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 😉

Treatise of a Hypocrite: Attachment, Millennial Migration, and the Problem of the American Church

Before you begin reading, please know that I am coming from a place of love, not of judgment.  Also, like every other imperfect human being in the world, I struggle on a regular basis with living a balanced life of love and truth consistently.  In essence, I’m a hypocrite– down in the trenches alongside everybody else who’s trying to figure things out.

A few days ago, I posted a controversial little article on Facebook about how the church drove Millennials away because it offered more judgement, hatred, and bigotry than love.  The people who’ve left the church, “liked” it, while those who still attend church, said, “But truth!  Truth!”  So, being the person who loves people on both sides of the proverbial fence, my mind has been churning with a small bit of the complexities as to why, I firmly believe, something seemingly unrelated is of utmost importance to the church.

First, let’s look at the two viewpoints of those who have left the church and those who’ve stayed.

Here are the 4 most common reasons I’ve heard from friends who’ve left the church:

  1. Hypocrisy (anti-abortion but also anti-human rights—like refugees, immigrants and the death penalty)
  2. Judgmentalism/self-righteousness (believing ourselves superior to others)
  3. Inconsistency between beliefs and practice (saying you love everyone, but hating the LGBTQ community, for instance.  Chick-fil-A sandwich, anyone?)
  4. Irrelevance (where’s the church when ___________ was happening?)

(It’s interesting to note that people who’ve left the church and espouse zero love for it, still believe its people should live up to a higher standard than the rest of society. Example: Those pointing out the hypocrisy of Joel Osteen not opening his church in the Texas flood.)

The #1 reason many current church-goers believe so many have left the church?

  1. Because they don’t like the Truth

Since the beginning of time, truth hasn’t really changed, but now, people are leaving the church in droves.  And since I don’t buy that this generation has a greater aversion to truth than former generations, what’s really changed?  I think it’s more complicated than simply Love vs. Truth.  So, let’s look at a bit of historical context to get a better idea.

Beginning in the 1730’s, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield led what would come to be known as “The Great Awakening.”  This, most would argue, was also the birth of the Evangelicalism.  This period emphasized high moral standards, hellfire and damnation, personal redemption, and introspection.  This movement was in contrast to the Enlightenment period whose hallmarks were Rationalism, and adherence to rituals and traditions.

The 1790’s-1850’s brought the “Second Great Awakening,” characterized by emotionalism, and super-naturalism; eventually spawning the Restorationist Movement.  That, in turn, featured the concept of preparing and cleansing ourselves for the end times.

From there came Pentecostalism which began at the 1906 Asuza Street revival.  It emphasized miracles, inter-racial worshipping together, and emotionally charged services.  In reaction to this movement, came the Fundamentalist Movement alongside of it, which emphasized strict literal interpretations of certain Scripture passages, rigid adherence to dogma, and making clear distinctions between themselves and other religious groups.

By the 1960’s, the Jesus Movement was the newest trend and paired well with the hippy mindset of peace and love.  It emphasized miracles and feelings, and much of it was Restorationist in theology.  This movement spawned what we think of today as the “Christian right” and “Christian left.”  The left sticking with the more Charismatic nature, and the right veering into the reactionary Authoritarian/Fundamentalist side of things.  Is it clear how this pendulum swing of love and truth is throughout each generation?

And now we arrive at those “damn Millennials.”

By the time I was born in the 1980’s, the Fundamentalist/Authoritarian mindset was in full swing throughout much of the country.  The church was great at boldly stating what it didn’t stand for and took on a fight-the-culture mindset: home schooling became popular, Christian music became a thing, and Christian movies and actors got their start.  The church created its own sub-culture to shelter its people from the common sinful pitfalls of the heathen culture around it.  We were taught to live by strict rules, to keep ourselves pure from evil influences, and were judged harshly if we didn’t.

And it is this little history lesson of pendulum-like reactions that brings me to why I believe that Millennials have left the church.

For one more moment, I beg of you to take a seemingly large, unrelated leap with me. I’d like you to consider the two following scenarios.

Scenario #1: It is your first visit to a new doctor.  You admit that you smoke frequently and immediately he responds, “You know, you need to stop smoking because it can cause A, B, and C…”

Scenario #2: Your beloved spouse of 10 years tells you, “Today, you really worried me because you were wheezing and breathless as you were going up the stairs.  Please try to quit smoking because I want you to still be beside me 20 years from now.”

