Rejoicing and Mourning: Rambling Reflections on 2020

Sometimes you just need to grab a hand and leap through the flames.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”  In so many ways, this seemed to be 2020’s tagline.  I witnessed those thriving more than ever before, and those struggling more than ever to survive.  It was a both/and kind of year.  And as it drew to a close, I thought back with deep gratitude, realizing that for me, it was a deeply healing year.  But it began by emerging from survival mode.

My Mom always told me the story about how, not long after my second birthday, I turned in my pink security blanket and told her I wouldn’t need it anymore because I was grown up now and to prove how much of a big girl I was, I would stop sucking my thumb too. Mom kept the blanket at the ready for when I changed my mind.  But as days turned to weeks and then months, and I never again mentioned my blanket and never again sucked my thumb, she reluctantly accepted that her little girl had indeed grown up.  This iron resolve of mine, or if I’m being honest in my labelling, my stubbornness, has never flagged. And, as my favorite neurotic detective (Monk) is known to say, “It’s a blessing and a curse.”  

During 2018 and 2019, my stubbornness was a blessing and essential.  It was two years of white-knuckle resolve for survival.  2018 had also been stressful, but 2019 made 2018 look like a frolic in the meadow.  But—and here’s where it’s a curse—my stubbornness that was imperative for those years suddenly became a hindrance in 2020.  I couldn’t seem to relax from my constant vigilance and ridiculous amounts of stress.  

There were no more late night paranoid phone calls about hallucinatory homeless people trying to break in.  No more meetings with lawyers. No more filing endless reports and paperwork in every spare moment.  No more driving all over the face of the earth to and from therapy appointments.  No more counting the minutes until bedtime.  No more steady stream of kid-noise or making silly faces to get easy laughs. No more pretending that the newly conjured knock-knock jokes made sense and were TOTALLY funny.  The end of January 2020 (which was the conclusion of 2019) was a jolt, a falling-into-frigid-water shock. I was caregiver to 3 young kids and one young adult, and then suddenly, I wasn’t.  The quiet I had yearned for so long now just felt like an empty void.  And yet, I couldn’t enjoy the stillness because my body was stuck in stubborn-resolve mode.  

So I kept myself busy with home renovations and reconnecting with people I hadn’t seen in a long time.  I thought to myself, if only the world would just stop for a minute so that I would be forced to catch my breath. And then exactly that happened.  The world ground to a halt and overnight, became a place barely recognizable.  That was not what I was hoping for, but it did strip away the distractions, and that helped me to begin healing.  

For me, healing usually looks like getting sick, which is exactly what happened.  First it was a several month CFS flare up then something else happened.  Although there are still no definite answers, the best guess is that I had appendicitis and something else unknown.  And much to the shock of my gastroenterologist, after my colonoscopy, my IBS seems to be completely gone. I’ve had it for most of my life and I’ve had no problems for nearly 7 months.  I wrote about praying for miracles back in June, and although this was not an option on my radar, I’ll take it!  Thank you, Lord.  There is still one unsolved painful mystery, but that requires surgery that is deemed “elective” and no hospitals are doing those, so I’ll just wait.  

I was able to take time to grieve when and how I needed to.  I hiked often and I started learning Spanish.  I read a lot.  I composed.  I wrote. I helped Ethan with tons of renovations/construction.  I tended our lovely garden and I was conscripted to work for our church’s streaming/audio/visual team that Ethan spear-headed (because Catholic churches are operating in the dark-ages, technologically speaking).  I spent a couple days a month getting my mind off of me and onto others (this is something I’ve found is really important for me to help me stay grounded) by packing and delivering food to needy families in rougher sections of town, and making bi-weekly phone calls to elderly shut-ins.  But by far, the most healing and wonderful part of 2020 was spending Thursday’s with God in the perpetual adoration chapel. For my non-Catholic friends, perpetual adoration is where the Host (the literal body of Christ) is placed upon the alter, and as the name implies, people sign up for 1 hour time slots to sit in the literal presence of Christ and adore Him so that prayers are being offered 24 hours of every day.  There a several things that I wanted to share with you from some of those times.

At some point during the summer, as we grew closer to opening up our home once more to children, and I sat telling Jesus about my fear of fostering again, Jesus brought to mind Peter.  “You’re like him sometimes, you know.”  

“Ew, no thanks,” I thought.  Of all the disciples, I wanted to be like the beloved John or the practical James, not Peter.  Peter was always shooting his mouth off in an ignorant and brash kind of way.  He was ridiculously stubborn.  Okay, okay, I can see that one.  And Peter also took more risks than anyone else, thinking he was ready when he clearly wasn’t.  

“Yes,” Jesus reminded me, “but he was the only one willing to step out of the boat into the storm.  You can’t always feel ready for that first step onto the water. You just have to trust me that I’ll pick you up as I did Peter, when your strength is used up and you’re sinking.”

I looked over at a picture that hangs to one side of the altar, and realized for the first time, the artist probably had that very moment in mind when he painted Hippie Jesus. I call it Hippie Jesus because he’s got a feathery 70’s Fara Fawcett hairdo.  He is smiling compassionately and extending his nailed-scarred hands toward the viewer. It’s the same look that a parent gives their child when they’ve told them it’s a bad idea because they’re not ready, but allows it because said child is stubborn and going to do it anyway, and then when the child inevitably hurts himself, the parent compassionately smiles with a hint of I-told-you-so, but picks the child up anyway and encourages him to try again.  “You trusted me last year to hold you up when you were drowning in what seemed like an impossible task. I was there for you then and will be always.  Trust me.  I have good things for you.”  And I saw myself as a scared child reaching out a tentative hand.  I felt deeply the Psalm that says, “I will give thanks to your name because of your kindness and your truth. When I called, you answered me; you built up strength within me.” 

At another time, as I prayed about all of the hatred that seems to be so pervasive right now, I had to own up to some anger I was holding onto.  And then I sat, trying to still myself enough to listen.  “It’s hard to hate up close,” Jesus gently reminded me.  “Get closer.”  And Jesus, as always, was right.  So, I went and spent some time with the people that had hurt me (don’t worry, outside and properly distanced), and you know what?  It’s true.  I’ve never been able to stay mad when I’m looking someone in the eye and they’re sharing their hardships with me.  And then it hit me. 

The collective behavior I’ve seen during 2020 brings me back to the greatest challenge of foster-parenting.  Each moment of my day is spent calming children’s central nervous systems so that they are no longer living in a constant primal state of fight/flight/freeze.  It’s hard sometimes too because these fearful kids just seem angry, have control issues and temper tantrums.  They live in a perpetual state of victimhood because they feel out of control.  And victimhood is the ultimate empathy killer.

But it’s not kids acting that way.  In 2020, it’s all of us adults.  It’s been shocking to observe the many smart, rational people become these angry, completely unrecognizable and irrational people.  It is a natural, physiological response for us to act angry and irrational when we are living in fearful, out-of-control survival mode.  The problem is, that state of being makes it completely impossible for us to have empathy for others.  And empathy is what we need most right now; that ability to rejoice with those rejoicing, while simultaneously mourning with those who mourn.  

These realizations helped me to look at people differently and instead of desiring a verbal sparring match on social media or getting frustrated, it helped me realize I need to pray more for others, and perhaps pass on some of the things I’ve learned as a foster parent, as a reader of holocaust memoirs, and as one who has spent plenty of time in survival mode. So here goes…

  1. Own your feelings and actions, name your fears, and work to stop being the victim in your own mind.  When you are able to verbalize your fears, they lose their power over you, and you don’t have to keep being the victim. Remember: you are responsible for your reactions and choices. No one else.
  2. Narrow your focus to right here, right now.  Not the past, not the future, not others, just you.here.now.  I picture all of the times I was so sick and had to focus on one step at a time and that’s it.
  3. Find something that gives you a sense of control.  Whether it’s taking control of your inner thought life (praying or meditating), or an outward physical action (gardening, cleaning, working out, turning off the news or social media), find something that gives you a sense of contribution.  It can be tiny.  On my worst days, I write a to-do list filled with things I wouldn’t think of not doing, just so I can cross it off and feel productive: wake up, make coffee, etc…  
  4. Find something to be grateful for each day.  Most people in survival mode struggle with this because they are always on the lookout for the bad and have trained their brain’s receptive pathways to be alert for the bad, so practicing gratitude is really important to retrain your brain.  Being grateful also makes you happier.
  5. Find a purpose or a way to feel useful or to give back. Again, even tiny things can make a HUGE difference.
  6. Find something/someone to hope in or for.  Every Holocaust survivor has someone or something that they said helped them stay alive, no matter how bad things became. Whether it was their belief in God, the importance of their work, or a loved one.
  7. Remember that now is not forever and this is not normal.  One thing that gave me inestimable comfort and joy was being able to go outside where life was “normal.”  The birds still sang, the trees still gave their shade, and the flowers still bloomed.  Holocaust survivors also mention how strange and yet comforting it was that the earth continued along its normal seasonal path, despite their feeling that their personal world was ending.  
  8. If you can’t feel empathy for someone, then go through the motions of it.  That’s right, fake it ’til you make it.  With our foster kids, we taught them to consider how someone else feels, knowing that they’d be parroting this behavior for years before internalizing any of it.  And that’s okay because the practice of it is what matters.  Feelings are fickle, it’s your mind that you’re training. And with enough time and practice, maybe you’ll be able to actually feel empathy as well.

So as 2020 closed out, and 2021 has begun, I encourage you to keep on keeping on and give a little more grace as you can, because frankly, we’re all just a bunch of scared children desiring some measure of control.

The Best Books I read in 2020

Reading is like an open door to a new world
Books: an open door to a different world.

This year, I hit my goal of 50 books and beyond, and lucky me, most of them were terrific books, but that made this list very hard to pair down.  So here goes…

Nonfiction

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

If you choose one non-fiction book to read on this list, this should be it.  Not only is it important, it’s also written in a compelling and personal way, with a perfect balance of compassion and lawyerly matter-of-factness.  

I saw the movie first, and although it wasn’t bad, it only covers one of the many stories in the book of those wrongfully convicted and on death row.  If you have a heart for troubled kids or those with disabilities you may ugly-cry your way through this book as I did.  You may also come away from this book with fire in your veins and newly-refreshed hope in your heart.

The New Jim Crowe: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander

Alexander did a terrific job delving into the research for this book and I felt like I learned so much about the history of the racist “War on Drugs.”  There were some things that surprised me—like her research and views on the pros and cons of affirmative action and the lip-service but opposite actions of President Obama regarding “The War on Drugs.”  Depending on the reader, it has the potential to be eye-opening, uncomfortable, but very needed.  White friends, please read this book and understand the problem more fully.  If you want to change America for the better, reading this book is a great place to start.

The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog: And other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook by Dr. Bruce Perry

This was a fascinating and encouraging read.  Each chapter is a story about a child/children that Dr. Perry helped.  Several are extreme cases, some are unfortunately typical for children coming into foster care.  I love his compassionate, atypical approach to therapy (which is actually very intuitive and instinctual).  Here is one of the fascinating take-aways I gleaned. 

You may have heard “children are so resilient.”  In reality, children are far less resilient than teens/adults because their brains are in the midst of developing when the trauma is occurring.  The younger they are when the trauma occurs, the more development is derailed.  If the trauma continues without some sort of abatement, the outlook is bleak.  If the child has a healthy attachment, even for the first year of life, and then horrible circumstances after that, that year of attachment gives that child a much higher chance for resilience later on.  (This is HUGE).

