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Dear Owl

Friday, November 3, 2006, I flew my mom out to Colorado from our family home on Florida’s east coast to spend a sweet weekend with my two daughters and me. My husband was out of town for a conference, so it made for a perfect girls’ weekend.

We were blessed with the typical Colorado fall pattern of weather: cool and dry with cobalt blue skies. We filled the weekend with fun activities. Friday after picking her up from the airport, we went to a luncheon hosted by a friend from my church. She was able to meet many of my friends with whom our family worshipped. Saturday morning we headed to a holiday bazaar at the Chinese adoption agency through which we brought our daughters home. This was a special treat for her. Both of my daughters were adopted from China, one at age fourteen months, and the second, a…

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On Humility

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The topic was humility; not a stretch for a Friday night meeting in Alcoholics Anonymous. The focus was on Step Seven of the program’s twelve steps. In AA’s book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions the word humility is mentioned thirty-one times. I know this because my sponsor made me count it. A walk down the road of humility reveals a constant awareness of one’s pride, and pride can be lethal for an alcoholic.

So, after the facilitator for last night’s meeting opened up the floor for discussion, there was an awkward pause. I hate awkward pauses. This one seemed to go on interminably. I don’t like being the person to open the discussion. I need more time to formulate my response and I am not one of those brilliants who can be witty, articulate and succinct on my feet. That is why I am a writer; it gives me time to ponder. Second, listening to others’ responses first can trigger my own personal memory or experience related to the subject that may help my contribution to the meeting be more meaningful.
I finally caved in to my self-imposed speaking restrictions and began to recount a brief synopsis of my family’s heritage tour to China, from which we had just returned five days prior. As a matter of fact, this was my first meeting in 4 weeks. Between the preparations for the tour, the fifteen days out of the country, and the recovery from the very taxing jet-lag, I had missed nearly a month of meetings, and was looking forward to the hearing the experience, strength, and hope of others to help refill my own recovery “tool-box.” I thought I could relate this meeting’s topic to the apparent paradox my husband and I had observed in China. The country’s national “religion” is atheism, but her people seem quite godly and humble from an individual perspective. I relayed how they have so little in material possessions, but they demonstrate great joy in their daily lives. Here in America, we have freedom of religion, and if one looks at the surface of our culture through the media, there is an apparent lack of godly behavior and morality, and a constant search for “happiness.” I shared this thought within the constructs of our journey to China with our two adopted Chinese daughters. I also shared with the group that I was happy to be at the meeting, and I was happy to be back in America.

I immediately wished I hadn’t spoken.

A man whom I am familiar with from attending this meeting somewhat regularly (for anonymity’s sake I’ll refer to him as “Joe”) began to respond to my observations.
“The Chinese are a bunch of bastards…” and on it went: A no-less-than five minute dissertation inflected with his ethnocentric value system on the greatness of the USA and Christianity, and his extreme distaste for those who travel abroad and espouse the values of cross-cultural exchange. All of this was based not on the merits of American virtue, but rather on the evils of the Asians. He was off the chain.

I am an American. I love our soldiers. I, too, was happy to be back on American soil in my native culture following our two weeks abroad. I am a political conservative. I am a Jesus follower. I try my best to adhere to the principles and steps of AA.

Joe has a history in these meetings. He is often crass, arrogant, angry, egotistical, judgmental, and he uses objectionable language. I have noted eye-rolling and other distasteful gestures from other AAs when he speaks, but this time, there was a collective gasp in the room and many of those folks in attendance looked at me to see where the volley was heading. He struck me at my jugular.

As the hostility of his words sunk in, my expression metamorphosed from a patronizing half-cocked grin, to astonishment, and progressed to an utter failure to conceal my emotions, no matter how hard I tried to suppress them. It was like trying to sustain a flood-wall whose threshold had been breached. Blame it on the lingering jet-lag, but his words stung like they had been hurled from a sling-shot. Where was my defense? I wanted to hold it together, take it like a soldier and stand my ground; and counter with a retort that would cleverly and conclusively stall his jet, but I was paralyzed.

