Sometimes They Love You, Sometimes They Don’t

I would rather be read than seen, but delivering my poem on that stage to an audience serious about art and beauty was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I have watched my favorite poets online present from their book at readings the way I’ve appreciated figure-skating on the Olympics channel. Very cool, and fat chance that’ll ever be me. But there I stood – while part of a collection – sharing my words out of a book. I was just a blade of grass, but had left the desert.

Beautiful cover, isn’t it? The SDPA is out on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and in all the San Diego public and university libraries in California. The 13th edition contains poetry from emerging and established artists in the region along with the international poetry contest winners. Apparently, the honorees from the competition comprised 1/9 of the submissions. We had to have made the final lists of two judges. To be able to read my work among distinguished guests including the Poet Laureate of San Diego, and receive the feedback I did were no small affirmations. I took the gift as a hard-won treat in wrapping up a school year that had revolved around my son.

People back home were so happy for me. It felt like I was finally getting somewhere – not I the mother or educator, but the writer who no longer remembered what she looked like apart from the mirror. And then life spun its crazy turns.

I refrain from the details, partly to keep the bleeding in check. But long sad story short, I found myself misrepresented sorely in the eyes of someone in authority at the hands of someone I had liked and trusted. The roughest of the ride behind me, I stand, shaken but more secure. I was able to move away from the anxious indignation, so bound up in the ego, to the stuff of real consequence, trust in God’s redemptive plans. I am a note in His symphony – a reminder both humbling and exalting. There is much more to my life than…me, and what people think.

The self-help gurus tell me I can be anything, do anything, and success is to be found in strength. In the quietest, deepest places, I know real growth comes by loss. If I am to offer up my God anything, I need to have something to give up. What can I surrender when the sun smiles upon me, when readers throw bouquets of praise, when my child is winning awards? Without struggle, there is no conquering.

Our Final Day and a Deal With God

I wonder if she woke feeling any different that day, if she’d had any telltale dreams. We women have our sixth sense about things. But she probably had no inkling that it was her last dawn, at least on this earth. It was a sudden heart attack. Who did she greet on the way out of her building? Who got the last of her smiling gift? Who gave her her last hug, reminded her that she was loved? Susan Irene Fox is not the first blogger I’d known to have passed – she is, actually, the fourth on WordPress – but her death hits close to home. She reached out to me, put me on her prayer list three years ago, in response to a difficult post I put out. I just revisited our emails, the comments and the guest post Single At Sixty she left on this blog, a brave, humble confession of loneliness and the peace she claimed. She was a kind, giving person, one who had nothing to prove but the truth that had transformed her life.

I think of people hungry for life who dance on the edge of death. Adrenaline junkies, athletes, addicts of all stripes who run to meet Goliath and nearly die so they can live again. I am not so brazen. I have felt a generosity upon my life, knowing the ground can slip from under me any moment. I imagine that Susan, had she known, would’ve wanted more time. More time to do the many little wonderful things we choose to leave undone: forgive, hold, kiss, dance, linger. For me, I feel a greater urgency in the writing as I wonder how many hours remain in my ledger. I could travel more, see more of people and the world to say I’ve lived, but I would be just a consumer in the enterprise. I would rather leave something behind, namely, more poetry, which though I am just a vapor will endure until the sun should die. That is a marvelous thought. My breath on the page, a legible love and memories – a great honor.

Honey, if my brain ever ends up sustained by a machine, if you don’t see the tears and recognition in my eyes, if I can’t make your amaranth and tell Tennyson to do his math, you have lost me already. It’ll be just a ghost of me on that bed and I want you to pull the plug. Don’t extend me beyond my time only to leave me a burden, neither living nor dead, without my words. I pick my lane, the freeway stretching North. But in exchange for the Mexican wife you’ve said you would get, I ask for one final gift: my own little pine box. You are so good with your hands. I know, I know. I put you to work to the end. But you’ll be a free man after that. It should be perfectly within the rights of a man to dignify his wife with a final custom home and tuck her away in the mountains. While you’re at it, bury me with a book. I won’t be needing the Bible anymore. I’ll be in it, getting it 3D! It’s not like I can take this blog. How freaked out will my readers be if I wrote them from the Other Side? But I won’t disturb anyone, buried with my nose in a book. I’ll pick it out and put it in the master where you can grab it easily in the whirlwind preparations.

