

Her case is very, very weak and her lawyer is urging her to spare us all the indignities of a parade of evidence pointing to her inability to parent. I am taking a more spiritual long view of the situation; perhaps this is God's plan. Only He knows. May HIS will--not my impatience--be done!