Which of these two scenarios seems more likely to move you, the smoker, to action?  If you have a healthy relationship with your spouse, probably scenario #2, because even though your spouse is not the expert, you have a long relationship built on trust.  The truth was told in both scenarios, but one told you the truth out of love and used your trust of their intentions to communicate to you.  In other words, your spouse used your attachment to him/her.

What is attachment and why is it so crucial to the everyone, especially the church?  My own definition would be this: attachment is love and trust over time.  For anyone who’s parented a child with attachment issues, you already know that attachment is EVERYTHING.  Without it, there is no relationship and especially, no disciplining your child.  If you discipline a child who has a tenuous attachment at best, the child is likely to shutdown, meltdown, or run away.  And this doesn’t just apply to children.  Like the doctor scenario, it doesn’t matter if you have all of the right answers, if you haven’t taken the time to build that loving trust.  As my dear therapist once put it, “it’s okay to have high expectations if you have an equal amount of love to go with it.”

All human beings seek attachment: it is a biological necessity.  And this is the order in which it MUST proceed.

  1. Physical needs.  If those basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and safety are met, there is enough trust in place for the next level.
  2. Mental/Emotional needs.  Physically being there for the child, loving them, showing goodness to them, no matter their behaviors. This is the stage where children (aka everyone) learns that they are loved and they belong, no matter their choices. This is where they understand their precious personhood.  And only then, when they have learned that no one is abandoning them, or hating them, or judging them, are they ready for the next step into something deeper.
  3. Spiritual needs.  This is where children can observe and emulate a parents’ moral compass, develop empathy, guilt, learn right from wrong, and hopefully, develop their own beliefs.

Reading this list, can you see the connection between the generation raised in Fundamentalist (and for me, Evangelical) churches that emphasized lots of truth, sometimes outright hatred, very little love, and the strong reaction (historical pendulum swing) of those tenuously attached Millennials to run the other way?

I find it interesting how many New Testament verses there are about adoption.  My favorite, which I believe, sums up the very foundation of our faith is this one:  “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15)  This verse explains the intimacy that we are supposed to have with God our loving Father.  So how do we, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, help people to build that connection with God?  I truly believe it’s through being a kind of placeholder, building attachment over time.  Here are my ideas.

  1. Physical needs.  The church does this pretty well.  Keep providing for basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, but make sure it’s consistent over time.
  1. Mental/Emotional needs.  This step is probably the most lacking in the current American (especially Evangelical) church.  Our job as Christians is to be Christ-like, not to be Christ.  It’s not our job to change hearts nor to judge.  It’s not our job to hurry things along, which, as an impatient person, I’m very bad at.  It’s our job to give time, love, compassion, and space to everyone. We must wait with them in love.  It’s hard because it may mean sacrificing our time, our comfort, etc…  And we must do all this, without believing we are somehow better than “them.”
  2. Spiritual needs.  This is where most church-goers assume that everyone around them is at.  But honestly, many people are stuck back at the second step.  The time for the big “T” (and by that I mean truth) will come when it comes.  We don’t have to hide it or shy away from it, and more often than not, a ready heart will seek truth out; especially when it’s safe to do so.  Truth from a loving place is sometimes hard to give, but if we must confront someone, we must first ask ourselves, “Do they already know that I love them?  Do they trust that I want the best for them?”  The answer may be no.  You may not be the right person or it may not be the right time.  And so many times, if we’re really living out God’s truth and love in our own lives, not much needs to be said.

To my dear friends who’ve left the church:

Yes, we, the church, have failed you and even though we have, God won’t.  Maybe you no longer believe in God, or maybe just not his people.  Either way, please keep telling us the truth in love—hopefully, sometime soon, we’ll get the hang of listening.

Grasping at Consistency: Honest Thoughts On A Religious Journey Part 2

I’d like to tell you a story, but I would like to start near the end of the story because really, it’s closest to the beginning.

It was an oddly warm morning this past October and like almost all mornings, I took my dog Aera for a walk.  I decided to go to the outdoor track behind the YMCA because I needed a change of scenery from our usual places.  One of the best things about having a dog is the necessity of a silent walk—perfect for praying.  And that particular morning, my heart was heavy with a decision that I’d made.  I was praying that God would give me one last confirmation—a Biblical fleece, I guess you could call it—to show me that I was indeed, following His will.  So as I prayed and walked, we passed a lady who was running and she smiled and waved to us.  And because this track is a large loop, we passed her several more times.  At one point, she stopped running to talk with us.  We made small talk about the weather, dogs, and then she asked me a question I was not expecting.