Dear God,

It’s me again. Remember, I’m the one who sends back her plate when it’s not done right. And though I know the cooking will be just right for Goldilocks there, I’m also the one who’ll be bothering all your best writers and asking that you not room me with a fellow Type A. Don’t forget that I’ll be looking for Eve. What a MESS that girl’s got us all into! So how about we make a deal? Give me just twenty more years so I might hold my grandchildren and make sure their mother doesn’t feed them junk, and I will turn my keys in, no questions asked. You are juggling so much at the moment: our presidency, North Korea, the refugees, not to mention the missionaries who’ve been asking for you. Why don’t you take a break from my small affairs, drop me from your radar for a bit. A thousand years is like a day unto the Lord. Why, I’ll be there in no time. And one last thing. Please tell Susan I said hi and bye, that I miss her – and she doesn’t need to save me that seat.

 

 

 

Women, Money, and Barbarians

8 Years Old:

Boy: Mom, if I marry a girl and then don’t like her anymore can I switch?
Mom: *shake head* No, that’s why you must choose very carefully.
Boy: Oh. *looking disappointed*

++++++++++++++++++++++

Boy: Mom, when do people get married?
Mom: You can marry in your teens but most people do it in their 20s and 30s.
You have to work hard and be able to provide for your wife and kids. House, food…
Boy: *Nodding* I have to make money.
I would like to babysit.

++++++++++++++++++++++

Mom: Yes, everything, all of creation started decaying when Adam and Eve ate the fruit.
Boy: Even the Tree of Life?
Mom: *stumped* Good question.

+++++++++++++++++++++++

Daddy, Mommy said I can get the Pokemon cards for Christmas.
Dad: Why don’t you get it with your allowance?
Boy: Mommy, should we get it with my allowance or yours?
Mom: *laughing* I don’t have a lot of money.
Dad: *hooting* Mommy has a BIG allowance! It’s called a credit card.

+++++++++++++++++++++++

Mommy, I realized it’s not good to be rich. People will get jealous and kill you.
You should be medium rich.

+++++++++++++++++++++++

Daddy, are barbarians still around?
Dad: What do you mean? Of course not.
Mom: Honey, it’s an honest question. The Western Roman empire fell to Barbarians. He’s wondering what happened to them.
Dad: Well no, Tennyson. They became civilized. BY THEIR WIVES. They were tamed by their wives.
*family laughing* There was the male barbarian. And the even FIERCER female barbarian.

 

You do realize some body-snatching went on here?

You do realize some body-snatching went on here?

Words Between Mom and Boy, Part 3

ChurchMay

Seven-and-a-half ~

Yes, we all have our job. Yours is to study, mine is to cook and teach you, Daddy’s is to make money.
Huh. I have the hardest job of all.

—————

Umma, what is the bottom number? The lowest number….the floor?
*Smile* It’ll be a negative number, right? Way below zero. Only God can reach it because He is infinite.
When I get to heaven, I’m going to ask Him to show me how He stretches from the lowest to the highest number.

—————–

*Watching him eat, in amazement*
Where does it all go? It’s a three-mile tunnel in there.
I’m mileless.

—————–

Mom, what is M x X?

—————–

Mom, you know what the bottommost lowest number is?
What?
Negative infinity.

—————-

His prayer in Sunday School
Lord, give us joy as we fall at your feet.
*Mom stunned*

t_portrait02

Long Live Latin

colosseum

At seven-and-a-half, Tennyson memorized
the first seven verses of John 1 in Latin and
English in the homeschooling with
Classical Conversations, a global home
education program based on the ancient
Classical model of learning. I set each text
to song and he downed them like dessert.

