Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Balance Within a Balance - Fik vs. Calder

People keep talking about balancing work and home life as if were actually even a possibility.  I'm finding in my world, that balance looks more like an Alexander Calder mobile that didn't quite past muster. It hangs askew from the ceiling with a limp and peculiar air about it and I'm not sure if its pathetic for its planning or its execution, in either case - the vision before me is anything but glorious.

There's not simply the question of two opposing forces balancing; in fact, the deadly component no one mentions are the dozens of little balancing acts within each topic.  Balancing the politics at work with the actual need to get something accomplished.  Balancing what gets accomplished and who looks to gain what, from it..well, you get the drift; balancing within a balance. 

Watching Bethany get off the school bus the other day, I was suddenly overcome with a glimpse of all the poorly balanced items in my life.  For the eternity of one minute, I was fully aware of how my world is totally beyond my control; how my work is meaningless, how professionally I really don't matter, how organizationally I'm in shambles and how artistically I'm impotent.  I saw how my marriage is failing, how my children have been left in the cold, and how the things I love have been bereft of my attention.  It wasn't an admission of failure, it was acknowledgment of the fact that I never was in control of any of those from the onset!

This revelation all began with one glimpse of a tussled mop of black hair, bundled in a big purple down coat.  Through the dirty back window of the bus I could see her marching forward, intent on a snack or a quick right hook to whomever greeted her first.  I saw in that single clear and deliberate action all the things that I counted as success in my life, and how I'd totally, freakin', missed the point.

Bethany, a severely mentally impaired child who fumbles through life with Autistic and Cerebral Palsy behaviors, coupled with partial blindness and a host of other conditions - showed me the essential priority in life.  Unconditional, undeserved love.  Nothing else matters.

I stood there in the kitchen, tears rolling down my cheeks as I sobbed.  I cried not for her, I cried for all of us.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Suicide and the Reaction of a Fool

A young girl was going to commit suicide today.  I don’t even know her name, barely know where she lives – in fact, Google probably knows more about her than I do.  One thing Google doesn’t know though, it’s that she’s thinking suicide is the answer.

I read the urgent note from the pastor; he was asking for prayer on her behalf, and before I even got to the end of the note, I was asking him for an address.  After I asked that critical question I began to pray.  In reflection, my prayers were more focused on NOT getting an address, as I’m neither qualified nor bilingual enough to carry on this level of intervention.  One thing I can do in any language though is to sit and pray with someone.  I was on the verge of leaving work to go sit with a stranger and offer what?  At best, some hope - what sort of fool does this?  Who is willing to risk a good paying job and career with ample responsibility for the sake of a stranger's bad day?

I got a call an hour or so later informing me that the Police had been summoned and were at the house, not that it implied any level of success in defeating death but at least I didn’t have to worry that she was alone.  For now anyway things seemed secure but I can’t help think; what happens after they leave?  I know how the mental health system works.  I know how the mind works.  Those two items are in completely different rooms and the door between the two is sideways on the wall.  It’s confusing, lonely and unfamiliar – in any language.

I pray that I never hesitate to do what’s right for what’s prudent.  I guess this is what Paul implied when he mentioned that “he was a fool for Christ”.  I’ve learned that this world despises this particular kind of fool. We’re known a “saps” or “suckers”.  It seems that I’m this kind of fool, one who would risk everything for what seems to be nothing.  

On the other hand, I have a dear friend who once gave everything to save nothing.  Perhaps in [his] eyes, the fool is the wisest among them?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Big, Dutch Guy In Japan

This past week I feel like I've been living the storyline from the movie "Lost in Translation".   While I had assumed the movie to be a fictional encounter of an American abroad in Japan,  I'm now not so sure it was fiction.

Many times I found myself laughing - they'd bow, then I'd bow in return only to have them re-bow again so of course, I'd bow back.  This courtship dance seemed to go on for an awkwardly long time  before I'd finally say "enough" and break the sacred cycle.

After that little courtship dance we'd settle down to dinner. You know those awkward moments when you sit with strangers and then begin a conversation neutral enough not to offend anyone, yet focused enough that you don't end up "bornering" yourself in a dead conversation with no way out?   Try striking up a conversation when the only thing you can do is mime...  I typically do well in ambiguous situations but for me, with no language skills - each day is a 24 hour ambiguous event.  I'm not sure if the flowers at the dinner table are for decoration or eating.  I'm not sure if the bottles of condiments are  for "condimenting" or for straight consumption.  I really don't know if its true that "only old people" use the warm towels they bring before the meal for washing your face.  I didn't care - young or old, I scrubbed away like I was a three-year-old.  Everything is ambiguous and while you're emotionally vulnerable, you learn to simply roll with it.  Even last night's civil disobedience; 11:30pm at an empty of traffic cross-street while waiting along with a hundred other people for an insufferably long red light to signal green, with not a vehicle to be seen or heard anywhere, I simply ventured across against the light.  You do it all the time in big cities in the states, right?  In fact, if you don't you'll likely get pushed out by the folks behind you as your'e between them and the other side.  Not here thought, I swear I heard a collective gasp.  Clearly I had committed a great sin and in their hundred-fold eyes, I'd done the rough equivalent of not taking my hat off during the national anthem at Yankee Stadium.  Ambiguity in everything.

When the evening is finally over and you've fulfilled the obligatory drinks, dinner and karaoke thing, finally settling blissfully alone on your hotel room - safe from the expectations of others; you wonder how you'll make or through another day. You think back on the beautiful sensations you experienced, lack of the lack of auto traffic in a city of 30 million. The total absence of angry horns honking, the wonderful sight of hundreds of well groomed,  modestly black suited professionals headed the same way. Best of all,  the beautiful sound of hundreds and hundreds of shoes and high heels simultaneously leaving the safety of the curb once the light flashes green.  You can actually hear the shoes making contact with pavement  - try that in Chicago where all you can hear are horns, loud busses, garbage trucks and motorcycles running straight-pipes.  Even curbside garbage is neatly bundled and draped in blue mesh to thwart the birds.