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel A. van der Kolk  

This book, like Dr. Perry’s book was eye-opening, fascinating and encouraging.  The one concept that I loved in this book was, when replaying trauma, if you can find a way to feel control, no longer being the completely helpless victim, you can slowly start to change your trauma response to those memories.  Trauma affects every system of your body, so, as Dr. van der Kolk points out, there are many methods now that patients have found ways to move through their trauma (both literally and figuratively).

The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting: Strategies and Solutions by Sarah Naish

There is a term that the author uses that I love.  As foster or adoptive parents, we are “re-parenting” our kids.  That means that what many parents are able to do on a daily basis are not options for us.  Times that most kids love and anticipate, like birthdays and holidays, might be absolute hell for us. It’s many times an opposite world. Anyway, this is a wonderful and practical index of ideas to implement.  The larger half of the book really is laid out A-Z with descriptions of what behaviors are occurring, why they might be occurring, what to do in the moment, and what to do afterward.  Great ideas for parenting kids with attachment issues.

Memoir/Biography

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie  

This is one of the best and most inspiring books I have read in years. I loved this book. Elie does an incredible job in his research and helps one feel connected on a personal level, with each of the four famous writers: Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy. He weaves their spiritual journeys with how it corresponds to their writings at the time. It’s truly beautiful. And, in all transparency, I am the target audience because…

  1. I’m a Catholic convert
  2. a wanna-be writer
  3. a lover of southern fiction (particularly these authors)
  4. and I have an insatiable desire to understand the “why” of people.

Hope’s Boy: A Memoir by Andrew Bridge

I found this while browsing at my library and wow, what a beautiful surprise.  This is the true story of a boy named Andy and his life’s journey through foster care.  There are so many things that he believes and thinks as a kid in care that anyone who is connected with fostering/adopting should know (social workers, foster/adoptive parents).  I highly recommend this book whether or not you are connected with foster kids, but especially if you are.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

I’ve never been disappointed with an Erik Larson book.  If you enjoy history but need it to be not dry and boring, Larson is the author for you.  I really loved this book in particular because of the heroism, stubbornness, wittiness and eccentricities of the Churchill family.  Perhaps it’s also because I see many parallels between Ethan and Winston Churchill; especially in their ability to lead during a crisis, and to do what is right in the face of criticism. Thankfully though, Ethan doesn’t have Churchill’s moodiness.

An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir by Ariel Lev

I appreciated Lev’s ability to tell her strange story.  It’s very difficult to convey all of the complexity of being the child of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, but I think she does it well.  If you have a dark sense of humor as I do, you might find yourself chuckling and saying, “Yep, been there, done that” under your breath.  If you have no experience with this, you might find it disturbing or off-putting.  Warning: If you were raised by a parent with BPD, this book might be very triggering unless you’re in a healthy enough place to read it.

Fiction

Kristin Lavrensdatter by Sigrid Undset

If you choose one fictional book to read from this list, this one is by far the best.  It is written by a famous Norwegian author and is set in the 1300’s Norway.  The historical aspects are so well done and fascinating.  Undset really makes you feel as if you are watching lives unfold during that time. This book follows the life of Kristen Lavrensdatter from childhood through adulthood.  It is a very rich, spiritual and profound story.  However, I feel it my duty to warn you that the book is sectioned into 3 parts and totals over 1600 pages (with helpful historical footnotes) and when it is over, you will be sad it’s over. Part 1, although very good and beautifully written, is the weakest and a little slow.  Also, this is the part where Kristin falls in love and romance, as a general rule, no matter how well-done, makes me queasy.  Part 2 picks up speed and throws in quite a few surprises. I’m rarely surprised (a curse of being a voracious reader who’s also seen a lot of life), so the ability to surprise is a hallmark of good story-telling. Part 3 can’t be read fast or slow enough.  Okay, I’m done gushing over it, but do yourself a favor and read it.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This was an absolutely delightful book with a lovely twist at the end.  That’s all I will tell you because it’s just a beautiful book with lovely characters.  Be forewarned: this book may make you long to try some of the foods mentioned in the book.

Joy in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse

After reading many heavy books early in the year, I asked my well-read Facebook friends to give me some happy light-reading ideas.  This series was hands-down the favorite for laughs, so I tried it out.  And laugh I did!  How have I lived my life without this particular joy in it?  As I laughed along, I couldn’t help but see Hugh Laurie (a favorite actor/jazz pianist of mine) as Bertie Wooster.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Being the morbid person that I am, I’ve always said that if anything ever happened to Ethan, I’d pack up and move to Alaska.  I love Alaska.  I love its harshness, wildness, and beauty.  So when I read the description of the book…Vietnam vet with PTSD takes his family to Alaska, I was already hooked.  I appreciated Hannah’s realistic portrayal of a vet with PTSD, the brutality and beauty of Alaska, and the unity and dependence on community that is required to survive.

Britt-Marie was Here by Fredrik Backman

Backman has become a favorite author of mine.  His characters always sparkle with quirks and good hearts underneath eccentric exteriors.  This one is about a delightfully persnickety woman who solves every problem with bicarbonate of soda and has herself an unexpected little heart-warming adventure.  It’s such a fun read.

A few more noteworthy reads to consider:

  • Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown
  • The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
  • The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood
  • Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness by Tracy Kidder
  • Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates
  • I am Malala: The Story of the Girl who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
  • The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

The Best Hikes in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

One of the greatest “blessings of COVID” is seeing so many new hikers out enjoying trails that before, I used to have mostly to myself.  For the first time ever, I’m sharing the trails with families who are looking around like they’ve never done this before, their kids voices are filled with excited discovery, sometimes whining, and I’ve answered more questions than ever before while on the trail.  I think it’s terrific.  But I also must admit that my selfish side isn’t thrilled with having to share MY trails with so many loud newbs.  Kidding…mostly.  Seriously though, I’d like to share some of these gems with you too.

The other day, while I was getting an adjustment from my chiropractor (who’s an avid cyclist/hiker), we were discussing hikes around the area.  I mentioned my favorite hike in Lancaster and after describing its most stunning features, I was shocked to learn that she’d never heard of it.  And as I was leaving, a woman in her 50’s who’d been sitting across the room while I was being adjusted, ran out after me.

“Excuse me,” she panted, the door slamming shut behind her. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but what is the name of that place you were talking about?  I’m bored of always walking in the same places and that one sounds so interesting.”

“Kelly’s Run.”

This is the fourth time since the start of COVID that I’ve been asked for a list of hikes around Lancaster and well, I’ll just share my list with you.  They’re not advertised, not always the easiest to locate, and if you aren’t an AllTrails junky (or married to Ethan, my intrepid explorer), you might not know what to look for. 

So here are some lovely hikes in Lancaster, Pennsylvania you might want to try out, starting with my absolute favorite!

(As a side note, the difficulty rating is based on other Eastern PA hikes.  I learned the hard way, that if you’re from any place with real mountains, the difficulty level is going to be a 1/5 for you).

Kelly’s Run Nature Preserve  (4 mile loop, difficulty 3.5/5)

Address: T397, Holtwood, PA 17532

This is my favorite because of it’s length, difficulty, and its diversity.  It’s got open fields, rhododendron woods, lush undergrowth, a few long/steep hills, large rock faces, waterfalls, a winding stream with multiple traverses, and an overlook of the dam.  What more could you ask for?  

Some pictures to prove how right I am 😉 

Shiprock Woods Nature Preserve (1.5 Mile loop trail, difficulty 2/5)

Address: 2628 Shiprock Rd, Willow Street, PA 17584

This is the hike that we’ve taken every foster child who’s come through our home (even if just for respite care)…I guess that makes 7 at this point.  The mileage is accessible for most kids, it has lots of rolling hills, a little stream to find crawdads and skip rocks, and is just so dang pretty. It also makes for a great run.

Pictures:

Landis Woods Nature Preserve (1.3-?, difficulty 1.5/5)

Address: 2369 Lititz Pike, Lancaster, PA 17601

This can be as long or as short as you want.  The woods are beautiful, and in the distance, you can hear children playing and if you’re lucky enough to be walking there at the top of the hour, you can hear the church bells of St. John Nuemann Catholic Church tolling in the distance. The sounds of church bells and children playing, makes me feel as if I’m hiking in France. Within the scope of the woods, there are many intersecting little loops that run through the woods and eventually lead to a stream and multi-use path.  This path winds through fields and in the fall, with the type of home architecture in the background, I’m suddenly transported to Iceland. I walked about 8 miles with a friend a few months back, but we made a nice long detour up past Westminster Church and through Lancaster Bible College over to a park.  The point in saying that, is that this trail connects to all kinds of other trails/sidewalks if you want to go further. 

Pictures:

(This is the part that reminds me of Iceland)

Trout’s Run Nature Preserve (2.3 miles, difficulty 1/5)/Steinman Run Nature Preserve (2.6 mile loop, difficulty 2.5/5)

Address: Stump Rd, Pequea, PA 17565 

Trout Run is a fun, easy hike along a stream.  It’s quite lovely.  You might get your feet wet as it traverses through the stream a few times.  Steinman Run is just up the road from Trout Run and it’s also nice but has hills that Trout Run does not.  Both make great running trails.

Susquehannock State Park (1.5-14.3 miles, difficulty 1/5-5/5)

Address: 1880 Park Dr, Drumore, PA 17518)  

This one is as short/long/hard/easy as you want it to be.  Some of the trails that run along the river are tough (hence the 5/5 difficulty rating above), with lots of straight up and down, but other trails that go back into the woods closer to the overlook, are easy and short.  This is also a lovely place to picnic or view the gorgeous overlook of the Susquehanna River.  It’s very scenic.

Turkey Hill Overlook Trail  (6 miles-ish, difficulty 4/5)

Address: 2501 River Rd, Conestoga, PA 17516

This one is fun and a bit longer.  It’s up a large hill at the beginning and goes to the windmills to an overlook.  From there, you can go longer (up to 12 miles), or turn back for a shorter hike.  It’s got all of the diversity that you can want from a hike.

There are still a few hikes that I’ll keep close to the vest for now, but this is enough to get you hooked on hiking.

2020: Praying for Miracles

Miracle is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in this way.  1 : an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs (the healing miracles described in the Gospels). 2 : an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment (The bridge is a miracle of engineering).

This year has been filled with the unexpected.  On a global, national, and personal level.  It has left me praying for miracles—for others.  Not for me.  Never for me.  But we’ll return to that in a moment.

In March, I found myself struggling with constant GI pain that began a week before everything shut down.  The timing was unfortunate, to say the least.  

“We’ll send you for an ultrasound, but you’ll have to wait for the hospital to call you,” was what the doctor told me.

A month passed by and the pain grew much worse—I was barely eating or sleeping.  The hospital never called, so I called the hospital.  They scheduled the ultrasound, but it was 2 weeks out.  I called my doctor, and all of the doctors were out on vacation, but at the end of Friday, the Physician’s Assistant called me and said, “It sounds like appendicitis, so I’m going to call you in some antibiotics and see if that works.  If your pain gets worse or your fever gets any higher, get to the hospital right away.”

A week later, I finally got in to see the doctor who ran blood tests and sent me for a CT scan.  But by then, the antibiotics had done their work and the massive swelling had gone down, some pain was gone, and my fever had lessened.  “You definitely had tons of inflammation and infection,” she confirmed after looking at the blood tests.  Yeah, I know.  I was there.  “We just don’t know what was infected or why.”