In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat
apud Deum,
et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc
erat in principio apud Deum.
Omnia per
ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso factum est
nihil, quod factum est. In ipso vita erat,
et vita
erat lux hominum: et lux in tenebris
lucet, et
tenebrae eam non
comprehenderunt. Fuit homo
missus a
Deo, cui nomen erat Joannes. Hic venit in
testimonium ut testimonium perhiberet de
lumine,
ut omnes crederent per illum.

In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was
God. He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has
been made. In him was life, and that life
was the light of all mankind. The light
shines in the darkness, and the darkness
has not overcome it. There was a man
sent from God whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify concerning
that light, so that through him all might
believe.

This I Believe

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
I am ashamed to claim faith in Jesus Christ, unworthy as I am
to bear that name and call myself a Christian. For my sake he was
crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried.

I love the order and witness of the Christian faith;
the unassuming birth, disarming life, unjustifiable death,
and the deserted tomb that answer prophecy of Scripture.

A burning stick snatched from the fire, I believe I am more sinful
than I could imagine and more loved than I dare hope.*

Yet I worship at the altar of Self, and often insist and want and
worry as though there were no God. As though I were not loved.

I believe in right and wrong, and that I need saving from myself.
I need a God who is wiser than my purposes, deeper than my
hopelessness, higher than my dreams – a God who owes me nothing.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, Resurrection power
in this flesh and in the heart that fails me.

But how easily would I make my professions on a bed of nails,
not the carpet of ease and cultural civility of my times? On my deathbed
I will call myself Christian because grace will have won out in the end.

This I believe.

 

*This line a summation of the gospel by author and pastor Dr. Timothy Keller

I Will Sing: Faith

branches

Unless you’re helplessly tone-deaf, you’ll hear the unvarnished attempt of a songwriter
whose gift wasn’t singing. I can’t help wince at my voice but if the Scriptures sung in crude,
bare worship should bless anyone, the embarrassment will have been worth it. I thought
the song of hope would take us nicely from the last post Beauty From Ashes to the
one that’s coming up. You can zoom for the lyrics. Thanks for listening. Love, Me.

 

Faith01a

Faith04

Beauty From Ashes: Disabilities

In 1996, God gifted our family with a precious baby boy. Just like his two older sisters he was perfect in every way. But when he turned 15 months, we started to notice him “fading” and “pulling away” from us. At three-and-a-half, Justin was finally diagnosed with severe autism. Our world shattered.

Background
Beauty and brains are supposed to make for a winning combination in the future of a woman. From a young age I was taught hard work would make the most of these two elements. So as a little girl I wanted to be pretty and smart, and was willing to work as I needed to. My parents moved the family from Hong Kong to the United States when I was 12 years old. With only an elementary school education, my parents spoke very little English and worked long hours. I was the first in my family to get a college degree, with a B.S. in Civil Engineering. Upon graduation, I became project engineer for the U.S. Department of Transportation. I continued to work part-time as a professional model. A few years later, I added a Masters in Cross Cultural Studies to my résumé. I married a handsome man who is an accomplished doctor out of an Ivy League. All in all, not too shabby for a daughter of poor immigrants.

But becoming a mother brought out some of my deepest insecurities. Unlike the discipline of engineering, there is no exact science to motherhood. The more deeply I grew to love my children, the more I felt uncertainty and even a sense of helplessness. I applied every mothering principle I could out of every book on godly wisdom. But still nervous that I wouldn’t ‘measure up’ as a mom, I labored even harder to be the ‘perfect mom.’

Our first child was the compliant one that allowed me to play rookie Mom with relative success. Our second was the spirited one that challenged every word and boundary. We spent a lot more time praying on our knees and asking the help of others with this spunky child. Along came our third. Everything was normal until our outgoing, explorative child suddenly became a serious introvert who was attracted to objects instead of people. He eventually lost his ability to speak and had trouble engaging the world. His diagnosis was a death sentence. No longer were we on our knees. We were on our faces before God.