“I know this is going to sound strange,” she said, sounding a bit hesitant. “But do you believe in God?”

“I do,” I replied.

She looked relieved.  “You may not believe this, but as I kept passing you, I received a word from the Lord.”

Now I know very well that the phrase “word from the Lord” is a Pentecostal phrase that means, God spoke to me about you, so I was very interested to see where this was going.

“Oh?” I asked, trying to show her that this was indeed welcome information.

“The word I got was ‘courage,’” she continued on without much of a pause. “You see, I think it has something to do with a decision you are making and that you should have the courage to go through with it and not be afraid.  This is what you’re supposed to do.”

For a person skeptical of the more mystical side of Christianity, I’ve had quite a few things like this happen throughout my life, so I couldn’t help but smile. “You know, you’ll never believe this,” I responded. “But I was just praying for confirmation for a decision I’m making—that it’s the right one and that God would give me a sign.”

She beamed at that point, “Take this as confirmation.  I also feel this has something to do with those close to you—your family?  Maybe telling them something they don’t want to hear.”

“Yes,” I said, shaking her hand.  “Thank you so much for having the courage to tell me this.  It really is what I needed to hear.  Your words are an answer to prayer.”

She stood for a few moments, seeming hopeful that I would explain what all of this was about, but I didn’t.  I didn’t want to shake her faith.

We kindly parted ways and I shook my head, trying to contain my laughter at God’s sense of humor.  You see, what had just taken place was this: a Pentecostal had just told a Presbyterian to become Catholic and to have courage to tell her Southern Baptist dad about her decision.  See the humor now?

The following is my thought-process throughout this 5-year journey, it is in no way a complete look into my thoughts, but it is enough.  That being said, here is my journey towards Catholicism.  I’ll start with the boring stuff I had to come to grips with first about the Catholic Church.  If you’re not interested, then feel free to skip to the last paragraph.

Problem #1:  Authority

Part 1: I have always had a problem with trusting authority because throughout my life, I’ve had a front-row seat to religious leaders and others in authority abusing their powers (whether through sexual abuse, misleading “truths” to push a personal agenda or to gain notoriety, etc…).  Many people my age have left the church because the great amount of hypocrisy they’ve seen.  I have not left because I know that a church is a place full of sinners who need God (and the only difference between people in a church and outside of a church is that church-goers admit that they need help to be more like God).  For me, God has always been much better and higher than His sin-tainted church.  But we try and that’s the point.

What about all of those children sexually-abused by Catholic priests, you are asking?  How can you ignore that?  I don’t.  Here’s the thing, the Catholic church is huge.  There are an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics in the world currently.  In 2010, there were an estimated 800 million Protestants (many different denominations).  I grew up Evangelical and knew that the same awful stuff was happening in most of the churches I’ve attended, the difference being, the churches are smaller and can cover it up more easily.  The Catholic church is huge, and thus, much easier to expose.  I’m glad that the sins of the Catholic church were exposed because hopefully it can heal and change.

Part 2:  Accepting Apostolic Succession.  This was not a hard one for me.  Catholic theology teaches that when Jesus told Peter “Upon you I will build my church,” it was meant literally.  Apostolic succession is through the laying on of hands from one Apostle to another.  The Apostles were the first bishops of the church.

Part 3: The all-male Magisterium (bishops of the church who have ruled on interpretation of questionable scriptures throughout history).  I do not love that women are excluded as deacons and priests, especially since Junia was named in the Bible as an Apostle (bishop) and is recognized as such in Catholic church history as such, and Priscilla and Phoebe, recognized as a deacons.  Thus, historically and Biblically, women should still be eligible for includsion in church authority but they currently are not.  That being said, the exclusion of females in governing leadership is nothing new to me.  Presbyterians, for example have a Presbytery and only men are considered for pastor, elder or diaconate roles.  I tend to give a bit more leeway to Protestants because they think they are acting Biblically.  For example, Junia is argued by John Piper in his work in helping to translate for the New English Standard Version to really be Junias (even though there is less-than-nothing to back up that claim besides his own distinctly patriarchal p.o.v.).  Protestants shrug at the inclusion of Priscilla as a deacon because they say that she was paired as a “helper” to her husband Aquilla who was the real deacon and was not really referred to as a deacon.  The many verses in Timothy about women being silent in church, etc…is always taken out of the patriarchal cultural context at the time too, but whatever.  I could go Episcopal or Anglican, but those tend to be pretty liberal leaning or non-existent in our area.