All this beauty reminds you that you're in a different place and a toll need be extracted; to see all that beauty you had to pay a price. At the very least, you had to give up a bit of the "wild self" and endure some collective order and restraint.  We westerners bristle at the very thought of it.

To share these lessons at home would be a fool's errand.  This is a beauty that need be experienced personally as any attempt to verbally convey will simply be lost in translation.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Layin Your Cares at the Fayte of Jayzzus

I’m staring right down the barrel of yet another Michigan winter.   Last winter nearly crushed me both spiritually and physically and this winder will be no less harsh.  Every winter for the last 10 years has been a type of Russian roulette, how lucky will you be?  Will you make it though this one?  Roll the chamber, pull the trigger, see if January comes.  If it does, try it again with February.

It’s not the darkness, the grey skies and the cold air and snow that strangle my heart – it’s the endless hours of moderating Bethany in a small house in a small town surrounded by a big world.  It’s the ever-present sound of screaming, hitting, smashing.  It’s the color of a saddened wife, the temperament of a frustrated son and the hopelessly infrequent spurts of laughter and joy.

All the “self-actualized” people I meet in life, the ones who speak of balanced diet, meditation, rejuvenation spas, 8 hours of sleep a night, “me time”… they all hold one central theme in mind: to live in the moment.  Were I to actually live in the moment, I’d likely consider suicide.  The moment sucks.  The moment is composed of filthy diapers, things I don’t want to do, don’t need to do (save for the request of others).  The moment is filled with inequality, tragedy, graft and sorrow and I want no more of it.

We, on the other hand, live on the promise of “yet to come”, and we dare not think too far in the future.  Our life is a constant state of dreaming about 5 hours from now.  Long range planning means “Thursday”.  “Meditation and reflection” are the morning and evening devotion sessions that typically happen while either looking through a windshield or dropping a head on a pillow.  Both sessions are usually anything but a litany, there’s no abject formality aside form the acknowledgement of the sovereign greatness of God… We move right to a discussion that’s in reality been a daylong dialogue anyway and then in characteristic form, I fall asleep mid-sentence.

It’s hard when Bethany’s in a good state and nearly impossible when in a bad one.  There’s no predictability to what state will cross your path nor how long that particular mood will last.  Always on guard, always thinking one step ahead, always, always, always.  Can’t even sit in a chair without taking advantage of the moment to do something that most people do mid-day.  I was listening to some old preacher on the radio out in the garage; he was speaking with a characteristically southern, Baptist drawl while explaining how simple it is to “just lay all those cares at the fayte of Jayzzus”.  He went on to say that “Jayzzus will carry all your burdens no maytter how difficult”.  His must be a different Jesus than mine; mine does a nice job of reminding me that I left something there on the sidewalk.

The days grow shorter, the nights longer.  Its tougher to get motivated and range of activities we can do with her begin their seasonal decline.  The beauty of the cold seasons gets more difficult to find and things I leave at the feet of Jesus continue to pile up like unshoveled snow.  I hope this winter he picks a few up as we’re about ready to simply lay back in that snow and wait for the frozen numbness to overtake us, to snuff the last glow of summer allowing the winds of winter to cover the place we lay till we’re known of no more.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

For Better or Worse

Her greatest challenge lies ahead of her still.  The cancer, the divorce, the tumors, the death of spouses, the trauma of a daughter – those pains, while tearing at the very fabric of her existence still had a degree of control running in the background.  Now, nearly immobilized in an assisted care facility with limited function to the point of not being able to even ask for help, even the idea of control has been taken from her.

Her constant in all those trials has always been her faith in Jesus, her greatest weapon of reason – little more than a relationship with the God of creation.  That relationship bore fruit, much fruit.  She has a direct line with Christ, they talk, and He listens.  He talks, and she hears.  Today however, that relationship seems to have gone cold.  The visible evidence of a loving communication path is not so evident and I have to believe it is still there, running at a frequency that I’m not privileged to; not in this life anyway.

What appears to me as a lonely existence held captive in a failing clay jar is perhaps the most abundant life possible to her?  I can only see a small portion of the plan and I believe that in her silence and confusion, the mysteries of life are already being shared.  Her friend, the one who carried her through trials unimaginable, still carries that burden, still calms her fears, and still assures her that her work will continue to bear much fruit.

I don’t know how Sherry manages to balance all this, her depth of compassion, her sorrow, anger and joy all befuddled by the challenges of both a special daughter and now a most special mother.  Its truly a task of selfless love and I stand amazed at the woman who married me, who remains married to me, and who promises to remain married to me for better or worse.  Perhaps she’s learning yet another ironic lesson from God that nestled in that marriage vow the idea of “worse” is in actuality the essence of the idea of “better”.  It’s through “worse” that “better” receives its glory like through evil, good may exist.  For mom, it’s through this silent helpless period that certain greatness is being displayed, not one we can see with our eyes but perhaps one we can see with our heart.

Her greatest challenge lies ahead of her and this time she has no control.  This time however, she does not need to be brave or strong or even confident.  This time she need only follow.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Screen and the Gift of Apathy

I replaced the screen in the back door for the 20th time today.  It seems big fun for Bethany to occasionally take a good swing at it – send her fist through it or at least get it to tear a bit.  She’s learned that if she can’t get through it in one punch, several follow-up visits usually does the trick.

She seems to love hearing me say, “dammit, knock it off”, must be music to her ears because she keeps doing it.  If not the back door, then its the screen in her bedroom.  She’ll leave it intact just long enough for you to think your safe, and then around midnight you hear this terrible crashing noise followed by a deep, sinister laugh.  Once she manages to rip it out of the window casing, she tosses it over the top of her half-height, bedroom door and down the stairs.  Again, the deep laugh.

I’ve gotten pretty good at repairing them, stitching tears, smoothing bulges, grafting new skin on old screens.  The door itself is over 20 years old and has been carefully patched, not unlike the corpse of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.  His body’s been on display in Moscow since he died in 1924, no doubt the guy that occasionally has to “patch” him had an autistic daughter as well – where else could one become so skilled at seamlessly repairing old things so they look unscathed?