A simple dinner out as a family would turn into a problem when Justin made loud noises to drown out the sounds in the restaurant. Embarrassment would turn to disaster when he went on to bang his head to the table, punching himself before pouring the glass of ice water on himself. He also refused to leave the restaurant in tones so strident that some onlookers would look with judgment on our “obvious” lack of parenting skills. So many family outings have gone sour: like when he snuck away and got lost on a ship. Another time he hid himself at an amusement park. We searched for him for hours. Over the years I’m afraid we developed a sense of hopelessness and dread as parents. We’d opt to hide out at home where things were more controlled and there was no need to worry about stares or comments. Still, even at home were plenty of moments when Justin would become frustrated or overstimulated. He would start hurting himself or run around the house kicking holes in the wall. We got so tired of repairing those we just left them unpatched for a while. No amount of beauty, brains or hard work could save us from this 24/7 tragedy.

Beauty from Ashes
I knew the answer to our pain would not come by human means. My husband and I had prayed and grieved so much. But little by little, hope surfaced. Not because our beloved son was miraculously healed; he has grown in some ways – always a great joy and a deep encouragement. Over the past 19 years, we found we have been changed. Maybe the miracle we were praying for did indeed occur. In our own hearts. We started to realize how deeply our own lives have been enriched, in some ways beyond our imagination.

I would like to share with you the 10 most important lessons I have learned on this journey.

1. God is not surprised and He is in control.
The day we got Justin’s diagnosis, all the dreams we ever had for him were lost in an instant. Like most parents, we imagined he would grow up to be a typical boy who enjoyed sports, had lots of friends, went to parties, and had fun growing up. We looked forward to his graduating from college, getting a job and maybe starting his own family. We felt robbed. Some point later during prayer, God showed me in the first chapter of Genesis that He created something beautiful out of chaos. He reminded me that He is an expert at making the best out of the worst raw materials and situations. He created beauty from ashes. He showed me that He was and is in full control. And that He loved Justin very much. This divine assurance was the first peace and comfort I experienced since the “death sentence”.

2. Shore up the foundation for the long term.
When crisis happens we almost always run to solve the problem and put out the fire. But special-needs families like ours need to remember that life is a marathon and not a sprint. Statistics tell us that up to 90% of marriages with a special-needs child end up in divorce. My husband and I learned to put in place supports for our marriage even as we tackled the needs of our son. We set aside weekly date nights, quarterly getaways, and special times of prayer to reconnect and be refreshed. Marriage counseling improved our communication. These measures enabled us to walk the many deep valleys together as one. I understand it might not be possible for all parents to do all these things. But I have seen some really creative ways couples have found to strengthen their marriages. Some couples institute a daily 15-minute hugging/holding time with no interruption. Others exchange love letters of appreciation. Others reach out to needy families in their area to exchange babysitting and help one other in various ways. You are of no use to your child in the long run if you – and your marriage – do not survive. Your relationship is not something you can place on hold while you put all your energy into helping your child. You must prioritize your marriage, for that covering is super-important to your children. Knowing that the two most important people in their world both love and are committed to each other is perhaps the best gift you can give your child.

The other foundation you must shore up is yourself. Mothers will sacrifice everything for their children. There are seasons where this is called for in order to allow our children to thrive. However, these seasons cannot last. In fact, they need to be as short as possible. In order to make it for the long haul, we need to feed and nurture our own souls. This may be difficult, as many of us are wired to give selflessly. But we cannot give out of emptiness. I learned this principle from Jesus Himself. The Bible tells us that Jesus poured Himself out for others. He healed the sick, the blind and the lame. He encouraged the downhearted and taught all who would listen. He challenged the corrupt authorities and brought the Kingdom of God wherever He went. But He poured Himself out from His fullness in God. Even Jesus, the very incarnation of God Almighty, at times went off by Himself to commune with His Heavenly Father. He also needed to eat and sleep, at least sometimes. We need to find ways to refresh ourselves. I love to take occasional prayer retreats in solitude to nourish my soul. In those times alone with Him, I am reminded that I am first and foremost His beloved daughter. He reminds me that I am cherished and that He loves my family more than I do. With this strong assurance in my heart, I can return home as a nurturing mother to all my children and a faithful and loving wife for my husband as best I can.