So why am I becoming Catholic despite this?  Because progress is being made and the church is open to it.  For the last 50 years, many strong nuns and leading female (and male) Catholic writers and sympathetic priests have raised this issue.  Every few years, the current Pope brings it up as something that must be changed.  Summits are held, voices are heard.  Change is slow, but I am happy to lend my voice to this cause.

Part 4: The Pope, the Magisterium, and our ultimate need for consistent authority. Whether or not Protestants like to admit it, we all have our own “Popes” or “Magisterium.”  Whether we ourselves are the final authority on what we believe or whether it is a favorite pastor or a more celebrity-type leader (like the Graham’s, Dr. Dobson, Bill Gothard, John Piper), we all listen to someone as the final authority.  Becoming Catholic, I am choosing an authority with a long history, both good and bad, that has been consistent in its teachings throughout the centuries.

Problem #2:  The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

I’ve read the Protoevangelium of James (aka the Gospel of James).  I’m not gonna lie, it’s pretty weird and I have a tougher time with this one.  It’s an account of Mary’s upbringing, Christ’s birth, and testimony to Mary’s perpetual virginity.   But what about the mention of Jesus’ brothers in Scripture?  The church teaches that they were most likely the children of Joseph from a previous marriage or cousins.  But having accepted the church’s authority in general, this is one I can live with. And because the Catholic church dates back to Jesus’ Disciples and what they taught, I’m going to believe the people who knew Mary personally.  So even if you are a Protestant and are thinking, “for shame,” just remember that the original Church Reformer, Martin Luther, believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity too.

 

So I’ve told you what I had to really work through, but what simultaneously drew me?

 

A Consistent Theology of Life, Love and Truth in Action

I was 21 when I picked up a copy of “Death of Innocents” by Sister Helen Prejean from the library.  I knew absolutely nothing about the book, I just liked the title when I came across it on the shelf.  It was a book about those wrongfully convicted on death row and the idea that the death penalty is always morally wrong (innocent or not).  I wrestled with the concept at the time, but now I see that it comes from a theology that is all about respecting the entirety of life. I love that the Catholic Church is pro-life all the way through life and in every aspect.  Pro-life to Catholics means much more than just protecting the unborn.  It also means caring for and loving the refugee, the prisoner, the oppressed, the mentally ill, the homeless, the elderly, the poor, your enemy; and all of these are equally as important.  It means that Catholics were the main overlapping group who attended both the women’s march, the march for life, and refugee rallies across the US.  It means having a theology that says others who’ve never heard of Christ but who believe in God in the way that they are able, will likely be alongside Christians in Heaven.  It’s a theology that embraces the idea that it is our job to be good stewards of the earth that we live on and we are to care for all of its inhabitants (plant, animal, human).  It is a theology that says, yes, God created the earth, but we don’t have to deny science to still believe that.  It is a beautiful thing and one, that without putting words to it, I have always believed and tried to live out.

 

Complexity and Suffering

The churches I grew up in were somewhat fundamentalist, but Advanced Training Institute (ATI) was legalistic to the extreme.  They taught us that there were always clear, black-and-white, Biblical answers to every problem that could arise in life.  Special rules were formed for that reason: you should not dance, because dancing could lead to sin, for example.  Remember King David dancing before the Ark and how that turned out?  That was the ATI example of why one should never dance.  The philosophy was, it’s better to avoid things that could lead to sin, rather than come near temptation—a sort of bubble wrap theology. I believe very firmly, and always have, that God did not call his people to take the simple path.  He did not create for us a simplistic black-and-white, all-or-nothing, comfortable world with easy Biblical answers that we can close our eyes and point to and say, “problem solved!”  It would be convenient if the world worked that way, but it doesn’t and can’t. (I’m also not saying that we should purposefully go out of our way to put ourselves in losing situations either).