Today when I came around the corner and saw the mangled screen hanging from the frame, torn and twisted – I knew it was time to head to the hardware store.  I knew that I should have bought bulk screen in 30 or 40 foot rolls, but I keep imaging that one day she’ll simply stop punching them out.  I know the entire stock of the local hardware store; size, color, material.  I know when’s the best time to use fiberglass, when is metal preferred.  I know how much of an impact with be visible with bright aluminum and where black works best.  I know what tools work, and which ones are marketed to people who don’t replace screens.  I’ve watched as various screen manufacturers began to shift their marketing efforts from selling mesh with children in mind to a more lucrative sell, the pet-owner market.  Nothing’s too good for Fido.

The best part about today’s task was the luxurious ride in the MGB on the way to the hardware store.  A bright, sunny Saturday – our helper was here to take care of B so time was not of the essence.  I drove to and then past the store, headed out into the country well below the posted speed limit.  Didn’t care that people passed on both the left and right, didn’t care that they had soccer matches to get to, didn’t care if they tailgated, didn’t care if they had pet-proof screens at home.  For 30 wonderful minutes, I didn’t care about much more than the road, the sun and the simple fact that I’d not gone insane. 

I was tired and he gave me rest, hungry and he supplied a helper.  Broken and he provided screen, emotionally naked and he provided me autumnal clothing – warm sunshine, turning colors, and oblivion to the drivers hurrying past.

I got the screen I needed, eventually.  Even bought one of those “pet screens” that used to be marketed to keep your kid from running through the lower part of your screen door – I just mounted it in a scientific manner, I had B come and take a swing at the door so I knew where her hand typically landed and then put the big, expanded aluminum section right there at fist level.  The door looks like something from an inner-city convenience store, designed to keep looters out in case of a riot.  I believe that in some small way I won this one, I had to destroy the village to save it but in this war it’s more important to win than to be right so I’m ok with the looks.

Best part of it all though was that 30 minutes of driving past my objective, bathed in the glorious gift of indifference.  I’d have never imagined that God would use apathy as a gift for survival.  Today, it worked wonders.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I Built a Bicycle

I built a bicycle. 

Not just any bike, but one modeled after a Dutch “bakfiet” which in the Netherlands is kinda like the station wagon of bicycles.  Its about eight feet long and has a large wooden cradle in front of the person doing the pedaling.  The bike was built so that I could take Bethany for bike rides with her sitting ahead of me rather than behind, stuffed into a Burley that had a weight limit we’d surpassed about two years ago.  Her fascination with spinning things, like bicycle tires, made for a dangerous ride for both of us.

The bike is quite an oddity; long and low with the steering located mid-ship.  The proportions, nearly as bizarre as those of a camel and in many ways, not at all unlike the people riding her.  We get two kinds of reaction: big smiles and waves or absolute blank stares, devoid of emotion, context or comprehension.  Bethany’s favorite thing to do while riding is to simply, loudly, scream.  Blood-curdling yet happy, her screams are heard long in advance of our approach, which gives small children plenty of time to run to the street to see what the commotion is all about.  I’ve taken to adding bouquets of colorful, plastic flowers to the cradle portion of the bike and on the front headset, a sizeable plastic eagle.  It’s the hood ornament on my station wagon bicycle.  Needless to say, every day is parade day while riding this beauty.

At first Bethany was a little hesitant about getting in but once she realized that she could hold my hand while we pedaled around the neighborhood, acceptance was gained.  Bear in mind that at age 15, Bethany weighs upwards of 100lbs.  That’s a lot of Korean to hustle around on a bike while holding hands.

The beauty of all of this is that when we ride - there is no dignity, no control, little semblance of order and absolutely no selfish pride.  When we ride, we’re the most socially vulnerable people on earth; open to the judgment of all yet beholden to none and the freedom from concern is the most liberating thing in my life.  If she screams, throws food overboard, rips her diaper and stuffs her deflated ball on the top of her head…it simply doesn’t matter.  If I, at a moments notice hop on the bike with her, I care not how I look, smell or present myself, as there is neither selfishness nor gain to be had.

Together we ride, enjoying the view, smiling at the cars while screaming at the top of our lungs.  This letting go, lying back in the water of life and releasing the grip I think I have on my destiny affords me a freedom that few ever experience; the freedom from self.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Wind Passes Over It, And Its Gone

A quiet repose
A moment in time that the wind blows through my heart
The memory of time gone by, soothing my tired mind
Warm grasses, blown in sweeping patterns across the fields swirl in patterns like water
Like a thousand years before me and thousands after
It continues its dance, in spite of me

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dancing in the Kitchen; A Size 14 Sock

I was dancing with my daughter this morning, lurching left and right with my arms around her waist and her hands on my forearms.  I hummed the tune to an old “Sesame Street” song that she always seems to find delight in:

 “La, la, la, lamppost,
  La, la, la, la, lullaby,
  La, la, la, la light bulb,
  La, la, la, la, lumps in my oatmeal”…

She closes her eyes and squeals with delight as I hammer out the tune and swirl her around in circles across the kitchen.  These few moments seemed wonderful as we wait for the bus to come rumbling down our driveway.

I imagine that for any father of a 15 year old, dancing with his daughter is a special occasion to be cherished for a lifetime.  For me it’s more of a blessed respite.  The last few weeks have been some of the most trying days in our lives and we’ve been stretched to the point where returning to what we were, is physically impossible.  We’re size 9 socks with size 14 feet shoved into them; we’ll never be size 9 again.  To dance happily with my special needs daughter, to hear her laugh is more than an emotional episode – it’s a divine revelation, its Noah’s rainbow after two years on a filthy boat, it’s the sound of songbirds after a long winter.

Bethany was ill and the only way she can process the concept of pain is to inflict yet more pain, illogical to you and I but very logical to her.  The eye doctor said that her one good eye was “still in marvelous shape”, a big surprise given the beating she'd given herself over that last couple of weeks. Two full weeks that I'd much rather repress into the dark recesses of my brain than ever face again.