After at least five minutes of his verbal attack, he finally shut-up, and the guy sitting next to me rose to my defense. He is a very articulate fellow, politically correct with a non-threatening manner… but I still could not hold it together. I had to get up and walk out. I exited this meeting and through tears, blindly made my way to my car. I felt humiliated, even victimized. This was an “open” meeting, designed for AAs and their spouses, partners, seekers, whomever. Joe made a travesty of the meeting and I hoped to God that he hadn’t frightened off any newcomers. A very nice couple followed me to my car, consoled, and extended a degree of humanity toward me that, sadly, Joe would never have the aptitude to experience.

After this bitter experience, here is where I’ve landed: I feel terribly sorry for Joe. Something very awful must have happened to him in his lifetime to make him so miserable. Perhaps he has lost a son in the war. Perhaps he was abused. I know he is an alcoholic, but he is no-where near “recovered.” He is what those recovered folks “in the rooms” call a “dry drunk.” This is an alcoholic who has stopped the obsessive consumption of alcohol, but has not done the work behind changing the behaviors that motivates his or her drinking. I became resolved to pray for Joe, and not let him take up any more rent space in my head. I haven’t the room. It had been four weeks since I had been at a meeting. During these four weeks wine and beer had been passed around in front of me indiscriminately during our time abroad. I had successfully withstood the pressure to drink. I had not wanted to drink. The compulsion is gone. During these four weeks away from a meeting and out of the country, I had also experienced my one-year sobriety date. My very first birthday! I had gone to this Friday night meeting to get my one year anniversary chip, and had allowed this man to get the best of me, and rob me of the opportunity to celebrate my recovery. I left the meeting terribly hurt, wondering where the message was in all of this, and whether I would ever return.

This morning, the morning after, I awoke with a new resolve. I just returned home from my Saturday morning home group of Alcoholics Anonymous. I picked up my one-year chip amidst many hugs and cheers. The irony of Joe’s outburst was that he exemplified the complete loss of humility with a hostile takeover by pride. He doesn’t get it. Some of us are just sicker than others. Yet again, the serenity prayer has rescued me from a place of self-pity:
God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to changes the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

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The other evening I was cleaning up the kitchen following a rare, uneventful dinner with my family, when my youngest daughter’s screams alerted me to an oncoming catastrophe. “LiLi has a mouse in her room and she is petting it!”  “Oh my word… what fresh hell is this…” was the first thought that came to my mind. We have two dogs, two cats, two birds, two parents and two kids living in this house (I prefer symmetry) and no mice as of the last time I checked. As I stood paralyzed in the kitchen frozen into a state of denial, my husband went upstairs to check out the situation. I can handle most any emergency that comes my way, but place a wayward mouse in my field of vision and I am scrambling around faster than a running back in the post-season play-offs. LiLi indeed had a mouse and was cuddling the little critter when she caught JaneGrace’s attention. She revealed to my husband that she had caught it a couple of days earlier in our garage and had taken it to her room to keep as a pet. I really believe the girl is part feline. How this poor mouse survived in her room for two days without being victimized by her cat remains a mystery to me. LiLi: the cat and mouse whisperer.

 

Earlier in the evening before we sat down to dinner, LiLi had been in the kitchen getting something to drink when she asked a question that, in retrospect, should have clued me in to the upcoming after-dinner entertainment. “Mom, Mom, do you like mouse Mom?” (LiLi always double-prefaces and punctuates her questions with a redundant pro-noun) Being distracted with the last minute hustling and bustling of dinner preparation, I ignored the question. Our family is used to random, out of context questions that LiLi often asks at the most inconvenient moments, and unfortunately for me, this is one I shouldn’t have ignored. In her child-like way, LiLi was prepping me for the inevitable unveiling of her new little room-mate.

 

This adventure reminded me of a similar event not long after we brought LiLi home fromChina. At that time, we lived in an old, log cabin high up in the Colorado Rockies. During the cold, harsh winters the little field mice often sought refuge in the warmth of the cabin. Unbeknownst to me, LiLi had found a dead mouse somewhere in the house and had also kept it as a toy. Although it didn’t require the cat-like agility that catching a live mouse demanded, it did require some spunk. It also made me ponder the life this poor girl must have led in the orphanage… to what degree of neglect and deprivation must one endure to engage in such behavior? I had found the dead mouse in her closet in an over-the-door hanging shoe organizer. At least she was efficient in her storage of the poor little creature.