So, she sent me to another doctor who in turn, finally sent me to a GI specialist.  After regaling him with the details of my annoying saga, he gave a befuddled laugh and said, “You have a very strange body.”  Yeah.  I’ve been informed of that for most of my life.  He ran a few more blood tests and told me to come back in a few weeks if the pain didn’t magically resolve.

So, it’s almost July and I still have no answers and am still in pain.  To use the current buzzword, it’s a little triggering as I’ve been through all of this before.  The endless frustration of waiting for 3 1/2 years, and finally receiving a diagnosis of a little understood incurable, chronic illness.  That was disappointing.

So, when I found myself in the garden, and praying fervently for others in our broken world, God asked, “Why haven’t you asked me for a miracle for yourself yet?”

I came up short.  I thought back and had to admit to myself that I have avoided praying for myself or anything that I want.  But why?  And then, as I found myself yanking up weeds with ferocity, I admitted it: I felt duped.  And then, laughing at my own foolishness, I thought of how, alongside those past prayers for miracles I’d also prayed “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” just as fervently, secretly hoping that God’s will was aligned with mine (not the other way around).  The irony doesn’t escape me.

And if anyone had driven by right then, they’d see a crazy person, talking to herself and crying, like a petulant child throwing a tantrum, because her dad didn’t give her what she wanted.  I listed my litany of grievances to God because asking for miracles shouldn’t be so freakin’ complicated.  

“I asked you for a miracle when I was so sick last time,” I started.  “I asked for healing.  And what did you do?  You gave me a sickness that I can’t fix, that no one can.  You gave me something that slows me down, forces me to face my inabilities and weaknesses daily.  I have to do less, ask for more from you and others.  That’s not the miracle I wanted.

“If I ask for a miracle this time with my sickness, what should I expect?

“Last year, I begged you for a miracle for the boys.  My heart was—still is—broken, and what did you give me?  A dream.  Before I ever even met them or knew who they were, you told me that I could never call them mine.  So I asked you for that to be untrue, for that dream to be just a dream…but I knew it wasn’t.  I told no one.  I asked for you to let us keep them.  And what miracle did you give me then?  You helped me to find love for the people who hurt them time and again.  You helped me understand and love them in their broken humanity because their brokenness called to mine.  You changed my heart to want them to be successful caregivers, to know that they are cared about by others.  That’s not the miracle I wanted.  

“I begged for your help in teaching Nick to make better choices.  But he’s in jail, and has suffered so much there.  He is starting to change, but does it have to be like this?  I prayed for miracles, but this is not how I’d envisioned them.  

“And then there’s Jeremy.  I don’t even know where he is right now.  Is he in jail, homeless, in a mental hospital, or has Charmaine found him once more, and like a guardian angel, taken him into her halfway house again until he wanders off once more when his meds stop working? She is not the miracle that I imagined, but her love for the most broken certainly is.

“And then there’s Mom. I prayed for you to heal Mom from her depression my entire life, but she remained depressed and suicidal until the moment she died.  She’s healed with you, I know, but that was not the miracle I’d wanted.”  

And there it was, some of my deepest griefs and fears laid bare.  And as I considered what God had done, I realized that he did do miracles and they were beautiful, but they took massive amounts of pain and sometimes sacrifice.  He changed me, not necessarily the things around me.  

I prayed for the first time this year, for miracles for me, whatever that means.  I prayed that God will prepare my heart for the next set of kiddos that darken our doorway, whether they are here forever or for just a short time. I prayed for a doctor who could figure me out.  I pray that I’ll have the energy to fight for our next kiddos as hard as I did for the last, that I won’t instinctively guard my heart from them, that I will love them through their pain.  

As the time draws near for us to open our home once more to new children, I’m excited and nervous for that next phone call when our lives will completely change once more.  There will be the hard period where we relearn these next kids, their traumas, their likes, their dislikes, and start to help them trust, one moment at a time, perhaps for the first time.  Maybe they’ll have been starved, abused, or abandoned. Perhaps they’ll act out violently or hoard food.  But I’m praying for strength.  

And as I think about myself and my own need for miracles, I think of everyone else enduring this profound year of 2020.  I see the turmoil as a hopeful and redemptive phase; birth-pangs of the miracles that are to come.  Some say the end of the world is near, and they throw up their hands and wait.  I say, what does that change for me?  Nothing.  I’m still going to hope, to do, to pray that others hope and that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves (hopes, dreams, time, whatever else) for the love of God and others. 

It is our duty as Christ-followers to be those who hope and pray for redemption by being actively redeemed.  But many times, our own self-righteousness, fear, and anger cause “even the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion…we have to be stonecatchers.”—Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

2020 might not be the year we want, but maybe it’s the year we need. Now is the time for compassion.  Shall we pray for miracles and be the stonecatchers together?

Thoughts on Being a Mom Never Called Mom and the Importance of Trust-Based Parenting

I’ve been called many things by the kids I’ve raised: Mama Nina, Nina, Anna, Miss Anna—but I’ve never had the title “Mom” because in the fostering world, and in our family growing up, that title is one of contention.  Growing up, it was taboo to speak of me doing the job of a mom, because it would hurt my Mom.

But to me, the title means nothing because I know something that other parents either don’t know or are able to take for granted: it’s the trust your kids place in you that matters, not what they call you.  It’s all in how they say your name that matters and the love in their eyes when they look at you.  My favorite pictures of my siblings and all of my foster kiddos are the ones where I’m behind the camera. They’re looking at me and it is that special smile that I never seem to see in pictures that others take of them—and that is more than enough.

First, a little history if you don’t already know my story.  I’ve been parenting off and on since I was 6 years old.  I raised several of my siblings (5) until I left for college at 19.  You may also know that my husband and I became guardians to my youngest brother in 2013 and had another brother live with us for a year.  For the past 13 months, we fostered 5 young boys (2 for a short time, 3 for 13 months) that we had hoped to adopt.  And last month, they were reunited with family.

Currently, the house is quiet.  The quietest it’s been since 2012…and I’m okay with it.  People keep asking me how I’m doing through the grieving process. I’m appreciating a break after a super stressful year, but this separation from the children that I’ve cared for and love deeply is not a new experience. The difference being, I can talk about it this time. 

You see, I felt exactly the same way when I left my siblings at home and went away to college.  I imagine it’s how people feel when they are empty-nesters…only they generally know their children are safe…but there was no such guarantee for my siblings.  And who could I share this with?  What other college student would understand?  I was 19, felt like a complete pretender at college anyway (because I’d homeschooled myself in the moments I wasn’t teaching my siblings or working and had huge gaping holes in my academics), and I worried constantly about my kids that weren’t mine.  One of my brothers, refused to eat for the first 3 days after I left and cried himself to sleep each night, asking if I was going to come home soon.  That was heart-wrenching.  So I did what I could to keep the attachment alive: I called every few days, wrote letters, and purposefully bombed choir/chamber auditions that first year just so that I wouldn’t have to go on tour and could go home instead.  

So letting go of these kiddos this time around, felt no different.  It was still hard, but the mettle of my heart has been tested before and I know its strength because really, I’m heavily relying on Christ’s boundless strength.

So why am I saying all of this?  Well, I suppose that I fully realized this year what I’d intuitively known since I was a kid: my 7 brothers, 1 sister and I grew up with all of the same issues that foster kids/orphans have.  I got to see it all play out before my eyes each day as my husband and I fostered. I hope that the experiences of my own past can help each child that comes through our home and perhaps other parents.

I’d like to share some important things that we learned along the way.  Some of them, we learned from books (I’ll put links at the bottom).  Many of them I drew on from my own experiences.  Others, we learned from the classes that we took in preparation for fostering licensing.  Many of these will apply whether you have your own biological kids, foster kids, adopted kids, or even no kids at all.

Please know that this is simply to share a condensed version of the most important things that we’ve learned–not everything. And this is certainly not to brag or say that we know it all.  It’s also not to put down my own parents (whom I love very much and I know tried their best with what they knew at the time–what I think all parents desire to do), but to share pieces of my own story–“the why” behind what I’ve learned. Parents need to help each other in whatever ways we can through sharing what we’ve learned.  I’m hoping that this will give encouragement, maybe prompt new ideas.

A few things to keep in mind…

1) The best thing you can do for your kids is to work through your own issues.  Face them, name them, practice daily defying those demons from your past because if you don’t face them of your own volition, your kids will unwittingly force you to.  This is the most important thing I learned from foster-parenting classes, but it’s something all parents should know.

2) Building trust is everything.  This is the gist of most parenting books.

3) Parenting traumatized kids is like living in a backwards world.  When you naturally think you should punish, that might be the best time to do love and grace instead.  You learn to do the opposite of your instincts fairly often.  The more your child trusts you, the worse their behaviors will become because they will be testing to see how much you really love them.

For You, the Parent

Know your personal priorities

What do you need to do for yourself to help you be a good parent?  For me, I need alone time each day or I will not be even remotely close to being a good mom.  Ethan needs a way to decompress after work (a good workout). 

Know your family priorities  

Our top priorities were these: Felt Safety, Love, Learned Self-Reliance, Family means teamwork, and Empathy.  And all of these were really just avenues to build Trust.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

This goes hand-in-hand with knowing your priorities.  One of my priorities is to get kids places on time.  As a kid, I always dreaded Sunday mornings.  My parents would argue all morning and kids would be wrangled into clothes we didn’t like or didn’t fit and everyone would pile into the two cars, angry and harried.  As a teenager, I remember reading that someone decided to dress her children in their church clothes Saturday night, and although the clothes were wrinkled, it made for less stressful Sunday mornings.  Wrinkles mattered to my mom, so we never did that back then, but I tucked it away for later use. So this past year, with three very ADHD kids, we had no choice but to dress the night before to get to school on time.  Sure their clothes were wrinkled, their shoes might be on the wrong feet, but they were on-time for school.  This made Friday and Saturday’s our fun pajama nights.

Another of my priorities is also having a sanitary house (it doesn’t have to be spotless).  So, combined with getting ADHD kids out the door on time, we take shoes off at the front door.  We never spent a second looking for lost shoes, there was less cleaning for me to do, and we got out the door on time.

Another priority of mine is to teach kids that although I enjoy being with them and playing with them, it is not my job to entertain them.  So, to go along with my personal priority of alone time, each day, we have a quiet time.  At first, this was 10 minutes and eventually, we were able to build to an hour where each person could play by himself quietly.  

Be Flexible on all the non-priorities and let your yes be yes and no, no

To build trust, always say yes whenever possible, and draw hard lines for your no’s.  For people like me, I’m always looking for a way to say yes.  I am very good with structure and creating routines but not always as flexible as I could be.  For people who are the opposite of me (naturally more unstructured like my husband), look for places to draw the line. One thing that kids learn after a little while is, if I say maybe or “Let me think about that,” it truly means I’ll do just that and neither of us know what the answer will be yet.  Whatever you say, say what you mean and stick with it.  Speaking of which…

Be consistent

Kiddos from hard places crave structure and consistency.  They love knowing what is expected.  At the same time, because it’s a new experience, they will have tons of meltdowns and tantrums, testing those boundaries, but ultimately find comfort in them.  Never say something that you don’t plan on following through on 100%.  Whether you promise a day a the park or that they will not get dessert.  Help them to see that you are trustworthy.  If you say, I’ll pick you up from school at 3:30, you better be there every time you say it.  

Explain the Why (when appropriate)

Life doesn’t always go as planned (if you’re a foster parent, you can bank on nothing going as planned).  Kids are always watching, so if you don’t accept failure with grace and dignity, odds are, your kiddos won’t either.  If you promised a day at the park but a thunderstorm made it impossible, tell them why you can’t go, maybe express your disappointment so that they too feel free to express theirs and show them how to move on to a plan B.  Maybe they can give you input about what that plan B looks like.  Kids feel pretty good when they’re in-the-know. 