The final report card from that two week event nets me a D- in both Citizenship and English. I failed, I lost my head, I did everything wrong.  I guess that’s part of stretching beyond your current shape – about the time we reached “size 10”, I had nothing to base my reactions on so every response was emotional, not rational.  Size 11 and 12 had me cursing the God I loved. Size 13 and 14 put me to the point where I wished she’d end it all and kindly put us all out of her misery. At this point our marriage is at risk, our health, marginal and the safety of all, questionable – the teapot was about to explode.

Now, dancing with delight in the kitchen to music poorly offered by a tired and still confused father, delight takes center stage.  Happiness, for the moment is one thing we share and for the first time in a month I find myself hoping that the bus comes late. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

And Your Old Men Will Dream Dreams

I found myself standing barefoot on the terrazzo floor, cold and shivering from the frozen March slush that I’d just stomped through out in the parking lot.  A young woman came over to me and asked if I needed help and as I thought about my reply, the characteristic “no, not really – I’m just thinking”, she reached up and caringly put her hand on my back.  I’m not sure if it was a reassuring gesture from a compassionate soul or a skilled maneuver from a healthcare professional, using the allure of a woman’s touch to better assesses my medical condition.  As she touched my spine, a raw nerve came to life and I squirmed to get away.

 The pain, a grotesque combination of fright, dull tingle and paranoia must have been the exact tell that she was looking for because the next thing I knew I was on the ground.  Her touch caused me to twist and fall away, helpless and exposed.  She lay beside me and asked me more questions and having been finally discovered, I began to answer honestly.  “Have you been drinking much water lately, hun”?    She asked with a mixed tone of probe and genuine concern and I, with much release began to answer to the best of my ability.  “Not really”, I answered.  She had called for additional help and I could hear feet shuffling around me, dry feet, not wet feet like mine; socks and slacks that were beginning to pool water around me like a moat around a aged and besieged castle.

It seemed odd, I could see my house from through the large lobby windows and my intention was to simply take a short-cut though the place and get home.  My wife would be wondering why I’d gone outside in such weather and I could already see my daughter’s bus waiting in the driveway turn-around.  Smoke from the exhaust lazily wafting its warm mixture of steam and carbon monoxide into the chilly March morning air.  Now, calm on the floor, I relaxed and found relief in having been discovered.  I no longer had to bear the weight of confusion on my own and my condition was soon to be cared for.

I awoke after this dream and began to cry.  The mixed emotions of starting some simple task but then having it become increasingly confusing, the sorrow of a man in whom a woman takes interest in, not of desire but of medical concern.  The desperate month of March in Michigan which only serves to magnify the pressing feeling of being late for work, late for life, late for everything; too much to bear I fear – too much to bear.

This week has been one like this dream; my mentally impaired daughter – sick and unable to communicate her malady, resulting in a devastating level of self-abuse.  Her arms, face and torso a blacked mass of bruises and cuts.  Her eyes and face, a swollen and pathetic bag, not the beautiful Korean face we’d come to love.  My wife; so tired. Her work in a home for mentally and physically impaired adults weighs on her, care for my daughter weighs on her, the cruel advancing disease of Alzheimer’s that her mother bears – weighs on her.  I weigh on her.  During all this, this week – I was mostly gone, taking vacation from work so I could work a side job that was a mix of passion, delight and exhaustion.  Every step of it was visualized in my mind and clearly executed, my work phone, blissfully blocked.  Even trips to the hardware store rewarded my ego with customers asking me for help:  “you look like a fella who deals with these sorts of things on a regular basis, if I plumb this like this”….  

Unfortunately though, there’s a price for everything.  The price for the competence and confidence of this week seems to have been a part of my soul.  This week indeed took a massive toll on us, physically, mentally and spiritually.  Dreams exist for a reason; they wonderfully outline how futile it is to try to make sense of life.  Like the king in the book of Daniel, I had a troubling dream.  Unlike the king, I need not look for interpretation.  When Joel prophesied that “your old men will dream dreams”, he failed to mention that those dreams would be both blessing and curse, both delightful and horrifying, offering clarity and confusion simultaneously.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Human Forest Fire

The fire’s been burning for the better part of five days now and I find it hard to believe that anything of value could possibly remain.  Those who were smart either moved far away or buried their treasure deep in the soul.  I foolishly thought I could keep everything intact by occasionally hosing it down with a garden hose.  I now seem to have lost everything.  How foolish of me, to think a simple hose would be sufficient against hell’s fury.  Things that once seemed beautiful are now distorted and cracked.   Music has melted, the sun – obscured from the smoke.  The sweet smell of summer is now an acrid stench and the odor seems to color even the food we eat.

Were it physical things lost, I’d not be in such arrears; the loss however is emotional.  I’ve lost a bit of my wife; I lost my daughter, my sons have moved further away – not for the reason of flame but for my reaction to losing control of it.  I pushed them out.

Even now, I can hear the crackle from the embers…banked for the evening with down comforter and darkness surrounding.  She’s laid out, salted heavily with drugs like a Yule log - she’ll burn for hours in that state.  Most would welcome her warmth in the morning but I, I loathe the coming of sunshine.  Far better to be chilled in the morning than warmed by the flames of uncontrolled fire.

My forest fire; she’s actually human.  It’s not her fault that she consumes us.  Not her fault that we weren’t prepared for the ravages.  Were I a Jack Pine I should welcome her flame, as only through fire is there new growth.  But a Jack Pine, I’m not. 

Bethany is sick and we can’t figure out what it is.  Doctors can only guess, medication does nothing, specialists make special guesses and simple commands like “take her temperature” result in black eyes and bruised ribs.

Five days we’ve endured the flame of destruction.  Five days’ we’ve watched her destroy herself and the world around her.  Five days we’ve tried to intervene – five days, that’s three more than Jesus suffered - but who’s counting?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Prophet or Prostitute - Kindly, Remind Me Again?

Hosea was an Old Testament prophet whose entire life was devoted to simply becoming a metaphor for future generations.  His life was a difficult and confusing series of ups and downs in which his only constant was a seemingly unwavering allegiance to Yahweh, the God of his fathers.