 

This evening, my husband forced LiLi to carry the live mouse outside to the front lawn and let him go. The mouse wasn’t very happy and neither was LiLi. It immediately crawled over to my husband’s shoe, perched up on his haunches and peered up at my husband as if wondering what it had done to bring about this change of good fortune. Evidently, it had enjoyed the several days of plentiful goodies LiLi had shared. My husband finally had to pick it up and carry it further from the house to prevent the very real possibility of it sneaking back in when our backs were turned. Who knew a field mouse could become domesticated in such a brief amount of time? LiLi has been home for nine years now, and she’s still not domesticated.

 

 

Where does a parent begin to teach a child that catching wild rodents is not a good idea? My exasperation is great. I can’t think of enough rules to manage this girl’s behavior from a pre-emptive or post-operative perspective. Any rule created is just another to be broken. Please enlighten me if there is a way to teach common sense. What’s next, a raccoon or ‘possum? LiLi is so very tenderhearted, and for this we should feel blessed. I suppose it is better for her to be showing empathy to stray rodents rather than brutally torturing them. In her mind, no living creature should be alone; not even a mouse. Please God, just for today, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference; and please, oh please, grant common sense to LiLi. Amen.

Crash Landing

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Crash Landing

A number of years ago when I was a single nurse working a summer job at the Easter Seals camp in Colorado, I was introduced to a story written by a mom of a child with a disability. The story was entitled “Welcome to Holland.”  It is a bittersweet metaphorical story of what it’s like to raise a child with a disability. The main character was diverted in-flight from a well-planned for trip to Italy, to a totally unprepared for, permanent destination in Holland. Holland was nice, but it wasn’t Italy.

After two summers working at the Easter Seal camp, one thing I knew for sure was this: I did not want to raise a child with a severe disability,or any disability for that matter, as if I had a choice in the matter. I had lived for thirty-five years as the center of my universe. I knew raising a child would be challenging enough, but a child with a severe disability would have thrown me curves for which I didn’t possess the agility to catch. I want to make it clear that I loved my job at the camp. The experience of working with counselors who specifically chose to be at a camp for kids with disabilities was among one of the most memorable experiences of my career. The children and adults who attended the camp were just that: children and adults who happened to have a disability. Most were simply sweet kids who required adaptations to live within a world designed by able-bodied folk. Some were behaviorally challenging; rarely sleeping; producing zombie-like parents with dark circles under their eyes and resigned to holding nightly vigils to keep their child safe. Some of these children would require rigorous one to one supervision, rarely allowing a parent to venture through the rites of passage that were celebrated when raising a typical child. Some were born with their disabilities, or acquired them through a difficult birthing circumstance. Some unfortunates were born as perfectly healthy babies, only to later become disabled thru severe illness or injury. None of us are perfectly immune from disabilities.

Later in my life, my experiences at the Easter Seals’ camp influenced my decision to adopt. My husband, whom I met at camp, and I chose adoption early on in our relationship as a viable option through which to start a family. He had a mature vasectomy, and I didn’t want to risk fate by trying to become parents the traditional way. In my naïveté, I assumed I could control my destiny by the “type” of child I would accept through adoption, thereby reducing the risk of bearing a child with a severe disability. I must add that I had also felt “led” to adopt. God placed adoption upon my heart. He knew my heart; knew what I was capable of; and knew the healing that would take place through these adoptions and I trusted him explicitly. I still do. Recently a friend and I were discussing the calling of Peter and Andrew into discipleship. Jesus said “Follow me,” and at once they put down their nets and off they went. Seriously, what were they thinking? They trusted that calling without question. At times I feel like that adequately describes the process through which we brought home our second daughter. LiLi called to us through cyber-space, and we jumped boldly into the process to become her parents.