3. It takes a community.
I used to pride myself in being independent and self-sufficient. Asking for help was very uncomfortable for me. In fact, I saw it as a sign of weakness. But after years of being humbled by my neediness and even suffering times of serious depression, I learned that I must lean on my community. Just as importantly, I learned that it is no shame to do so. I now seek out older parents with special-needs children for mentors and supporters. Together, we’ve trained college students who are energetic caregivers for our son and others. This network has been an incredible blessing, nothing less than extended family. I can no longer make this journey alone.

4. My worth is not based on my accomplishments.
When I was younger I believed that my accomplishments showed my value. This was part of the beauty, brains and hard work equation of my culture. I grew up with the constant fear that if I failed to achieve more and yet more, my self-worth would tumble. Whenever I felt unmotivated or perceived that I was underachieving, I would feel dreadful, guilty and unworthy. But in parenting Justin, I found that no matter what he was or wasn’t able to do my love for him remained steady. I realized that Justin’s limited abilities did not change my love for him. In fact, I loved him even more. I wanted to protect and care for him more as he depended so much on me. One day I was trying to get him to attend to what I was saying to him when he was absorbed in his own little world. I longed so much for my child to just take one glance at me and connect with me. God’s Spirit said to me, “Chrissie, I love you and long for you in the same way.” I could hardly digest the truth. “Really?! Father, you do?” I came to appreciate the unconditional love of our God in a new way. This has become an important part of my own healing: accepting that I am loved for who I am, not for my looks or brains or accomplishments. I am valuable whether I produce or not. I am not what I do. Wow! In our accomplishment-obsessed culture, this was a breakthrough for me.

5. Receive the gift of now.
As a planner who thinks strategically, I tend to put a goal in front of me and then figure out what I need to do to reach it. Everything needs to be purposeful and intentional, wasting neither time nor resources. Efficiency may be great for the corporate world, but taken to the extreme in everyday life it is a joy-robber. Living with Justin has meant living with uncertainty. So over time we have learned to be okay with the unexpected. In between meltdowns, we’ve learned to breathe deeply, to listen to the birds, or just feel the warmth of the sun. We’ve learned to appreciate the gentleness of a touch and the warmth of a smile. Everyone shouts in joy when a baby first says dada or mama. But soon, we take their ability to speak for granted. Autism affects our son in ways that we cannot understand. At one moment he might be able to say, “That’s great, Mom!” and the next moment have no words at all. We have learned to appreciate every small victory, like when he says, “Good morning, Dad” because we cannot know if those words will ever come forth from those lips again. We’ve learned to appreciate the miracle of the moment. The gift of now is priceless. Being too future-oriented has sometimes caused us to lose the joy of the moment. We don’t do that anymore because while the present is here only now, the future may never be.

6. What other people think of you is not really important.
One aim of successful modeling is to be able look effortlessly gorgeous at all times. Perhaps I mastered that to a certain degree. Even when I am lost, I can totally look like I know where I am going. My daughters still joke about that. The faking was important to me because I always wanted others to have a good impression of me and my family. Being Justin’s mom has forced me to abandon that silly desire and so has given me new freedom. It was hard enough to always look buttoned up when the girls were babies. When Justin came along, the unpredictable tantrums and meltdowns almost kept me from going out in public at all. I had to rethink my need to look composed and in control. I had to learn not to be bothered by the condemning looks of strangers. Gone were the effortless pretty days. Not worrying about what strangers think has been a blessing and freedom all its own.