Hosea was instructed by that very God to marry a specific woman with some clearly defined (by God, no less) sexual issues.  As an upstanding man-of-God, this must have seemed an obtuse request.  Imagine you’re a nice, bachelor who’s spent his entire adolescent life waiting for that special woman - and you finally get the chance to marry.  Of all the girls you could choose from, you end up with none-other than a hot-ticket, prostitute.  Your mother, faints, your father shakes his head, your sister laughs.  Your brother is torn between being ashamed and being slightly envious.  The neighbors chalk it up to inexperience and indiscretion and wait for the tragedy to unfold.  You, on the other hand are following God’s request, assuming that reward for doing so is in your future.

As the years go on however, you find yourself still waiting for that reward.  You did as instructed and are rewarded with a wandering wife; a “tart” as it were, sneaking off with every willing guy that looks into her eye.  The neighbors have affirmed what a poor sap you are because you had not only the ability but the privilege, the right and the responsibility to dump her when she first betrayed you; yet you go find her, lovingly forgive her and bring her home.  You’re angry, defeated, cheated and confused but you do it anyway.  Then it happens again, and again, and yet again.  Each time, you lovingly go find her, forgive her and bring her home.  “Hosea, you’re a fool”.

Bear in mind, Hosea had no idea that this was his destiny.  I’m certain that he had no way of knowing how his life would become a metaphor, a living example of what unconditional love looks like.  I’m sure he went to his death wondering what it was all for.   Was I wrong?  Did God really tell me to do this?  Were the neighbors right?  What of her joy in the time of courtship where she must have felt redeemed?  She, at his request of marriage must have felt the joy of a young girl who dreams of the perfect man, one who will treat her with love, respect and afford her the protection she needs.  Did that joy of redemption simply fade with the daily grind of a predictable and uneventful life?  Was Hosea’s inexperience simply one more dull event that allowed her mind to wander?

I wonder how many silently saw him and his devotion to this woman - with envy and hope in their eyes.  How many men had been with her and saw how his respect for her in spite of her appetite, made her into a person rather than an object?  How many others, guilty of the same crime saw that redemption and hope was actually possible?  Hosea’s burden became someone else’s release, his enslavement – someone’s freedom; his sorrow, their joy.

Sometimes, I feel like Hosea.  I did what God moved me to do.  Of all the children on earth, we took the least-likely one and the strain of it on our marriage, the pressure of it on our health, the constant give-with-little-or-no-get… unconditional love?   The tedium of hour-to-hour living, the lack of an exciting life, the inability to become what “I” want “me” to become, causes my eye to wander and I forget whether I’m the prostitute or the prophet:  “David, you’re a fool”.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Power of an Errant Glance

I walked across the hot field, each footstep raising a small cloud of grey dust that coated my tennis shoes.  For some reason I felt obligated to contain my walking to the narrow tire track that wound itself through the freshly turned earth, as if stepping outside that path would draw attention to me heading their way.

 It was brutally hot by Michigan standards – a perfect July day with heat, humidity, and little breeze.  Perfect weather for crabgrass, sow thistle, carpetweed and spurge.  Not perfect weather for anyone working against those weeds.  The smell of the warm earth, the quiet of the field, the slowly dissipating sounds of traffic as I walked south, away from the road, seemed to increase the power of that heat and magnified my fears.  The weather report on the radio cautiously noted a cattle and livestock advisory that was in place – as if most of their listeners had ever been on a farm and knew what that meant.  Even more disconcerting was the fact that they worried about cattle and livestock but cared little for the occasional migrant worker who would likely be out in those same fields.  At first the gathering dust on my clean shoes was funny, but as the sweat from my forehead began to mix with it, a certain amount of humor began to fade.  The walk was long enough that my shirt, now sticking to my chest took on the appearance of a Shar Pei puppy’s folded skin.  My hopes of an elegant entrance were dashed by the very heat that motivated me.  I now looked out-of-place, ridiculous and a cause for concern.

I drove past them on a whim – I decided to take a long route home that afternoon, windows up – air conditioning on high, speedometer pegged at 55.  I was enjoying the weather, enjoying the view, enjoying my wonderful life, when an errant glance caught them.  Errant glances have ruined many a life you know.  King David’s demise began as an errant glance.  President Bill Clinton’s dubious demise began as an errant glance by a photographer.  Even Lot’s wife paid a hefty price with an errant glance, one quick look over the shoulder and life, as we know it is no more.  My heading into the cultivated field was no less an errant glance.  I saw the group, little more than a dozen – heads down, clustered close together, all looking odd in long-sleeved shirts, long pants, big hats and each with his own hoe, all this compared to the hundred acre field they were in.  My errant glance reminded me of a Gustave Courbet painting of The Stone Breakers – a painting of French peasants, as unglamorous as the tasks they were performing, working in typical garb of the day and amazingly similar to the garb I was now seeing.

 I sped past them initially; I needed to get home to see how it was going with Bethany.  I knew the helper was there but having help and having help that can deal with her are two different things.  Frequently, we need to help the helper work with the helpless.  Anyone who’s read anything bout Bethany could surely understand how migrant laborers in a hot green pepper field is clearly not my problem.  Who could blame me for speeding by, perhaps offering a prayer on their behalf?  Nothing wrong in that – in fact, it would be unchristian to offer anything less, so I drove on.  I said the prayer but it had a way of falling dry and meaningless from my lips.  Like yelling in an anechoic chamber, the words are literally sucked into a void and you hear nothing, as does anyone else.  I drove on, figuring that I’d forget and God would provide.

Those errant glances, the way it worked on King David; likely a simple glance of a nice leg, a well-turned heel, a soft hip.  A little too much offered by one, far too much taken by the other.  Time has a way of enhancing what the eye records.  Its not the initial sighting that dooms you, it’s the perpetual picture in your mind that pulls the trigger.  You think about it, you replay it; you change the sequence, the timing, and the risk.  You muddle all the variables until you’ve justified your next action and the ones after that.  I am no less guilty.  I stopped for gas and that’s when the vision took hold.  Top off the tank, go into the convenience store, buy enough cold Coke for the lot of them and get it over with.