Time-ins, Redos and Making it Right

As my priest once told me during confession, “Guilt is good because it tells you that you did a bad thing and you can make it right.  Shame is bad because it tell you that you are bad and there is no grace in that.”  Shame is a huge burden that all kids from hard places carry.  It permeates every aspect of life for them.  They all carry around the message that they are not good enough.  So it a parent’s job to help them learn right from wrong without shaming.  Separate who they are from what they did.  When kiddos mess up, move away from the “scene of the crime,” and wait with them until they’re calm (depending on the kid and their level of dysregulation, this may mean an hour).  Waiting until their calm gives you the time to calm down too (you may need it just as much as they do).  Then, talk, step-by-step about what happened, how they were feeling while making their bad choice and how they could do it correctly. Our standard thing (with many variations) was to say, “You made a bad choice, but that doesn’t make you a bad kid.”  We would hug, and then ask, “What can you do to make it right?”  Eventually, they were able to come up with some great ideas.  Sometimes it was hugging the kid they hurt, or sharing a favorite toy, etc…Kids love making things right because that makes them feel successful.  Once the plan is in place, we take them back to the “scene of the crime” and they demonstrate the right thing to do and practice making it right.  It’s really a beautiful thing to witness.

When Things Go Bad, Be the Mature One and Forgive without strings attached

You’re going to be tempted to hold grudges, to forgive with strings attached, but when you forgive, try your best to let it go forever.  Especially when a kid has a pattern of a particular bad behavior, you might find yourself wanting to bring up their bad behavior the next time a similar situation rolls around, but don’t let yourself.  It’s one thing to tell them that you’ve noticed a pattern, but don’t tell them you expect them to fail again.  

Apologize without Buts…

A sincere apology is so important.  My parents didn’t really do apologies–it wasn’t a part of culture back then either.  The few times they did, there were always buts attached.  “I’m sorry I yelled at you, but if you hadn’t ______, I wouldn’t have done that.”  As a kid, this made it worse because the message was, “I’m sorry, but it’s your fault.”

What Kids need from us: Safety/Control/Love

“Never underestimate the power of the mundane to a traumatized child.”  I forget who said that, but it is so true.  It is those little details that matter to traumatized kiddos.  So here are some parts of the mundane that matter.

Routine

A routine is a great way to give kiddos that feeling of safety.  Letting them know what is coming next (having a calendar with pictures, making a routine chart, and talking through things before they happen) can mitigate many meltdowns.  Once established in the routines (this may take months), allow them to begin choosing the order of portions of the routine (should we clean up toys first or go brush teeth first?). This gives them a feeling of acting as a team that they most likely will have never had before and gives them that sense of control they so desperately want.  As a child and teen, I craved structure in our dysfunctional, chaotic household.  I saw that some of my younger siblings wanted the same thing, so I started to create routines and I saw how well they worked to smooth life for all of us.  

Food Security

Food is a big struggle for many kids, but especially those from hard places.  Food is very connected to feeling loved and safe and feeling in control.  Get to know their favorite foods right away and incorporate them into the menu (small and mundane but super important!).  It’s more than likely pb&j, Cheezits, fast food, and pizza, but over time, you can start slowly adding things to their diet and finding new favorites. Because food insecurity is typical, have a fruit bowl or healthy snacks ready whenever “needed.”  The first six months, we offer a little snack every 2 hours.  Letting them help make meals is a great way to get them to try new things and again, to feel in control.  We have a garden and letting them work alongside us to plant, tend, and harvest the produce, got them to eat fruits and vegetables that they previously refused to try.  At each meal together, we made sure to always assure them that there was plenty of food and that no one else would eat it if that child needed to leave the table or use the restroom.  Some of these things I learned from books.  Some of them I already knew from growing up with food insecurities. We were a poor family with 11 people and not always enough food for those that ate last—the people who prepared it (mostly me and my mom).

Choices

By giving limited acceptable choices (for kids 7 and under, 2 choices is sufficient and I only offer things I find acceptable), you are empowering the kiddo to feel like a teammate and to be in control of his or her own choices.  If this is new to them, they might find it difficult to choose (they will pick something not offered, or they will refuse to choose), but as long as you, the adult, stick to your guns, they will usually choose.  If they don’t, let them know that you will make the choice for them.  Examples of mundane choices would be two choices for toothpaste, and did they want bubbles or no bubbles at bath time, did they want pretzels or chips with their pb&j?  Simple things like that helped them feel like they had a certain say over their own lives.

Teamwork 

The concept of family being a team is definitely foreign to most kids from hard places.  My husband likes to describe my side of the family as Lord of the Flies.  And it’s true.  When you grow up surviving, you learn to trust no one and family means a bunch of people living in the same place, but truly, it’s every man for himself. That’s why the messaging and modeling of teamwork from the very start is so important.  This can be as simple as how you and your spouse interact with each other.  If your kiddo has a chronic problem, collaborate with them on a solution to show them how helping each other as teammates works.

Empathy/Play 

  Although this is the one that develops last, the foundation for it should be from the very beginning.  And that begins with play.  Play is your most powerful tool as a parent to kids from hard places.  As I’ve alluded to before, none of the kids from hard places have come to us knowing how to play. I cannot stress how important it is for traumatized kids to learn to play and you will have to teach them how to do it.  Play helps them to learn independence, self-regulation, self-reliance, how to share, get along with others, compromise, and most importantly, develops empathy.  

There are 3 basic types of play.  

1) Prescribed play.  That is playing a board game, building Lego with instructions.  At least for us, this is the type of play that developed last.  For our kiddos from hard places, there is too much pressure (losing, failing, doing it incorrectly).

2) Directed play.  You, as the adult are the one essentially modeling for your kids what play looks like.  This is the type of play that we cultivated for months on-end before they learned how to play independently, using their own imaginations.  You as the adult will be bored out of your mind at times, so you have to find a way to keep yourself interested.  I am imaginative, so making up stories and games is my favorite type of play.  At night, I love to read books and tell stories.  When we play, there is always a storyline. Some of the kiddos love to make creative artwork, so at one point, we made wanted posters and stalked around the yard in hats and nerf guns in hand, playing bounty hunters.   

3) Self-Directed play. This is when they can build with blocks on their own, make up their own stories, and find pleasure in it.  

Appropriate Touch and Eye Contact

Many kids from hard places have a strange relationship with touch and eye contact.  Whether they’ve encountered neglect, sexual, physical, or even psychological abuse, being aware of your own body language is extremely important.  Many kids from hard places have PTSD, so practicing self-awareness is imperative.  If they don’t make much eye contact, make sure that when they do, your face is welcoming: a softness in your eyes, a gentle smile on your face.  If they have a problem with being touched, take what they offer and offer it back with a tad bit more.  For example, if they want to hold your hand, take their hand, and maybe hold it in two hands for a moment while making quick eye contact with a smile.  Sometimes, kids from hard places won’t use appropriate touch, so make sure that you let them know when it’s not appropriate and model something that is a better choice.

Speak truth to them through their attachments

Kids from hard places aren’t always capable of accepting kind words directly.  Sometimes, you have to talk through objects that they are attached to. This might be a stuffed animal, this might be a real animal. I might say, “I sure do like how Jimmy is so kind to his brothers today.  He’s doing a great job sharing” (talking to the stuffed animal).  Or if I’m using our dog as the attachment piece, I’ll say things to the child like, “Look at that tail wagging.  She loves you so much, Jimmy.”

Model Gratefulness

This is one thing that my family always struggled with and one thing that all of our foster kiddos have struggled with: only seeing the bad.  There is tons of research out now that shows why that is.  When bad things happen, we tend to focus on them, replay them, as a predictive way to protect ourselves the next time (this is a primal instinct).  Unfortunately, this also means that we are training our brain to only see the negative.  Thankfully, the brain is malleable and can be rewired through practicing gratefulness and looking for the good.  So to do this, each night at dinner, we would go around and ask each person about their day.  They could tell up to 3 things that were great about the day and one hard thing.  For months, one kiddo couldn’t think of a single good thing, but he had a never-ending list of bad things.  So sometimes, Ethan and I would add simple things like “I got to eat my favorite food today” or “It was sunny” or something simple for him to catch onto.  After a while, that kiddo not only found 3 things he was happy about, but had to be limited to 10 to give others time.  The point?  Noticing the good, makes you a happier person.

Hopefully, some of the things that we’ve learned can help you and your family as well. Blessings on your journey (whatever that may be!).

Sources:

The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family by Dr. Karyn Purvis

Better Behavior for Ages 2-10: Small Miracles that Work Like Magic by Tara Egan

The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart M. Brown Jr.

Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld

Greetings From the Foxhole

A sweet goodbye letter from one of our kiddos (as transcribed by his teacher).

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds. Because you know that the testing of your faith builds perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

We must be lacking a lot. It was a year of great joy, unending grief, of bottomless love, and of waiting in dread while trying to keep placing our hopes and trust in Christ’s hands.

After a string of difficult years, this one surpassed all the others. Ethan calls it our foxhole year, and rightly so. This was an exhausting year, of fighting for the “least of these” within very broken systems. The concept of fighting for and not against is a difficult one for most people to grasp. It is nuanced and mostly, misunderstood. But isn’t that our calling? To love everyone and fight for justice even when our actions might be misunderstood?

It was also a fight within myself to find love and compassion for those who’ve wronged others. In every aspect, it was a year of hard, raw, growth. This particular scene kept playing in my head as the year went on: “Why do you want to adopt?” our caseworker asked, one sunny day last summer on the back deck, while all hell was breaking loose in the moat out front. “Because we have extra love in our hearts to give and an extra room,” was my answer. And that, in its simplicity is the truth. And love we have. More than we thought possible. And by the end of the year, in our battle-exhaustion, it became impossible to distinguish between the peace we’ve begged God for all along or numbness. Either way, it’s where we’re at.

This year revealed just how blessed that Ethan and I are that we can depend on each other as partners, battling shoulder to shoulder, on all fronts. And also, this was the year that we leaned most heavily on friends and family to support us. And they did, with the greatest love you can imagine, knowing that their own hearts might be broken too. But they did it anyway and for that, we can never thank them enough.

It began like this…
On January 1st, we opened our home as a foster-to-adopt home. By January 4th, we received an emergency phone call for 2 young brothers who needed an emergency placement that day. We’ll call them Alexi and Andrew. We took them for 3 days to see if things could work as they were said to have some difficult behaviors (that was an understatement). Imagine the most horrific life you can imagine children living, and theirs was worse. We learned bits and pieces of their story after we tucked them in each night, and in the darkness, they opened their little hearts to us. They were little survivors longing to be loved, and their survival techniques equated as extremely difficult and dangerous behaviors. 

If you ever foster or adopt, you need to know that many of these children (so far all of those who’ve come through our home) do not know how to play. Play is a luxury learned when you don’t have to spend every moment in survival mode. So, we applied our universal knowledge of boys: boys love sticks. So, we took them to the woods to play with sticks. They had never been in woods before. They had never played with sticks before. We watched them explore the woods with wonder, curiosity, and trepidation. It was the most joyful, beautiful set of moments. 

Alexi found a stuffed puppy amongst our toys that he grew immediately attached to. He carried it everywhere over the next few days and because of his inability to be gentle, the beads inside started to fall out. I put a purple produce rubber band around its neck to keep the beads in and Alexi thought that was great because now it had a collar. 