We adopted a healthy child through our first international adoption, and two years later expanded our family through a child from our adoption agency’s “waiting child” list. A waiting child is one who is older or has special needs. We chose a child who fell into both categories. She was seven years old and had cleft lip-palate. I thought cleft-lip palate was a special need I could manage. I believed God had led us to this little girl, and that she was the child to complete our little family. We had begun to wade into the waters of special need parenting. Little did I know we were about to crash-land into Holland.

Bringing LiLi Home

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Bringing LiLi Home

Our lives changed dramatically when we adopted a seven year old girl from China in June of 2003. We began the adoption process as knowledgeable, well-educated, expectant parents. We thought we had done our homework. When weighing the pros and cons of older child, special needs adoption, the column of “strengths” out-weighed the column of “weaknesses.” I was a seasoned ER nurse, and had worked with special needs kids. My husband had years of experience in the developmental disabilities field, and also had raised a daughter with Down syndrome. We had joined the international adoption ranks two years earlier when we brought home our first child, a beautiful, perfect little almond-eyed baby girl from southern China. Her transition into our home had been joyful and seamless.

Dang Li had been on our international adoption agency’s “waiting child” list for nearly a year as my husband and I perused the countless files of orphans waiting for a forever family. Waiting children were older children, and/or those identified with a special need. Dang Li fell into both categories. She was seven years old and had a cleft lip-palate. Her file stated she “may need speech therapy.”  She was older than what we had in mind, and I knew that cleft lip palate involved years of reconstructive surgeries and dental work. When we considered the waiting child program, we had envisioned a pre-school aged child, or one with an easily-correctable physical defect. Without sharing with one another, both my husband and I had felt our heartstrings pulled by her photo as it remained on the site month after month.  She had a pitiful look about her and seemed to call out to us through cyber-space. After a particularly exhaustive exchange on whether to proceed with this second adoption, my husband peered at me with eyebrows raised and asked, “What about Dang Li?” This was all the urging I required to take a blind leap of faith into the world of older child, special needs, international adoption. The urge to become a mother for the second time and enlarge our cozy little family drove me through any barriers of caution my common sense had constructed. Through the years since that precise moment, I have questioned my motives for this adoption over and over and over again.

Six months later, my husband and I were off to China with our three year old daughter and my sister in tow. Our adoption agency had prepared us with mandatory classes on the issues of bonding, reactive attachment disorder, and other challenges that we might face. We read books, talked to other experienced families, and felt prepared. Yet only fifteen minutes after returning to our hotel after that fateful day of meeting her and completing the required paperwork, I began to feel the pangs of regret. The bubble had burst already, and I felt a knot in my stomach. I sensed something wasn’t right. The feelings were swirling in my head, and I was afraid to speak to my sister or my husband. It was an agonizing time, and continued through the remainder of the two-week trip, spilling over into our arrival home and beyond.

After arriving home, I continued to hide my feelings amid growing concerns about LiLi’s development and behavior. My three year old suffered by the amount of attention LiLi required. I felt guilty for my role in this adoption. The transition was not progressing as I had envisioned; LiLi and I were each having bonding issues with the other. She clearly needed a maternal figure in her life, but we each weren’t sure it was going to be me. Her behavior repelled me. She was undisciplined, nearly feral at times, and I detested the constant scowl she had on her face. A year and a half into our adoption, testing revealed what I had feared the most: LiLi had major cognitive issues. Through the years further diagnoses were added to include speech and language disability, anxiety, dissociative disorder, and reactive attachment disorder.  Her years in an orphanage as a social pariah within her native culture had taken its toll.

Fast forward to present time: With five surgeries and countless psycho-social appointments behind us, all of us have survived and our family is intact. Raising this child has been the toughest challenge I hope to ever face in my life. She exposed deep fears, longings, and truths about myself that were as uncomfortable as rocks to swallow. At times I choked. At times I thought it was all about me, and then I remembered from where she came… and loathed myself. She has grown into an exotically beautiful teenager who is endeared by all who meet her. She loves her family and extended family dearly and we can’t imagine our lives without her. This child is a survivor, above all, and so am I.