I am the woman at the well.  I offered the cup of cold water to the stranger and they forgave me of my sins.  I assumed I was the savior of them and they reroofed me, accepted me in, corrected my vision and sent me on my way with the joy of forgiveness in my heart.  Once I finally made my way across those hot fields to the treeline where they enjoyed the shade, once they made sense of the gringo blanco with the sweaty bottles of soda and package of cups, once they got over the shock that someone cared enough to make this effort, they accepted me.  They blessed me.  They justified me.

The group of men all smiled, all proudly enjoyed the fruit of their labors, all welcomed me as I was, sweaty, covered in soil.  No one at the gas station smiled like this, no one there seemed happy to be working, happy to have a bit of shade.  There, from the comfort of air conditioning they complained about the heat, here in the field, complaining about such things is ludicrous.  Enjoy this moment.  Enjoy the beauty of everything, enjoy the company of others, and enjoy the risk of following your heart. 

Nothing in this life is by chance.  My prayer for comfort for those men, the way it died on my lips – that was no accident.  That was the power of prayer being answered as it’s offered.  Jesus, like those laborers in the field knew that’s it ludicrous to talk about the heat when you’re in the heat.  He knew that I was the one who was to be both blessing and blessed.  “Dios te bendega” was yelled to me once in Peru by some children as I left their encampment, this same blessing was now offered by me to the migrants that caught not only my glance, but my entire heart in a sweltering pepper field on July day in Michigan.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Tale of Fortune and Fingers

On occasion, something happens in my life that after-the-fact I find myself wondering if that was divinely planned.  This past week, I got into a tussle with my table saw.  A freakish sort of accident that ended up sending me to the hospital and ended up connecting my wife with a mother who is facing similar challenges as we have.

I mentioned to the attending physician (as she attempted to cut the wedding band off my damaged finger) that the real tragedy is not that I’m in the hospital, but that my wife and I were having a relatively enjoyable time there.  This past weekend was a “respite weekend” and as such, we were free of the care of Bethany for a few days.  For us this trip to the ER was a rather exciting date.  We were laughing, chatting with people, actually doing something together!

While the Physician’s Assistant began the process of stitching my hand back together, I mentioned about this being a respite weekend and what that entailed.  The Physician listened and then cautiously asked a few questions that quickly lead us to believe she knew more than she let on to.  It’s not uncommon for us to connect with other parents of special needs children and shortly after I made the comment about “the quiet, vibrant underworld of special needs kids, their parents and the mystical support system beneath them”, a careful connection was made.

We always marveled at the complex and convoluted world of mental health care.  Of all the professions that should require clear and compassionate direction, this one has anything but.  Between the complex nature of mind/brain dysfunction and the societal stigma surrounding the topic, its no wonder that this profession is enigmatic.  You’re not sure if it’s smiling or grimacing.  We’d always considered ourselves as petty smart but after one trip to the Community Mental Health office, we realized that intelligence has nothing to do with understanding and functioning within a bureaucracy.  

It became clear to the physician that we knew of her concerns and slowly the discussion grew more similar.  “How do you do this”, and “what did you do about that”?  The list of shared tests, diagnoses, symptoms, dreams and desires grew in frequency and enthusiasm.  We’d made a connection!  Our network continued to grow and for once, we were able to introduce someone else to support they didn’t know existed.

On the drive home, I had to ask Sherry, “do you suppose that I cut my hand so that we could share that information and make that connection?”  I don’t know, maybe” was her response.  We frequently think about those little instances.  My injury was but a fraction of a millimeter away from being devastating.  The cut, in such a bizarre location, defied logic, the whole accident, so inexplicable.  We wonder if there was a purpose and a limit to the injury, not unlike the limits the Lord placed on Satan when he offered up Job in the Bible.  What else could explain the delightful evening, the pleasant connections, the lack of pain, and the expediency of the emergency treatment? 

People tell me that I’m lucky.  I assume they’re talking about the “near miss” but the smile I return to them and the “yeah, sure am” in reality has little to do with fortune and fingers.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Come home, come home, it's suppertime

I recall seeing my grandfather sitting in a chair in the family room of the old Lubber’s farm, it must have been 1965 or so.  It was a Sunday and I recall hearing hymns on the radio, he was sitting there quietly with his eyes closed, his hands folded loosely over his belly.  I wasn’t sure if he was sleeping or peacefully listening to the music.  “Come home, come home, it’s suppertime” – the words tumbled out of the old, green, Motorola radio.  I can still see the gold tuning dial with the pointer facing both 10 and 4 o’clock.

Last night I was at the evening church service and that flashback hit me somewhere between the second and third verse of  “Softly and Tenderly”... why should we linger and heed not his mercies…  It was a warm, beautiful memory that was prompted by a tune that I despised when I was a teenager.  For my grandfather, as a young boy that would have been a relatively new song.  Written in the 1880’s and no doubt played by my grandmother on the old pump-organ at the church in East Saugatuck, a contemporary tune that had some “stickiness”.

I’ve seen that same warm memory wash back over residents in nursing homes, people who you’d think were “in absentia”, no longer mentally in the building.  As a deacon, I had the duty of occasionally delivering a Wednesday evening service at the home in Hudsonville.  I learned quickly that two items were more important than whatever words I thought the Holy Spirit was imparting on my lips: children and music.  Many times I witnessed a resident who was wheeled into the room, strapped into a chair, drool falling from her lips, eyes closed, body slumped heavily to the west, legs – spindly and twisted beneath her and held aloft only by the foot pads of the wheel chair.  The attendant would lock the wheels of the chair, as if this woman may suddenly awake and decide to make a break for it.  Head off to the river for one last dip in the cool water – one last mouthful of plump blackberries, one last stolen kiss from the young boy that she’d eventually end up spending the next 70 years with.