In only a few days of being with us, Alexi and Andrew were making plans for their future that included us. And me and Ethan? We could make no promises because although we tried to find any possible way that we could make this work, we simply couldn’t. The intensity of their behaviors set off my CFS pretty badly. Even though we are accepting of a wide range of behavioral issues, their needs were far beyond our abilities, and we had to say no.

When we had to tell them goodbye, Alexi wept, inconsolable, while Andrew lay down on the floor and stared at the ceiling in silence. When he finally spoke, it was in a flat tone, his eyes unfocused. “I thought we were going to live with you forever.” If you want to have your heart ripped out of your chest, just look in their eyes as you tell them goodbye, knowing that you will never see them again, and will likely never know what became of them. Alexi hugged his puppy to his chest and I told him to hug it tight whenever he needed to feel extra love because I’d put all of my love in there. I’m sitting here still sobbing as I think of those boys. I know that we did the right thing, but the right thing sometimes sucks. They will always have a piece of our hearts and we will always keep them in our prayers.

After that, we said that we might need some time to regroup and rethink our choice of a sibling group, but 4 days later, we got a call for 3 brothers. After I got the phone call, I got on my knees on the floor begging for a clear answer. I called Ethan. We were both hesitant. We prayed. We asked each other if we were crazy because we felt like it was a “yes,” and called the agency back. As soon as we met the boys, I felt comfortable, as if they were my brothers, recognizing immediately that their types of trauma are those I’ve spent my entire life understanding and raising. In January, they will have been with us for a year. 

They are terrific boys. The oldest is sensitive, creative, has a unique view of the world, and, as he likes to remind me almost every day, “We have much in common.” The middle boy, I call my “Peter Pan.” He is either for or against everything with his whole passionate heart. I like to say he’ll either grow up to be an actor, a musician, or a forest ranger (he loves nature). The youngest, we call “Little Lion.” He is an unstoppable force of nature and lacks fear. If he makes it to adulthood, he will probably become a neurosurgeon…or an astronaut.

We love them so much and have enjoyed teaching them how to play, to embrace their own talents and creativity, and have loved being able to witness their understanding of the world expand. They now know that God is love. We got to help them conquer many firsts: making friends, learning to read, tie their shoes, ride bikes, learn to swim, and how not to give up right away when things don’t go as planned.

In June, we got some unexpected news about their future. They would start transitioning back for reunification. This is much more complicated than it sounds and all I can say is that this made the rest of the year exponentially more difficult for everyone involved.

It has been a wonderful year that our lives have intertwined with theirs and soon, the plan is for their reunification. We will miss them and always love them.

The not-so-side plot… 

As I alluded to vaguely last year, we’ve had some rough years with my brother Nick. Looking back now, I see clearly that the end of 2016 was the start of what I now know to be the prodromal stage of schizophrenia. At the time, I thought perhaps it was just bipolar. Yeah, you know you’ve been around the block a few times when you say things like JUST bipolar. It was during that tumultuous time in 2016/2017 that he made lots of bad choices during his senior year of high school, and one particular set of decisions that would have ramifications for years to come. At the end of 2018, we learned that charges were being filed. So 2019 was a matter of waiting for sentencing. 

In the meantime, during the first half of 2019, we finally became Nick’s POA and that made it possible for me to navigate the difficult process of getting him on government assistance, making doctor’s appointments, etc…it sounds straight-forward. However, if you are the caregiver to an adult with special needs, mental illness, and anosognosia, you know that HIPAA laws need to be changed. This was the second battlefront: advocating for the mentally challenged.

In the spring, we began to get panicked phone calls by the hour. Nick’s mental health was declining rapidly. Stress, for those already predisposed to mental illness, can be cataclysmic. And that is exactly what was happening for him. After some extended paranoid-delusional episodes and hallucinations, I urged him to check himself into a mental hospital, and after a long period, he agreed. He just wanted—no—needed to feel safe. Once there, he stayed for a month. 

On one of my weekly visits to see him, I saw someone I recognized who was with a church group, visiting another patient. We shared a nod of greeting, and I could tell this was his first time in a place like this. I knew his look well. It’s a mixture of fear, slight embarrassment, and serious determination. I’m sure that when I was a teenager visiting Mom in a mental hospital for the first time, I had that look too. But then, I never saw my own face.

When visiting time was set to begin, and all the belongings of the visitors were safely locked away, we were led down a long and twisting corridor. Much nicer and cheerier than any of the other places I’d visited in the past. The staff was friendly and the place was clean. 

Upon entering the visiting room, my brother stood, that sweet grin on his face, his hair an unkempt puff. There were long, mournful faces scattered around the room. An elderly couple, sitting by the large windows, just holding each other in silence. And Nick and I talked about those things that meant most to him; his cat, his dog, and how much he liked being here because it made him feel safe from the world. He was happy. I was happy that he felt safe here and mostly, I was relieved that he was safe for now. 

I kept glancing over at the serious church group who prayed in fervent, serious tones with the patient. They clasped hands, and as if they huddled close enough together like a spiritual football team, they could pray away her demons with sheer determination. I’m sure those were not their intentions and their hearts were right (I mean gosh, they showed up), it just made me sad that there were no warm smiles for her. 

As for me, I found myself laughing and smiling with my brother as usual, and thought about how much a veteran of a place like this that I feel. There is no embarrassment nor shame. This, even though it may not seem like it, is a place of hope. Better the patients here than dead or still suffering alone and in silence.

At the beginning of July, my dear Aunt Mary (whom I’ve mentioned countless times on my blog because she’s my personal hero) suffered a massive stroke. She has since recovered most of the way physically, but she is still struggling with aphasia. I was able to see her at Thanksgiving, and being the frail human I am, I was nervous. What if I wasn’t able to understand her? And then I mentally rolled my eyes at myself because why should that bother me? I’ve raised multiple kids with speech difficulties, taught ESL for years to people who spoke no English. And then I realized, I wasn’t afraid that we couldn’t communicate. I was afraid that she wouldn’t be the woman that I knew. Of course, I was wrong. I showed her pictures of the boys, we exchanged book recommendations, and, true to herself, when she made mistakes or was unable to be understood, she simply laughed a gentle laugh, smiled shyly, and we found another way to get at what she was trying to communicate. She is so strong, humble, kind, and determined. She is the only hero I think I’ve ever truly had.

At the end of July, Nick was hospitalized and then sent to the mental hospital again after recovering. As his POA, it was a fight just to get him on the correct medications and to have doctors listen to his medical history since, according to him, his history changes daily.

During the times he was in the hospital, Ethan and I worked to clean out his house and to do renovations. So, our “free time” was spent at the dump and doing construction. In some ways, it was a good stress-reliever. Mostly though, it was just more stress. And then there was also the cat the was left behind and we had trouble re-homing…

At the end of September, Nick was sentenced and a new routine of learning the prison system would begin. There are so many things that I’m learning about how prisons in PA work and it is disheartening to say the least; especially for the mentally challenged/mentally ill population. And that has become the third battlefront: basic humane prisoner treatment. 

Thus we end our last day of 2019. We are filled with God’s love, and pray for miracles all around. We pray that there are others out there trying to reform these extremely broken systems who are not growing weary in the fight.

Our 2020 looks like more battles, but we’re pretty scrappy, and we are being kept afloat with love and prayers.

The Best Books I read in 2018 & 2019

Fiction

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

  This book is a fast, easy read and oh so enchanting.  I’m partial to it for many reasons, but mostly because I love historical fiction, realistic descriptions of nature,  mysteries, touches of magic, and stories of finding joy in hardship.  The story is set in the 1920’s, when people were beginning to homestead the Alaskan frontier.  The author grew up in Alaska, so her first-hand knowledge of its dangerous enchantments suck the reader right into the story.  It’s a beautiful tale of hope, sadness, and choosing joy after loss.  It’s historical fiction mixed with a fairy-tale.  Read it.  Then consider reading it to your teens.

Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin

  This book is magical—in the most medieval Orthodox Russian sense of the word.  This was the book I chose to lug with me for 200 miles of the nearly 400 miles of the Camino de Santiago.  I could not have chosen a more perfect book for a pilgrimage.  It is the tale of a spiritual pilgrim named Arseny, who finds his way through an old world in which the line between faith and magic is inextricably blurred, and whose entire life is spent chasing God.  Not only is it a fantastic book that should be read, but for me, the parallel of reading it during my own spiritual pilgrimage gave it a more tangible import; so much so, I left it at one of the stops along the way, with an inscription to the next Camino pilgrim who picks it up.  Here is the crux of the book that I hope will give you a sense of its beauty. 

“And so, O Savior, give me at least some sign that I may know my path has not veered into madness, so I may, with that knowledge, walk the most difficult road, walk as long as need be and no longer feel weariness.” [says Arseny]

“What sign do you want and what knowledge?” asked an elder standing [nearby]. “Do you not know that any journey harbors danger within itself? Any journey — and if you do not acknowledge this, then why move? So you say faith is not enough for you and you want knowledge, too. But knowledge does not involve spiritual effort; knowledge is obvious. Faith assumes effort. Knowledge is repose and faith is motion.”

“But were the venerable not aspiring for the harmony of repose?” asked Arseny.

“They took the route of faith,” answered the elder. “And their faith was so strong it turned into knowledge.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

This was an audiobook that I chose for the Camino.  I don’t know how many times I found myself walking up and down mountains, guffawing at the antics of the two main characters in the book (especially the Christmas pageant part). It is a well-crafted story.  There is mystery aplenty, the characters are unique, the narrator gives you just enough hints to make you wonder how you get from the beginning of the book to the end, with just enough strangeness and hilarity that you can’t stop reading.

Circe by Madeline Miller

  I think this was my favorite Fiction from 2019.  It was so beautifully written, and so creative.  After finishing Homer’s Odyssey a few years ago, I felt dissatisfied because I had a multitude of unanswered questions all pertaining to the origins and story of the ever-tantalizing Circe.  Apparently, Miller thought along those same lines and wrote herself a beautifully fleshed-out answer in book form.  If you enjoy Greek/Roman/Nordick myths, fantasy, or an appreciation for the classics, you’ll love this.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

  After reading two of his other books, “Remains of the Day” and “When We Were Orphans” (both of which I highly recommend), I felt a sufficient enough amount of faith in his story-telling abilities that I could endeavor to set aside my cynicism regarding the implausibility of the situation on which this particular sci-fi story hinges. And enjoy it, I did.  A lot. The characters and their relationships are wonderful and complex.  The exploration of psychology is enjoyable and the narration is divine.  Narration, I believe, is Ishiguro’s greatest asset.

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

  This book contains all of my favorite things: southern foods and language that always take me back home, mystery, murder, drama, and lots of nature.  The only downside for me—and maybe 1% of the population—was the romantic stuff (necessary I guess, but boring).  That being said, it’s a great book. 

Classics

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  As you might be able to tell from my comments above, I’m the least romantic person I know with a very low tolerance for emotional frittering.  So, for many years, because I knew the basic gist of the plot (an affair between Vronksy and Anna and how that affair drives Anna into desperation and madness), I kept finding reasons to avoid this book.  For some reason that escapes me now, I decided to take the plunge last year.  I’m so glad I did.  It is an amazing book and amongst my favorites now.

Here is something important that no one tells you about this book: there are 2 parallel story arcs (the Anna and Vronksy affair is only one of them), with 2 main characters, Anna Karenina, and arguably more important, Konstantine Levin, but only the former is ever talked about.  If you’ve watched the most recent cinematic iteration, Levin and his plot line are left out entirely.  I think this is the gravest disservice that one could do to the telling of this story because it robs it of its meaning and depth.  I suppose Levin and his plot is left out of retellings because his story is not as dramatic as Anna’s and Vronky’s, but at least to me, it was his story and the contrast of it against theirs that gave everything meaning. 