Although the Catholic church has the same downfalls as any other religion/denomination to ere on either side, its core theology is embracing of that fine line, that delicate balancing act of being in the world fully, but not of the world.  It is subtle, nuanced, difficult and complex, and never quick nor easy to explain.  Much of what Protestants (including myself a few years ago) say the Catholic church believes is an inaccurate soundbite of the actual belief that misses all of the important complexity.  “Catholics believe that you can work for your salvation” is one, for example.  In reality, Catholics believe that salvation through Christ’s redemption is the only way, but they take the verse in James, “Faith without works is dead,” very seriously.

Within a portion of that embracing of the complexity, it also means embracing ideas that could lead to suffering.  The Catholic church teaches that suffering is a good thing and a normal part of the Christian’s life, and although suffering for suffering’s sake is never right, they encourage believers to not shy away from it, and in some respects, to expect it. In a very real way, if one is truly pro-life and acting on that by visiting the sick, the prisoner, or giving aid to refugees, you might be placed in dangerous situations.  You may become ill, you may die, doing what you are called to do and this is what the church is much quicker to embrace than many Protestants.  There are two movies that I think really embrace the complexity of trying to grapple with difficult issues of faith, suffering, and what part God has called us to play: The Mission, and Silence.  I would encourage you to watch them if you haven’t yet.

The main thing that I would like you as the reader to know is that I’ve put much thought and prayer into all of this as I hope was clear.  If you know me well, you know that I’m not just following my husband (as some well-meaning people have assumed).  For a handful of people that are very dear to me, I have not told you before now because we have not been face-to-face since I’ve made my decision, and how do you awkwardly work in “oh and by the way, I’m being confirmed in the Catholic Church” into the end of an e-mail, text, or a two second conversation?  I know for many people, this might be controversial and that is okay. Note that I did not site scriptures or texts, but they are easily Google-able, so if you want to discuss something, feel free to look it up first and we’ll talk.

One last thing.  Please know that I did not make my decisions based upon a dislike of Protestantism, but a love for Catholicism and foremost, because God has called me here.

If you would like to read about my thoughts when Ethan became Catholic (Part 1), here’s the link.

The Best and Worst Books of 2016

As with every year, I like to reflect upon the best of the best books I read throughout the year.  This year, out of the 30+ books I read, it was very difficult to narrow down because they were all very good.  Not a single one was bad or poorly written, so those books categorized as “Worst” simply did not live up to my expectations. As always, these are my biased opinions.

Most Influential

Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

If you have never read this book, you absolutely must.  Frankl masterfully weaves his own story of his time in Nazi concentration camps with his astute observations as a psychoanalyst. He observed that those who believed that they had a purpose to live for, did in fact, remain alive and in relatively better health than those who lacked purpose.  When someone succumbed to hopelessness, it was a quick descent to sickness and death.  This observation inspired what later be came to be known as logo-therapy.  A very important break-through in psychology.  I’m making it sound far more dry than it is, but it is amazing.

 

Joan Chittester: Essential Writings compiled by Mary Lou Kownacki

I’ve never read a book that expressed so fully the deepest echoes and beliefs etched in my heart. I read this book to pass the time while I sat in hospital after hospital, for hours upon hours with my brother this past month.  So perhaps my memories of the truths encompassed in this book are a bit magnified by that stressful time, but truths are still truths, nevertheless. Joan is a Benedictine nun who is not shy about her beliefs, her deep love of Christ and his church, or her criticisms of it. Her writings are many times a challenge to the church to take a leap of faith in following the example of Christ; specifically in the area of allowing women to fully be acknowledged as an equal part in Christ’s kingdom.

Worst

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

My only experience with this classic was the Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World when I was 3 or 4 years old.  I have fond memories of that particular ride because it didn’t scare the bejeezus out of me like the Snow White ride did.  So thinking fondly back to that experience, I had high hopes for a fun and frivolous tale.  Frivolous it was, but not so much fun.  The antics of Mr. Toad sounded too much like someone who struggles with Bipolar and having had way too much experience with being the responsible one trying to keep the Mr. Toad’s alive, I did not find the book enjoyable as I had hoped.