This woman would be there, unresponsive and uncaring of the activity around her.  After an opening prayer, the gent who agreed to play the organ would play the first 8 chords from “The Old Rugged Cross”, and a most amazing transformation would occur.  She and a half-dozen like her would immediately open their mouths and sing.  Every word perfectly formed, each stanza coherently recited.  The beauty and strength of the voices coming from the physical void before me was dissonant, a seeming contradiction, like she was reverse lip-synching the hymn.  While I stumbled along in the hymnal, they worked without a net, having spent their lives memorizing each song, each refrain, each rest – perfectly timed.

Even my holding their hands and talking with them had little effect, but have one of my children’s voices warble up and a second coming was in the offing.  Like the voice of the Lord at the rapture, these incoherent and apparently spent individuals would sprout new growth, come to life.  They’d chat with my sons, laugh with joy, clap their hands.   To see the sparkle in their eyes was more refreshing to my soul than the sparkle of sunshine on water.  They spent a lifetime absorbing things were meaningful, letting them seep deep into their soul like water in a barrel cactus – waiting for the coming dry season. 

Perhaps that’s what my grandfather was dong on that Sunday afternoon – he was investing in his future, storing away that precious water for a day when it would be the only hope of survival.  For me, the flashback of that day, prompted by a service that’s dwindling in popularity with music that’s disappearing at an equal pace – was a reminder of the dry times to come.  For me, I have the peace of knowing those old hymns.  I worry for my children, their music – the message filled with feel-good chants of “la, la, la, fill me, fill me, fill me, now here, now here, Lord” while contemporary and necessary, are simply insufficient.

Our world is rapidly dismissing the sufficient for the necessary, choosing convenience over cultivated, a warm body in place of a discerning choice.  Perhaps my grandfather had it right – sit back, close your eyes, listen to some music – a much wiser investment.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Hanging on for Dear Life

Four good days with Bethany has a special way of clearing the fog of depression.  Having her smile and laugh and rip her diapers out of joy rather than frustration is, well, a liberating feeling.  You feel your heart get lighter, your responses, less caustic and your outlook far more appealing to those around you. 

She loved the fast ride on the jetski – that in fact, seemed to make all the difference in her attitude and broke the cycle of sadness that gave me the four days, so you pack that little secret weapon away in your emotional duffle bag for the next time she has a meltdown.  “”Wanna go for a ride on the jetski”? I ask in my imagination, waiting for the characteristic aahhyyah! Accompanied by the frantic up-and-down headshake.  In your heart you know it’ll be the thing that changes her anger to joy, just like her joy turned your sorrow to celebration, and your shadows to sunshine.

That’s why it hurts so much when other sorrow, sorrow from the day-to-day life around you, creeps back into your worldview like cold water around your warm, dry socks.  A local deranged man goes on a killing spree, taking the lives of seven plus one.  A friend dies of a heart attack, leaving a young family.  The news gives me highlights from the baseball game, not of the score but of a father, joyously reaching for a foul ball and then falling to his death while his 4 year old son watches. 

I desperately try to reconcile this in my mind, calming myself in the hope that those aren’t my issues, they’re not my problems – in fact, my problem is on a short hiatus.  My dear friend’s prayers were answered and the abuse has diminished.  I didn’t pray for complete healing with Bethany, I know better than to allow myself that much rope..in fact that kind offending jerk-on-the-line is what usually kills a falling mountain climber, not the rocks below.  I prayed for a brief reprise and was graciously granted four days of relative peace.  To emotionally open myself up to compete healing is simply too much to bear, like the pain of life around me.

I soothe my heart with the memory of that mop of black hair on a head that’s hopelessly stuffed down into a life vest, far too big and cinched far too tight.  That hair - totally obscuring my view as she sits ahead of me on the machine, screaming with joy at every wave we ram.  Those little hands of hers, carefully holding my hands on the handlebars as if she were commanding my reach.  Her refusal to abandon ship at the end of our turn..I count it as pure joy. 

Perhaps I can learn to deal with tragedy by simply dealing with things on smaller scales like Bethany does.  To place my hands on the hands of my Lord as we fly along on the jetski, as if I were commanding his reach.  I need to learn to refuse to abandon ship, even at the end of my turn, just as Bethany did.  And should I be forced ashore, like her, I need to try crawling in the next nearest boat anticipating and expecting an equally thrilling and joyous ride.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Unless You Become As a Child...

Part of my personal interest in adopting Bethany came from time spent overseas working in what basically amounted to orphanages. No one likes the term orphanage so they clean the name up and give the kids a type of permanence and dignity they deserve but have been so remiss in receiving.  They go by names like "home, foundation, shelter, and institute".

The Prince of Peace Foundation in Ecuador was my introduction to the reality of such a place. It’s place for kids to escape the grip of abuse, neglect, drugs, cultural indifferences, overpopulation, and a host of other situational malignancies. While the goal of these places is to “reunite the child and the family”, the reality of that seemed slim.  These were beautiful children who wanted desperately to matter, to be loved and to have some degree of predictability in their lives but so many things were working against that goal.  Big, things that aren't easily changed in short bursts of time.

One boy had been abused by his father, another - from a large family, sent out to beg at the airport, a girl of 5 had spent most of her life living in the pig shed next to the family shack. None of these kids were looking for pity, they weren't in search of charity, they just wanted to be kids - to matter in someone's life, to be safe and most importantly, to be remembered. The older boys would slide up next to you and ask in broken English what your shoe size was, and then during the week they'd see I'd you'd be willing to give them away when you left.  Another little boy wanted to see my home in “el norte” so I showed him a picture of my house in Michigan.  He was amazed – it seems he thought the garage, with its cupola and weathervane was actually a church.  “How many families live there”? he asked… One girl wanted my Bible - "hablas englais"? I asked her, she responded "no". In Spanish I told her that my Bible was in English. She quickly explained that she'd learn English if that's what it took.

To this day, I use a bilingual Bible for everything - just in case. Lesson learned.