  I loved the depth of character of Levin.  I loved how he thought, his grappling with questions of faith, his way of thinking, his hard-working, decisive nature.  His appreciation for nature.  I identified so much with him and wondered if he was based on someone Tolstoy knew.  Much to my delight, I learned that Levin was an autobiographical portrait of Tolstoy himself!  If you read it, I’d love to know what you think.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

  I get a kick out of Victorian who-dun-its.  Especially when they’re penned by Wilkie Collins.  His “sensation novels” are always slightly over-dramatic, full of fragile, fainting women, and men who speak in passionate hushed tones of the sensibilities of ladies.  And yet, Collins always manages, even within the drama, to keep it light-handed and with a touch of tongue-in-cheek.  It’s a fun and wonderful story that I imagine him writing with one arched eyebrow and a smirk on his face.

Fantasy

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

  Always fantastic.  I’ve written about his books nearly every year. Here’s the review regarding the first book in this amazing series.

The Magician’s by Lev Grossman (the series)

  I was a little iffy going into this series, but the ideas, although dark, interested me.  Many people who’ve mentioned this series compare it to a very dark version of Narnia.  That’s accurate, and I do love Narnia, but there are many creative, and rather original ideas within the books too.  A former professor of mine recommended it and knowing that she and I have similar taste in books, I had to read it. I’m very glad I did.

Warning: There is quite a bit of language and some sexual content in the first book.  You may just want to skip over some of that (that’s what I did and there’s no plot-loss because of it). By book two, the series hits its stride and has less of the “bleh” and more of the “cool.”

Legion by Brandon Sanderson (series of novellas)

  I love reading something that you can tell that the author had a grand ole time writing. This was a fun, original, odd, mystery/thriller sci-fi novella.  

Parenting Books

The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis

I wrote a review of this a few years ago, when I’d only had the experience of raising traumatized siblings (which I’ve since learned most people don’t count as actual parenting) but now that I have actually parented other traumatized children for a year (which yes, is exactly the same as raising ones siblings), this is my parenting Bible.  I’ve read many, many parenting books, and I have to tell you, it doesn’t matter if your kids are traumatized or not, this is the best parenting book you will read. The loving principles within are applied every.single.day. in our home. I don’t generally re-read books, but I’ve read this one at least 20 times now.

Better Behavior for Ages 2-10: Small Miracles that Work Like Magic by Tara Egan

   This is a little-known gem and it dovetails perfectly with the parenting techniques laid out in the Connected Child (also known as TBRI). And if you are parenting traumatized children, there are only a few slight modifications that you will need to make to some of the techniques in this book (but if you read The Connected Child first, it’s obvious).  

Historical 

The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown

  You may be wondering why anyone would voluntarily read an entire book about the Donner party? Well, for three reasons.  1) I read this because sometimes when my own life sucks, I need to read about people who had it WAY worse, to put my little trials into perspective.  2) Since reading Brown’s Boys on the Boat, I would read a phonebook if he wrote it, And 3) since I was mostly self-educated, there are things that I missed learning about, and knowing more than the Donner party ate each other, is one of them.  

The series of unfortunate events that led up to the horrific events is unbelievable.  And to me, the extraordinary amount of research that went into this writing, but also the empathy, his ability to connect with the people who experienced the events (through letters, other histories, journals), his sensitivity and attention to detail, is what makes Brown much more than just another bored historian retelling a well-known story.  If you can stomach it (no pun intended), you should read this.

Nonfiction

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

  I suppose that he will always make my list.  The man’s stories make me laugh out loud.  Perhaps it’s his mixture of humorously self-deprecating stories while simultaneously looking down on everyone around him and placing them in some sort of narrative box to write them into later.  This particular book was my favorite of all of his books because it’s about hiking and that is something I’m actually semi-knowledgeable about.  I laughed so much at the hilariously ignorant antics of him and his friend “Stephen Katz” as they navigated the Appalachian trail. As with all of his books, there is a perfect blend of actual information about hiking the Appalachian, exaggeration of things to fear while on the trail, his personal stories of mistakes, and the history and ecology of the trail.  You can’t go wrong.  

Historical Fiction

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

  This was a well-crafted story about a fictional family living through mostly non-fiction events.  The story revolves around a real black market baby adoption scheme in the 1920’s that kidnapped children and coerced destitute families to give up their children to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.  It was fascinating and eye-opening.  It is a good mystery, and well told.  You should read it.

Memoir

Educated by Tara Westover

  I loved this book because I could identify so much with it.  If you want to understand those from dysfunctional homes whose lives are daily affected by severe mental illness and violence, this is going to be an educational read.  The Westover family was a fringe Mormon survivalist family in Idaho.  They were self-taught, abused, and whose beliefs revolved around everything their bipolar, possibly schizophrenic, father taught them.  Tara is a survivor and her story is important because her story, although extreme, is not unlike the story of many.

2018: Sometimes Grace Looks Like a Broken Knob

Picture a slightly comedic Rockwell version of George Bailey (from It’s a Wonderful Life) standing in his pj’s and bathrobe missing its belt, one sock missing, hair standing at attention in a disheveled heap, a five o’ clock shadow (because who has time to shave when life is falling apart?), and holding the symbolic broken knob from that blasted staircase bannister in his hand.  Ours was a very George Bailey-and-the-broken-knob kind of year. Aunt Mary’s Christmas card accurately summed up our year in 2 sentences (yes, she is that amazing). 

If this sounds like a frustrating year and you’re pretty sure that you don’t want to read about it because you too have had a hard year, I don’t blame you.  I’ve had my finger hovering over the delete button multiple times, but if I don’t tell you the frustrating parts, you can’t see the goodness of God’s faithfulness either, and like gum in a girl’s long hair, those two things are nearly impossible to separate.

To help you to understand our 2018, I need to start back in 2017 for a couple of the pieces. And most of which I can only tell you about vaguely, which is a shame because they were the most dramatic parts of our 2018.

The Backstory (duh, duh, duh)

In 2017, DB (dear boy) graduated high school (by our blood, sweat, and tears, the grace of God, the school principal, and his teachers).  By mid 2017, he was getting his life together after a hard previous year.  The end of 2017 was our cut-off date to decide whether or not DB would be capable of living on his own or not.  And after a year of intense observation and prayer, we determined that although he has made great strides and wants to be completely independent, he’s still far from capable of living on his own and will possibly always need a moderately high level of support.  So, we came up with a plan…which we will get to in a minute.

Also in 2017…

I began taking vocal rehabilitation lessons to see if it was possible to get my singing voice back.  Since first being diagnosed with CFS/ME in 2011, I was sick so often, had acquired new allergies and had so much vocal fatigue, that singing became a thing I used to do.  After only a 10 minute warm-up, my throat would be raw and I’d have lost my voice.  Since singing was my livelihood and an integral part of the joy of my life, that was a devastating blow.  I still sang for church, but it was always weak, faltering, and painful. Midway through 2017, I started to see improvements in my CFS/ME, so I started researching an Italian school that specializes in vocal rehabilitation for singers with health issues like mine and discovered a teacher 40 minutes away that uses that same methodology.  I took lessons until May 2018, and although I stumped her often and had plenty of setbacks, I began to see slow and steady progress.  By June of 2018, I had my voice back and stronger than ever.  I can’t tell you what a joy it is to be able to sing again without pain, and with freedom and clarity.  I feel like me again.  Praise God!!

Christmas and New Years of 2017/2018 found me hard at work creating a multi-leveled ESL work-related curriculum for my refugees class.  The old one was too advanced for most of the newly-arrived students and it was creating student frustration and volunteer teacher hemorrhaging.  By May 2018, the new curriculum was tested and kinks were mostly worked out and I had to step down because my own life was getting crazy.

Okay, now for 2018.

In January, Ethan and I officially started the adoption process.  From the time we started our first class, the clock started ticking.  We had one year to complete all the classes, paperwork, interviews, and pass the home safety inspection.  So, we attended the classes and began the long and arduous process of paperwork, background checks, etc…  We learned so much that we wished we’d known when DB came to live with us 6 years ago (how trauma affects the brain, what that looks like, and how to work with someone who is highly affected by it).  We learned why some strategies worked and others didn’t, and the classes helped me to understand myself and my own attachment issues better.  It was also heartening to be told by our social workers that the difficulties that we’ve experienced in parenting DB are considered to be on the far side of the difficulties faced by adoptive parents. 

There was just one major piece to get into place: in order to adopt children, we would have to build an apartment for DB and get him moved in by December so that we could put kids in his old room.  So, we came up with a plan. 

Plan A: turn our two defunct garages into one larger garage with an efficiency apartment above it.  

Just having the plans drawn up was really expensive.  Nope.

Plan B: we’ll take half of the downstairs of our house (the storage closet, guest bedroom, and the enclosed, but outside coal storage area) and turn it into a small apartment.

I began to demolish things and uh-oh.  Black mold.  LOTS of black mold along the outside wall (as well as dead mice everywhere).  Why didn’t we smell it or notice sooner, you ask? Because there were three layers of walls (drywall, panel board, horse hair plaster) before getting to the foundation wall.  And that foundation wall had so many holes in it that not only was water pouring in, one could also see right through those holes to the outside.  If plan A had worked out, we wouldn’t have known this and things would’ve gotten much worse.  Yep, God’s grace.

Exhibit A: Black mold
Exhibit B: Harry the mouse. He was one of hundreds of corpses that we removed from the ceilings and walls.

Plan C: Put in a French drain outside and patch up the holes.

No problem.  Except that to dig the 15 feet down around the foundation wall, we’d have to dig up our oil tank, pay to have the soil tested, remove the A/C unit and redo the entire HVAC.

Exhibit C: The moat leading to our front door.
Exhibit D: This is where our oil tank used to be.
Exhibit E: This is the finished french drain. And featured in the foreground is the first engine I had to repair.
Exhibit F: These are the finished retaining walls that Ethan, Steve, and I built.

Plan D: We’d talked about the need for a more efficient heating/cooling system for years, so we’ll just replace it a bit sooner than expected.  So, we started contacting businesses for quotes.  We finally decided on one and, bear with me here for a second, although this next piece of information seems completely superfluous, I assure you, it’s not.  The HVAC company had just been bought out by a larger local company a few months prior, and, as we learned in the newspaper the day after we gave them a substantial down-payment, the larger company was being investigated for bank fraud.  The very next day, the HVAC and parent company closed their doors and declared bankruptcy.  We would’ve lost our substantial deposit except that Ethan had thought to put it on the credit card.  The grace of God.

Plan E: Find another HVAC company.  

After another two months of trying to convince people to do the very out-of-the-box work that our unique 1930 house requires, no one was willing to take it on…except the original company that had gone bankrupt and restarted itself independently of the parent company.  

And maybe I didn’t mention this, but between February and August, I saw Ethan for a total of almost 2 weeks.  He was traveling for work, so I was the unofficial foreman who was trying to keep clear communication to all contractors, keep them supplied, and repaired engines and mechanical devices whenever they broke.  Yes, small engine repair is my new hobby. So, I had a full teaching load, and did construction and repairs in my “spare” time.

In June, I was rebuilding a stone wall and despite my proper attire (long sleeves, jeans, work boots), I was bitten by a Black Widow spider. It hurt, I worked a bit longer, then showered up. The bite got to be pretty big and I was sick for two weeks, but the whole reason I’m writing this is so that you know, if you are ever bitten by a venomous spider, just wash it off with soap and water and it will be unlikely to look like the necrotic pictures on the internet.