 

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

This book was recommended to me by several friends as being a terrific book, so I must’ve been expecting something different.  The first 13 chapters felt very forced, as if the older male author was having a difficult time knowing what a young woman would think and feel.  (I learned after reading it that this was Berry’s first time writing from a female character’s perspective.  It shows.)  The main character, Hannah Coulter, is extremely passive in her own life and her reactions to things that happen in her life seem rather unbelievable.  She’s alternately timid and bold, and seems to cry at the drop of a hat sometimes, but not at the times when tears seem most natural or appropriate. For instance, the first few chapters are all about her strong love for her grandmother, but when her grandmother passes away half way through the book, there is one quick passing sentence.  No grief, just a quick “oh yeah, and by the way, and she died a while back” sort of feel. The book gets significantly “truer” as she ages, because her thinking becomes less gender-driven and more universal and parental in her reflections.  There are some gold nuggets of wisdom about life and aging tucked away in there too.  So although I wanted to rip up the first half, I was glad that I held on until the end.

Best Fiction

The Power and the Glory by Graham Green

This was by far the most moving of the fictional books I read this year.  This book takes place in Mexico at a time when the Catholic Church was being persecuted.  Without giving anything away (because it is an absolute must-read), the story follows a persecuted “Whiskey Priest” who is running from the law, while still trying to minister throughout Mexico and how, even though he is completely flawed, God is still able to work through him.  It is a beautiful and redemptive picture of unmerited grace for highly imperfect people.

 

 All The Lights We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This was truly a lovely book. The story is a weaving of the lives of two characters: a blind girl and a German boy before and during WWII.  The chapters are short and lyrical and for the movement of the story, Doerr chooses to jump back and forth in time to give us enough thrilling forward glimpses to keep the reader hooked, and enough backward glances to help us love and feel connected to the characters and their disparate worlds.  He does a wonderful job making the reader “see through the eyes” of the blind girl too—how things feel, smell, taste, and sound. I can see how some readers might be annoyed at the shifting back and forth in time and perspectives, but by the end, I understood why he did it, and I found it to be essential to the story-telling.

 

Best Non-Fiction

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

If you have ever desired to be immersed in a different time in history, Larson has done the enormous amounts of research to help you do that.  It is the crazy story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the amazing amount of work and perseverance that made it possible.  Alongside the story of the building of the fair is also the story of America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes.  If you are disturbed by that sort of thing (and trust me, it’s disturbing), you can either skip those chapters or forego reading the book altogether.

 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

After learning about Truman Capote’s friendship to Harper Lee (the author of To Kill a Mockingbird) and the fact that she helped him do the research for this book, I felt like I might be missing out if I didn’t read it.  I was not disappointed.  This book is filled with thoughtful prose of the southern variety (to which I’m always biased), fully developed characters masterfully interwoven throughout the story, and a kind of psychological study on the what drives people to kill.  If you enjoy history or understanding the “why of people” like I do, you will really enjoy this book.

 

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimer Putin by Steven Lee Myers

I’ve been following Russian politics since I was in high school because I’m a nerd and weird, so for me, this book filled in quite a few gaps that Russian and American news reporting left at the time of many of the events mentioned in the book.  Myers did a wonderful job with his in-depth research for the book, gathering both favorable and unfavorable information. I especially enjoyed reading of Putin’s private interactions and conversations with former President George Bush.  It was interesting to get a glimpse of the private Putin—quiet, abusive, and aloof—not just be fed more state-issued propaganda of the powerful leader (as much of Russian news does). If you have any interest in international politics, it seems like now is the perfect time to get better idea of Russia’s enigmatic leader…since we might be seeing much more of him in the coming years.

Best Memoir

Helmet For My Pillow by Robert Leckie

You may be familiar with this book since the series “The Pacific” was partially based on it.  It is a beautifully written account of WWII in the Pacific Theater, replete with enough 1940’s culture references and colloquialisms, to drop you right into that time period.  Leckie is a Marine Corps grunt with the heart of a writer. The most amazing thing about this memoir in contrast to many others, is the view of nature being more brutal an enemy than the actual Japanese enemy.  And the memoir is bigger and more important than just reporting about his own time in war.  He uses the tortuous monotony of the everyday trials to bring forth the bigger questions about life and humanity in an eloquent, but unsentimental way.

 

All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg

My husband (the dear, sweet man) bought me this book after he heard the author on NPR talking about his memoir.  Even though Bragg was raised in Alabama in the 1960’s and 70’s, I could not help but notice the many similarities to my own southern upbringing (probably the reason my husband thought of me).  From the foods we ate, to the common phrases, to the societal norms and pressures that neither of our family’s lived up to, it seemed all too familiar.  I really appreciated his honesty about himself and the confessional feel that ran throughout the book.