Once the director of the home realized I could drive a stick shift, I was pressed into service as her designated driver for the week. Add to that a basic ability to communicate in Spanish and you have a new type of migrant laborer. "PiƱata blanco" was what I was as a driver on the roads of Guayaquil; a big, white target driving an ancient, dilapidated truck, loaded with kids, cargo, and director named Ana, who took her direction from Jesus and her grit from the Apostle Paul.

One evening, late, after midnight - Ana came pounding on the door of the room that 6 of us were sleeping in. I happily answered the door even if only as a way of escaping the noxious odor of over flown toilets, sweat, filthy clothes, and snoring. Ana clearly instructed me in Spanish of the importance of the task she had in mind. I had no idea of the task, the importance nor why she was even at the door at this hour.

My brain has to switch between thinking in Spanish and thinking in English and the exchange rate between the two is not an even wash. In fact, I thought she was asking me to wash the truck, which was really odd given that it was the dry season and water was at a premium. It turns out she wanted me to get the truck and bring it to the front office. One of the children had not returned from the city that evening and she felt lead by the Lord to go looking for him. Actually, she felt lead by the Lord to go have me go look for him.

Driving an old truck with one functioning headlight down a 22km, washed out road in the middle of the night, looking for a young boy in a city of two million... My kind of adventure!

There was a nice government controlled road that circumvented the boneshaker, washed out road.  It was easier on the cargo, easier on what was left of the truck, and easier on my nerves. It also had a guard-shack with a little dog and a grouchy man with a sawed-off shotgun. I'd come to meet him the day before, when he leveled the gun barrel through the truck window at me and told me I was not permitted on this road.

That's all I clearly remember - other than the stern voice of the director, Ana, arguing fervently with the man that we had permission from "Senior So-and-so" to use this road. The two were screaming at each other and the only things budging in the discussion were his shotgun and my bowels. As he waved the gun in my face I tried to croak out that it was no big deal, we could go around on the washed out road.  I have no idea what actually spilled out of my lips but it must have been amusing as the debate roared on in spite of me.

Taking the washed out route on this night seemed preferable; given the vague assignment and the addition of two young boys who were sent along to help guide me in my search; it was surreal enough without the possible drama of me adding insult to injury by driving past the guard again. He'd lost the argument with Ana and I had no intention of entertaining a rematch.

We searched the back roads for an hour or so and then decided to wait at a crossroads where the children usually gather to ride on the back of the trucks coming from the limestone quarry, past the foundation.  We waited another hour in the cool of the night. Pitch black surrounding us, the truck engine, now long cooled and silent, sleeping in the same manner as were the two young boys next to me.  One asleep on my shoulder, the other, asleep on his.

By 3am it became apparent that I'd failed on my special mission. I never saw that boy again, never heard what happened to him, never found out why he failed to return. Softly shifting the truck into gear and then shifting the lump of boys off my numb, soggy shoulder, I started the engine, recited the "truck prayer" that Ana insisted must be done at each corner of the vehicle to ensure safe travel (angel bumpers I called them), and flipped on the one, yellowed light for the bumpy ride home.

That trip opened my eyes to the beauty of children globally. It opened my eyes to the intensity of righteous anger, the joy of giving, the beauty of simplicity, the wisdom of children. These same children would bless me again on a special trip in a few years during the month of September when the gift I brought to their school, a television, would reveal an early morning horror in New York City. Those wonderful children who had nothing material, held hands in a circle surrounding our stunned group and prayed out loud in Spanish for safety and protection on our families.

For me, this beauty was part of a calling. Part of a calling which would radically change my family, nearly destroy my marriage, and put me at the edge of an abyss that I can only hope never to see again.  Is it worth it, you may ask?  I may not answer you, but I welcome the question. I think of Bethany, I think of the adoption process and my mind goes back to an impossible task on a dark road late at night, the sound of strange bugs and frogs, the warm night air and the sound of two little boys snoring lightly on my shoulder. For them and for me, family was at hand.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Daily Dose of Bethany, Just what the Doctor Ordered...

Her knuckles were black this morning from last night’s beating.  Her head and cheek was the main subject of attention, although my heart caught most of the blows as well.

The day started with a calm, almost peaceful attitude and somewhere around mid-day all that hope evaporated like rainclouds in a desert.  I don’t know how much more of this I can open my heart to – fear only happens when you’re unsure of something, this is so nearly a certainty that I not only don’t fear; I’ve moved so far as to emotionally distance myself from it. 

How many days have I muttered this report, how many nights have I gone to sleep with a heavy heart and little hope for tomorrow?  Then, like the sun rising after a long, dark night – we have an evening with little conflict. 

I came home from work and found Bethany in the living room, clutched tightly in her hand was one of Sherry’s Polo shirts.  That little artifact stayed clutched for next 6 hours. Typically, I come home and wonder how long till the next meltdown but today was a bit different.  That little shirt was accompanied by a delightful squeal and the reproofing voice of our helper, trying to gently correct one of B’s favorite games; the “rip your diaper and toss it around the room” game.  Most parents get upset with this game but for me, hearing it accompanied by a happy laugh made it a totally different event. 

She laughed as she ripped the diapers, laughed as she wet the floor, laughed as she relieved herself in the bathtub.  She laughed.  I laughed too.  The weight of many stones was lifted from my chest, my step – lighter, my demeanor – more appealing.  The same God that I endlessly complain to heeded the power of combined prayer from an untold number of prayer warriors. As I put her in bed at the end of her day, she gave me a kiss on both cheeks and then gave me a good, hard, shove towards the door and bounced her head back on the pillow – erupting in a deep, satisfying laugh which continued long after I’d headed down the stairs.

That night, the evening sky was a more beautiful pink than I’ve seen in a long while, the smell of the cool air – a respite to my senses.  I thought about asking for another day just like this one, just for the benefit of her emotional state; and then I realized that this moment is to be savored.  Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them”.

It’s been a long, difficult six months for not only Bethany, but for the entire family of her friends.  I thank each one of you for joining us in this journey, for learning each painful lesson that we learn, and for continually holding Bethany in your thoughts and prayers.  The Lord continues to feed us daily and reminds us that “daily” is what this relationship is all about.