In July, we had our interview with the social worker who told us that we couldn’t be approved until the house was safe.  I tried to convince her that a house with a moat—heck, we could throw in an alligator—was the latest in home security, but she didn’t buy it.  Theoretically, everything was supposed to be done by then, but between the record-breaking rainfall and the HVAC delay, we were only halfway done.  And before we could be approved, we had to have the downstairs apartment finished for DB, so that we could redo his old room for our hypothetical children.  And, to help you understand how fragile a human I am, small annoyances, like no A/C all summer, no water most days, and no electricity or internet most of the time, all seemed to add up over time so that I felt like a violin string taut and ready to snap with the stress.  Plus, since January, I’d had back and neck issues that just wouldn’t seem to go away, but thankfully, very few CFS issues (yes, definitely the grace of God in that).

August was creeping up before we knew it and with it, our trip that we’d been planning for a few years. We’d decided at the beginning of the year to take a spiritual pilgrimage hiking the Camino, our “babymoon” (if you will), before we adopted.  We were scheduled to leave on August 21.  But there was a problem.  Who could we find to oversee the ongoing construction projects, take care of the pets, and keep an eye on DB (who always seems to have panic attacks when we’re away) for one entire month?  Enter God’s providence.  We got a call from Ethan’s cousin Fritha.  Their family decided to move from Florida up to PA and needed a place to live for a month starting August 21 and going through September 21st and would it be possible for them to stay at our house and not be homeless? THE EXACT TIME WE WOULD BE AWAY.  I’m pretty sure I may have wept tears of relief.  Jeff, Fritha’s husband, I knew would be more than capable with the construction aspect of things and Fritha is a nurse and DB could go to her for any medical needs. Wow, the grace of God.

We left on August 21 for our flight from JFK to Madrid and from there to Oviedo where we took a rest day to get acclimated.  It was a few days into our trip that we found out someone had stolen our credit card number and was using it in Yonkers to buy movie tickets and Gym memberships. I hope they saw a good movie and got fit.  Thankfully, I thought to bring an international back up…just in case.

At some point, I hope to write about our Camino experience in a much more detailed way (I made sure to keep a journal), but for now, just know that it was exactly the “rest” that our souls needed.  We walked 380 miles, and it took a good 200 miles for me to leave behind the massive amounts of stress that clung to my mind.  I did have some issues with CFS (mostly joint problems) that I always conveniently forget the existence of until it’s painfully obvious.  At home, thanks to the capable Jeff and Fritha, the few things that would’ve been a big problem for anyone else, were taken care of with aplomb and without our knowledge until after we got home.

The goodness of kinetic tape when your joints and connective tissues don’t work well 🙂

We returned to surprise medical bills telling us that DB had spent several nights in the hospital while we were away and he didn’t tell anyone because he has major trust issues.  That was expensive.  Anyway, we dove right back into the phrenetic pace of trying to race the clock to get everything set for the adoption home inspection, and finances being tight, we knew we needed to do the rest by ourselves.  So we did. 

My handsome and steadfast man. Ain’t he cute?

Then, I had some unexpected health stuff happen.  I still don’t know what it is, and it is better now than it was in October/November but the only thing that was ruled out with the CT scan and MRI was that it is not a brain tumor.  Whew. I still need to go to a neurologist and figure things out, but that got put on the back burner because something else came up.

October 23rd, we were officially approved for adoption.  Yay!  DB was all moved into his downstairs apartment and loving the independence.  Things were calming down.

The week before Thanksgiving, the last few years came back to haunt us. So now it was a case of DB or hypothetical children.  We’d planned to start the adoption process 6 years ago when instead, we became legal guardians to DB.  We could not put it off again and we also could never give him up.

So, Thanksgiving found us finishing more home projects while simultaneously figuring out our options.  I looked into supervised living options for young adults with special needs, but the waiting list and cost for that kind of place was ridiculous.

As we begin this new year, I’m excited, hopeful, exhausted, and extremely grateful.  We don’t know when kids will be living with us, it could be tomorrow, or it could be next year.  And because of the added responsibilities with DB, I decided to go ahead and find other teachers for all of my students.  I couldn’t keep teaching full-time, especially if we have kids living with us sooner rather than later.  So, in some ways, I’m happy because I’ll hopefully have time to write in the waiting period and that is super exciting.

And if you like photos, here are a few of the finished home projects. We are not putting up photos of the apartment though (even though it turned out beautifully).

The Best Books I Read in 2017

This year, I tried to read 50 books.  I only finished 45, but I wanted to tell you about my favorites—the cream of crop.

Fiction

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

During WWII, 70 different publishing companies got together to create an Armed Services Edition to send to soldiers fighting on the frontlines.  This was one of the books chosen because of its ability to inspire hope.  And that is exactly what it did more than anyone could’ve predicted.  I learned about this book from a WWII memoir that I read last year which mentioned its ability to make soldiers feel again and it made me wonder what made this book so special?  It immediately went on my reading list and I am so happy it did.  Of the all of the books read, it was my absolute favorite.  The book begins with this beautiful metaphor: “Some called it the Tree of Heaven.  No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to meet the sky.  It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree which grew out of cement.  It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts.”  A good start, huh?

A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman

This book will make you laugh all throughout. It’s about a fastidious and curmudgeonly old man in Sweden named Ove (pronounced: oo-vah) who, after the death of his beloved wife, decides that he has nothing left to live for.  Solution?  Suicide, of course.  Unfortunately for his plans, he has a strong sense of right and wrong tucked under several layers of sweaters (because the cost of heating a house is just too damn high).  And also, he has new neighbors who not only interrupt his well thought-out plans time and again because they have no sense of personal boundaries, but also because they (and young people in general) these days are clueless as to how to do things the “right way” and somebody’s got to set them straight.  It is not only a hilarious book, it’s quite endearing—like a grumpy old man.

Biography/Memoir

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

This is such a fascinating read about what many people may never have heard about: the black migration in America.  Through the author’s use of 3 main characters and the true accounts of their lives, flight and families, the author intertwines their personal histories with the larger historical narrative during those times.  The book is masterfully written, riveting, and educational.  Being from the south, I also loved the author’s naming the south’s hierarchy a caste system—as that is exactly what it was.  I also appreciated that once the characters moved to the north, the author did not stop there and imply happily-ever-after, but showed the dire hardships they faced once they got to the north and that in many ways, life was not always much better for a long time.  It’s sad, real, and a must-read.  Also, if you decide to read it, you might consider the audiobook as the narrator is one of the best I’ve ever heard with a masterful range of realistic southern accents.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi

In my work as an ESL teacher, I have met many wonderful Muslim families and I have always thought that I’d love to understand their religious beliefs and cultures better.  I’ve read portions of the Quran and have learned a few things about Middle Eastern culture, but I thought this book might give me a more personal lens through which to understand.  I was not disappointed.  The author’s love for Islam and desire to know God was inspiring. His journey to conversion to Christianity was a long one, filled with many good theological questions, but also very practical questions (how can I do this to my very devout family?).  He was able to look critically at his Islamic beliefs alongside Christianity.  This book unexpectedly inspired a greater love for God in me and a renewed appreciation for His relentless pursuit of us.

Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Me, before reading this book: “It’s a book about rowing.  Too bad I don’t care about rowing.”  *puts off reading book for a year*

Me, after reading the book: “I love rowing.  I had no idea that rowing was such a beautiful thing.”  *dries tears*

Spoiler: It’s not really a book about rowing.  It’s about the boys in the boat and their oft-times difficult lives.  It’s about how they came to trust each other, how their mentors saw the best in them and brought it out.  It’s about how they completely defied the mountainous odds set against them—and how they could not do it alone.  They had to trust and depend on each other enough to be a team.  Oh yeah, and the means by which they learned all this was through rowing.

Tattoos on the Heart: The Boundless Power of Compassion by Gregory Boyle

This is such a beautiful book about how choosing compassion, even when you’re not sure it’s the right thing to do, is a life-changing choice.  Father Boyle explains how “Homeboys Inc.” came about as a way to give gang members and ex-cons, a job, and some place to find good camaraderie and purpose, instead of ending up back on the streets.  This memoir will make you laugh, cry, cringe, and roll your eyes.  It’s raw, funny, real, and beautiful.

Sci-Fi

A Canticle For Lebowietz by Walter Miller

I won’t say too much about the plot of the book because it might give things away, but what I will say is, this book is so creative, ironic, funny, and complex.  It’s a very unique story that you might really enjoy.

A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I really loved this book.  If you grew up as a woman in a legalistic cult like I did, you will find this fictional story fascinating, alternately infuriating and nauseating, and scarily plausible.  In Atwood’s world, women are told what to wear, how to act, what to say, what thoughts to think, under the guise of strict Biblical guidelines. A woman’s ability to bear children is both her curse and humanity’s salvation. Certain women (essentially breeders) are used as society’s sacrificial lambs, sacrificing freedom, choice, dignity, and sometimes their own lives all in the hope of furthering the human race. And like in cults, women are kept in check by other women who’ve been given a taste of power through their strict adherence to the rules.  Men, in this fictional world, are supposedly the ones holding all the power, but like in reality, they too are just a different kind of victim held by the unchecked shackles of their own desires and lust for power.

Nonfiction

Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King Jr.

If you read no other book on this list, read this one.  It is important and timeless. I’m a firm believer that we can learn many things from history that are applicable right now.  This book is thoughtful, moving, and Dr. King is so eloquent and his heart for all of God’s children is clear.  While reading it, I was struck by so many things but will mention just a few.

  1. Unlike many of the protests today, those who wanted to protest with Dr. King were asked to sign a pledge after a thorough examination of conscience. Signing the pledge was not to be done lightly, without prayer and spiritual preparation and thought.  The protests were to show that they were coming from hearts desiring change, not from hatred.
  1. I’ve heard many white men say things like, “The reason that there is so much crime in the black community, is because these kids grow up without fathers.  Either they’re in prison, or dead.”  What none of them admit is that white people were the ones separating black families for centuries.  First through slavery, then through low-paying jobs so that mothers had to be live-in housekeepers and father’s had to most times, travel great distances for work.  It’s a terrible cycle (“orphans giving birth to orphans”) that Dr. King identifies and calls out first thing in the book.  If we want a strong society, we MUST make decisions that strengthen families, not tear them down.
  2. Dr. King made a point of showing the similarities between the poor white and poor black in the south and although he welcomed the poor whites to be a part of the movement, he knew they would likely deny it.  It’s sad to me that white people in such similar circumstances as their black neighbors were so blinded by the color of skin that they denied their similarities.  From reading this and other books, it seems that historically, this divide was one stemming from a false sense of power, that say, a poor, white slave catcher might feel because, although he is only on society’s second lowest rung, he believes he has power over the man on society’s bottom rung.  And like bullies, reacting out of their own misery, they make the lives of those below them even harder instead of choosing to have empathy or compassion.

The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Every time I’ve recommended this book to someone, the reaction is, “Why would I want to read a book about cancer?”  Because it’s fascinating.  If you like history, medicine, or science, this is the book for you.  Yes, cancer is a scary thing for most people (myself included), but I also like to understand scary things.