Holy Yoga: An Inspired Stream of Consciousness

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I had so many memorable moments at the Holy Yoga retreat, it is difficult to choose which to write about. While mulling through my memories over a quiet moment with a chai tea latte, I decided on this story:
The most memorable moment of the weekend involved my feet: my size ten, embarrassingly un-pedicured, lanky-toed paws. They caused me to weep, mind you. “Oh,” you’re thinking… “You were at a yoga retreat… think of them as shaggy chic, organic, natural feet. Like a gal who wouldn’t wear make-up might chose to let her feet go natural as well.” No sister, it wasn’t that at all. These were ‘for real’ tears… I was moved… by… my…feet.
Rachel, our instructor for the last session, asked us to sit up, bringing the soles of our feet together. This gentle command was followed with another that directed us to hold each of our feet and begin a massage. I dutifully followed the instructions and the result completely caught me by surprise. Slowly, like a gentle wave rolling ashore and gaining momentum, feelings welled up inside of me and unfurled like a main-sail catching a great gust. The tears began to fall. As I sat there with my feet in my hands, they took on a life of their own. I recalled all of the events in my life they had transported me through as unwilling participants that were never able to make their own choices; sort of like the relationship of Miss Daisy and Hoke Colburn, the chauffeur. Of course, Daisy’s and Hoke’s relationship softened and matured over time, much like the relationship that was revealed to me as I sat on my yoga mat with my sweet little feet in my hands.
They have carried me well through the years; as a little child in the in the surf of Florida’s coastal waters, they struggled to maintain balance after being struck over and over again by the big waves; they’ve climbed rocks in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, combed beaches from coast to coast, summited a fourteen thousand foot peak in Colorado and balanced on windsurfers and surfboards as sharks darted beneath me. They have marched in parades and led bands in halftime shows. They mastered the muscle memory involved in learning to drive a stick shift. While digging into the wet sand to drag a catamaran out from the surf during a downpour and electrical storm, they survived an electrocution from lightning
They carried me down the aisle to marry my best friend, and transported me to Chinese soil where I received my beloved daughters. I’ve tortured them through half-marathons, mini- triathlons and crazy relay endurance races. I’ve logged many miles running up and down hospital corridors, responding to emergencies, traumas and cardiac arrests. They’ve been my main support as I cared for the sick, the addicted, and the gravely injured. They have been peed on, vomited on, and christened by most body fluids. They endured the death of my father and the untimely, tragic death of my mother. They got me to the hospital as quickly as they could when my husband averted death only thru the grace and mercy of God. They have supported my weight through many anguished prayers.
My feet have danced on ships, under the light of the moon, and while cruising down the Pearl River in Guangzhou. They have celebrated at weddings and mourned at funerals. They peddled too many bicycles to remember, pounded the pavement thru many neighborhoods, and gently prodded horses along a trail. They have chased after a particular beagle named Sammy thru briars and brush that a rabbit couldn’t navigate. They have waded in mountain streams, cooled themselves in alpine lakes, and been bitten by dozens of ants and other insects over the years as they performed their duty.
Yes, all of these thoughts went thru my mind simultaneously as I clutched and tenderly massaged my feet. I began to cry with them, for them, and because of them. I cradled them as friends who had been through the best and worst of times with me; stuck things out through thick and thin. As the exercise drew to an end, I lay back on the mat with one hand covering my heart and the other my belly. After a few more minutes of quiet introspection and meditation, I felt the brushing of a warm washcloth across my toes. Then a slow caress and the unmistakable feel of someone washing my feet. I felt like a child being cared for; someone loved me enough to touch and care for these indentured servants. She was taking time to lead through serving. The teacher was washing the feet of the student. This was a “moment” for me. Someone, a Holy Yoga instructor, was gently loving and caring thru the lowly task of foot-washing. Jesus said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” To receive this sort of demonstration of service from another human being is to commune with the Most High. It is an intimate, selfless act of worship directed toward our Creator and bestowed upon a brother or sister. It is a gift.
This foot-washing punctuated one of the most poignant streams of consciousness I’ve experienced. The tears fell and my pent up grief, joy, sadness and dogged acceptance of my life took a turn into a place of spiritual wellness that is growing still.
So this was my moment: A simple directive from a yoga instructor that yielded the sweetness of timeless memories and culminated with a ‘sole’fully-received gift of agape.