Best Fantasy

The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear (The King Killer Chronicles #1-2) by Patrick Rothfuss

These are tomes (the first being 661 pages and the second being 993 pages) and are totally worth every.single.word.  I cannot say enough good things about these books.  They are imaginative, exciting, eloquent, and just plain amazing!  If you decide to read them, know that there are two downsides to reading this series. 1) You will need a few months to reset your fantasy expectations because once you’ve tasted a fine French wine, everything else will taste like vinegar and grape juice. 2) The last book in the series is not finished yet (it’s been 5 years).

A False Dichotomy and Other Lies We Republicans Tell Ourselves

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We’ve only got two choices: Trump or Clinton.  At least, that’s what everyone’s told us. “Choose from the lesser of two evils” they say. They’ve also told us that the only issue that matters is the Supreme Court Justice picks.  If they truly believed that, they’d vote for Evan McMullin or Gary Johnson because, as I’ve noted before, there is little chance that Trump will keep any promises he’s made because he very likely has NPD.

Many Evangelicals believe that we are seeing the beginning of the end times and are folding their arms in resignation.  But is giving up when the going gets rough really the lesson that we want to pass on to future generations?

“It’s always been between Democrat and Republican—it’s always been that way,” I imagine a staunch, grey- haired Baby Boomer explaining to me.  And he would be right—almost—with the stellar exception of Abraham Lincoln.

The problem is, I’m a scrappy Gen-X-er and was taught by the Boomer generation slogans like “think outside of the box,” or “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  So here’s the deal.  If you don’t like the rules of the game, change them.  And yes, I’m talking to you Gen-Xers and Millennials.  It’s up to us.  We’ve believed the lie that we have to play by the old rules of the game.  But we don’t.

The problem is not that we don’t have a good choice, it’s that we’ve believed the lie that we can be lazy in our democracy—thinking that a good democratic republic doesn’t require massive amounts of effort and sacrifice to maintain.  Do you think we just woke up one day after complaining about the unfair British rule, and suddenly had independence?  I think not.

So let’s look realistically at our options.

Gary Johnson—Best option for Moderate Republicans, Independents, and Centrist Democrats.

The Good: He is currently polling as the highest of all three third-party candidates, especially amongst young voters.  At this point, he has the overwhelming support of his home state, New Mexico. He is on the ballot in all 50 states.  He has experience as a highly successful Republican Governor.

The Bad: He doesn’t know where Aleppo is and can’t think very well on his feet (probably thanks to all of his former pot smoking).  Although personally pro-life, he believes the decision of abortion should be decided on by state, rather than at the Federal level (aka not pro-life on the birth end of things, but pro-life for the end of life and pro-life in quality of life for all).

To Learn more: https://www.johnsonweld.com

Evan McMullin—Best option for Conservative Republicans and Pro-Lifer’s

The Good: He worked in the Middle East in the CIA, as an investment banker for Goldman and Sachs, and served on the House of Foreign Affairs committee.  He is unabashedly pro-life and truly conservative.  He is on the ballot in 12 states.

The Bad: He has access as a write-in candidate in 20 states, and is on the ballot in 12.  There is no spelling auto-correct on the ballots.  If you are going to vote for him, make sure you know how to spell his name.

To learn more: https://www.evanmcmullin.com

Possible outcomes:

Evan McMullin could win his home state of Utah and the vote could go to the House of Representatives.

Gary Johnson could win his home state of New Mexico and the vote could go to the House of Representatives.

So what can we do?  We young people are great at protesting what we don’t like, but are usually unwilling to put in the work that change requires.  So here’s what we can do.

  1. Register to vote.  Today is the last day to register in PA.
  2. Educate yourself.  Know what is important and what you’re looking for in a candidate.
  3. Spread the word and educate others (that doesn’t mean have a shouting match).  Volunteer.  Every one of those websites has ways that you can volunteer.
  4. Petition.  If you like Gary Johnson, but want more pro-life leaning Supreme Court Justice picks, petition.
  5. Work at the polls.  Make a homemade sign, talk to people knowledgeably about your candidate.
  6. Send all of your friends in Utah and New Mexico information about the candidates most likely to win their state.

The point is, let’s stop complaining and work together to change the tide.