 

Self-Help

The Connected Child:  Bring Hope and Healing to your Adoptive Family by Karyn Purvis

This is such a wonderful book.  Whether you’re kids are adopted or not, this is the most hands-on approach of how to connect with children that I’ve encountered.  For attachment-challenged children, there are some very effective strategies that are accessible, don’t require a degree in psychology to employ and understand, and much of it is intuitive.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. by Brene Brown

This is a book that I gave to every family member this year because so many of the concepts within are so important. One of the most important ones I learned was, shame and guilt are two very different things.  Shame says I’m a bad person.  Guilt says I made a bad choice.  During the time I was learning this, I was also going to my first confession where the priest asked clarifying questions and explained to me the same thing.

 

Fantasy

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

This is Sanderson’s first book.  And although the hardcore fantasy fans will tell you that Sanderson’s magic systems are comparatively sloppier than his later works, I say who cares?  This book is amazing.  I LOVED the story and the characters.  It is a story of hope beyond all odds, crazy unexplainable magic, feisty, brave, and clever women, and brave, clever, and optimistic men.  The ideas are fresh and creative.  It doesn’t need to be perfect to be amazing.

Other great reads to consider:

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (delightful)

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (hilarious)

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (heart-wrenching)

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (eloquent)

The Supper of the Lamb by Scott Hahn (eye-opening)

The Fellowship by Sara Roberts Jones (cathartic)

Hiking: The Ups and Downs of It

My husband Ethan and I love to hike.  He posts snapshots of those hikes on social media, but I’ve always thought it might be nice to tell the story of the hikes behind the pictures.  So, thanks to the inspiration of another hiking friend who is also a far more prolific writer than I am (go to his blog here), I thought I might finally write a bit about some of our hikes and what it’s like to be an active person with a chronic illness (if you want to know more about that illness, here’s a link). And there is no better place to start than our hikes in Colorado.

Last Thursday night, Ethan and I flew into Denver, Colorado, ready for adventure.  We stayed the night in Denver, and drove to Breckenridge the next morning, stopping along the way for a hike to Mohawk Lake.  Although we didn’t know it, the altitude we started the hike at was 10,000 ft. That is significant because the science of altitude acclimatization is this: your body will acclimate to about 5,000 feet within the first 24 hours.  For each day thereafter, your body acclimates about 1000 feet.  All that to say, we were in no way—having arrived less than 24 hours ago—properly acclimatized.

The hike was said to be an easy 7 1/2 mile out and back jaunt to a series of beautiful mountain lakes.  It was also about a 2000 ft. gain from the trailhead.  That is when I learned the first and possibly only perk of having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: I didn’t get altitude sickness nearly as badly as Ethan because my body is used to running on a lower amount of blood oxygen.  Yay?

The hike itself was beautiful.  We took our time, both out of necessity and because we were enjoying the blue sky overhead and the shady evergreens surrounding us.  The air, although thin, was air was crisp and refreshing.  The first little lake that we arrived at (to stop and have snack) was MayFlower Lake.  The clear teal water reflected the looming mountains surrounding us.  We sat, basking in the warm sun, but in only a matter of minutes, the sun was blocked out by fast-moving grey snow clouds that had crossed the mountain range.  It began to snow, lightly at first, and with the snow, came the temperature drop.  Wearing only sweatshirts, we were not quite prepared, so we decided to get a move on to the upper lake.

Mayflower Lake

The last 800 ft. was comprised of steep rocks and involved some scrambling.  The hiking term “scrambling” means that you have to use your hands.  Along the way, we saw some old abandoned mining cabins and a large rusty metal pulley system.  As for the weather, the higher up we went, the harder the snow became.   I was a bit dizzy from the altitude, but Ethan was feeling nauseas and more out of breath from the altitude.  As we got to Mohawk Lake, we watched a man catch an orange fish, took a couple of pictures, and booked it back down.

Note the snow in my hair

Lower Mohawk Lake

The lower we descended, the more the snow turned to cold rain and made the rocks slippery.  Much of the way back down was not memorable because I was focused on staying warm in my soaked-through clothing.  Thankfully, we went straight to the hotel, checked-in, and took immediate advantage of the hot tubs.  Ahh.

The next day, Ethan wanted to climb Quandary Peak, which is a 14,000 ft. mountain and I refused because it was supposed to be snowing and raining the whole day and I wanted at least one more day to acclimate.  For the non-hiker, or east coast hiker such as myself, a 14,000 ft.  mountain is considered between high altitude and extremely high altitude—depending upon the body and acclimatization of the hiker.  Climbing at this elevation, especially if one is not properly acclimated, can be life-threatening.  That being said, Ethan acquiesced and we took a “rest” day, by attending a yoga class, walked around the picturesque Breckenridge, visited a few museums, and attended vigil mass.  We ended up walking about 8 miles…Oops.  So much for rest!

The Beautiful Breckenridge, CO

That night, I didn’t sleep much because I was dreading the next day’s hike.  Don’t get me wrong, I love hiking, but I don’t enjoy hiking not knowing how my body will react or how much I will have to pay for it later.  This would be my first 14er and I know from experience that CFS is not always predictable and sometimes does not hit until 2 weeks later, or other times, it slams me like a freight train right then and there, my body surging with pain and fatigue.  Mostly, I had a fear of passing out toward the top or having muscles seize up because my body was not producing enough oxygen (both are likely outcomes and they’ve happened before).  In a way, this would be a sort of test.  Since our hikes in Alaska, where we did several difficult hikes, and one brutal one, Ethan and I have figured out how my impaired mitochondrial DNA intake nutrition and how much or little it turns into usable energy.   We know that if I’m able to keep my heart rate below 140, I can remain in aerobic zone, thus burning fat instead of building up lactic acid and burning muscle (which happens immediately for me in anaerobic zone and quickly incapacitates me).  Knowing this has helped me to get much better than I was even 2 years ago.  We also have learned that I need to eat something every hour, otherwise, my body goes pretty far out of whack. It’s a delicate balancing act.

We also learned one extremely important lesson when hiking in Alaska that every hiker should know and which I will gladly pass along to you, in case you should ever consider hiking large mountains:

Native hikers always understate the trail difficulty as a way of humble-bragging.

Example: “Bird Ridge was a gorgeous hike! My friend and I used trekking poles that definitely helped going down. Be prepared for false peaks. Once you get on the Ridge it gets easier-ish. Peak 3 is where the survey monument.” —A native Alaskan reviewing Bird Ridge

Reality: Easy is not a word to be used regarding this hike.  There were 6 false peaks, the elevation was extremely steep, and there were no switch-backs.  If you stop to get your breath for a moment anywhere below the tree line, softball size mosquitos will swarm you in a black cloud and suck your blood through your clothing.  Towards the top, you must walk through 3 feet of snow, making sure that you don’t accidentally step off too far to either side because otherwise you will fall hundreds of feet down steep drop-offs. Yes, it was gorgeous and no, the review wasn’t accurate.

Knowing that, and looking up reviews for this hike that was said to be the “easiest of the 14ers,” I found this gem and wondered how inaccurate it would turn out to be.

“Only 3.3 miles from parking lot to summit; about 3 hrs to get up top. Makes this a great ‘first timer’ 14,000 ft summit.”—A Native Coloradan, reviewing Quandary Peak

The big morning arrived.  Ethan was annoyingly giddy with anticipation before I’d had my coffee.  I was dreading this hike far more than I was looking forward to it, but I was trying to have an optimistic attitude about it.  Our goal was to summit by noon when the weather would have the highest possibility of being good.  The forecast was 25 degrees, 30-40 mile an hour winds, with a windchill of 7.  We packed layers of clothing and hoped for the best.

Quandary Peak Trailhead

The hike up to the tree line was beautiful, green, relatively easy, and surrounded by vast, snow-covered mountains.  At the base of the mountains were two beautiful, iced-over lakes. Up ahead, blocking the view of most of the ridge, were dense snow clouds, but Ethan had estimated that by the time we got there, it would be passable as long as we dressed well.  He was right.  Thankfully, I married a man who knows his cold weather hiking, so we were prepared with the right gear and were perfectly toasty the whole time.

Most of the people that had passed us earlier in the hike (we were taking it slow) ventured to the ridge just beyond the tree line and were forced to turn around.  They were coming back down as we were headed up. We estimated that only around 25-30% of people who hiked that day actually summited.  The hike up the ridge was very windy, but also relatively easy.  We kept our heart rates low and the clouds cleared to reveal a crystal blue sky.

The snow clouds the we just missed climbing the ridge.

The challenge came at about 13, 700 ft.  The last false peaks were snowy, rocky, and extremely steep.  This was the part I was worried about.  As I had feared, my muscles started to react the lack of oxygen, so the climb up was extremely slow.  I couldn’t keep my heart rate low either, due to the extreme altitude. It was so painfully slow, and it didn’t help morale to see “those damn Colorado native twenty-somethings bounding up the mountain like mountain goats” *said in grumpy old man voice.*  So we slogged, Ethan feeling quite bad from the altitude, but being the amazing person he is,  he remained optimistic and cheerful.  He asked me at one point if I wanted to stop (because he knows that if I stop talking, it means that I am completely focused on finishing), and as he suspected, I told him something to the extent of, “we’ve come this far.  There’s no way I’m stopping now.”  It felt like a hellish eternity (an hour and a half) until we made it to the summit.  I had hoped to feel some sense of accomplishment or elation at the summit, but what I felt instead was the need to relieve myself because I’d been holding it for 2 hours.  So I did, and then had to quickly redress because a young, frustratingly not-breathless Coloradan guy came bounding out of nowhere.

The Summit

Ethan, my sweet, adrenaline-loving man, “Woohoo-ed” and “Yeah-ed” and took pictures, feeling completely elated.  I sat on a rock and enjoyed the view, but oddly, felt nothing but dread of the way back down.  We didn’t stay at the top very long because the wind was biting through our many layers.  As we headed back down, I realized that as I had feared, my small stabilizer muscles had lost their coordination.  I had none of the usual signs of Acute Mountain Sickness, but I was experiencing a sort of Ataxia (lack of muscle control) which is dangerous when you have to climb down a mountain, but thankfully, this is something I’ve experienced often and know how to maneuver.   I know I looked like one of those marathoners who has no muscle control left, but I didn’t care.  What I did care about was the terrible pain shooting through my neck from old injuries.  I kept praying that God would help me to have a better attitude about the whole thing, because yes, I was in a magnificently beautiful place, but I was so wrapped up in the pain in my own body and the effort to make it down, I could not enjoy it.  A great metaphor for life, eh?

On the way down though, God was kind.  In my path, was a butterfly lying in the snow, beautiful purple and vibrant orange standing out against the white.  It was unmoving, and probably brought up by the wind gusts.  Its beauty (even in death) made me grateful that I can even think of climbing mountains since most people with CFS can’t even get out of bed and I couldn’t even have imagined doing this even a few years ago.  A little time later, two shaggy mountain goats made their way up the steep rocky path.  They looked at us with an intermittent mix of disinterest and curiosity.  Their beards had chucks of ice hanging off, making them look like decorative beads.  It was another kindness from God.

C.C. Mountain Goat Massive
Author: Darklich14

By the time we made the tree line, I could barely keep my eyes open.   This used to happen often when my CFS would get really bad and I would nearly fall asleep while running.  The way down was slow and by the time we reached the bottom, the hike had drawn out to 7 hours and I just needed to sleep.  So we reached the rental Jeep, took off a few layers and Ethan drove to Colorado Springs while I closed my eyes for an hour or so.

Was it worth it?  I don’t know yet.  Was it smart?  That’s debatable.  I’ll know better in a couple of weeks.  But I’m glad I did it and I’m especially thankful for an encouraging husband who doesn’t mind hiking a little slower for his old lady 😉