7. Take the lemons and make lemonade.
The challenge of having a child with autism gave us the chance to get to know many other parents in the same situation. We came to know needs in this population that had not been addressed and we prayed we might be part of the answer. We discovered that 90% of the families with special-needs children do not attend church. One main reason is that there is almost never appropriate child care for autistic children. With support from our church, we started a special ministry for these families. I shared publicly our struggles with our child. Parents thanked me. It turned out that many of them were in my shoes but for the sense of shame had kept the truth about their children a family secret. We trained workers to understand the children’s unique challenges, set up classrooms specially designed for autistic kids, added picture scheduling so the kids could know what was coming next, and made sure that the Bible lessons, the songs and teachings were always appropriate. We worked hard to integrate these kids with other children to help them socialize. Our entire church community transformed into a more caring and understanding place. We broke down those walls of shame and fear. No longer do families with special-needs children in our area feel that churches don’t accept or love them.

8. Function as family, but let kids be kids.
Our tendency as parents is to protect children from harmful, bad or tough things. We never want to overwhelm children with adult-sized problems. But we do feel it is good to share with our girls in an age-appropriate way when challenges arise. They have learned lifelong lessons from these times. They have seen our family rally for one another and have grown to see themselves as indispensable members of our family. This is much healthier than hiding family needs and problems from the kids. A word of caution: do not load your children with more than a child’s share of duty. They are still just kids. Do not turn them into primary caregivers for their special-needs sibling – an impossible role for a child. If this boundary is not observed, typical siblings can become resentful and bear ill feelings towards the special-needs child. We have tried to remain sensitive in this area and our daughters have grown in a very loving relationship with their brother. Their care for him does not come from a place of obligation but of love.

9. Do not parent from fear.
Fear sells. Many of the commercials that target parents feed off our normal parental tendency to protect. I was a very conscientious mom who installed protective locks on the windows, plugged the outlets, checked car seat restraints, moved all dangerous chemicals to locked top shelves, etc. etc. etc. Yet it was my child who ended up falling out of our second-floor window when he was four. I was angry at myself. But through that terrible incident, I learned that all my fear and worry were not best for our children. My endless worrying and all my safeguards will never be enough. There will always be dangers in this world. It dawned on me. I really needed to trust in the only One who could truly protect my kids. This truth freed me from the burden of feeling I needed to do more and more and more. It helped me experience a new level of peace that has been a blessing not just to me, but also to my husband and our children.

10. God’s dream for my children is better than mine.
We had chosen a special name for our son before he was born. Justin means justice and righteousness. We prayed for him to be a leader in those areas. We thought he might become a lawyer or a social worker or a pastor. We had to give up those dreams but we had no idea that God would resurrect them in ways we never imagined. In training young people to work with autistic kids like Justin, many have shared how deeply blessed they have been; they experienced God’s unconditional love for them. Many look forward to coming to our home to work with Justin. Some have chosen to study the field of special education to become teachers. One day it occurred to me, “How many ten-year-olds do you know who’ve influenced this many people in such a profound way just by being himself?”

Despite the conscientious laws in the United States, not all children have automatic access to appropriate education. At times we have had to fight with the school system to get needed services for Justin and other autistic kids in the district. We felt that perhaps the teachers and school leaders resented us for advocating so strongly for our son. But it was a simple matter of justice for Justin and for autistic children everywhere so we never gave up. Out of the blue one day a teacher wrote us a card thanking us for fighting as we did. She said that the process of her adjusting for Justin had also benefited her other students and pushed her to be a better teacher as well. I was so deeply touched I cried.

Motherhood has been a humbling process for me. It has changed my definition of success. Life is no longer about outward beauty, big brains, hard work and a show of accomplishments. It is now more about inward beauty and hidden things that perhaps only my Father can see. I’ve learned that inner beauty comes from love and a spirit that has gone through ashes and brokenness. This is an eternal beauty that cosmetics cannot achieve. Brains are not just for stuffing knowledge into; they are for growing in wisdom. The wisdom of a parent will be one of the most important legacies we can leave our children. Effortless beauty and eternal wisdom flow out of a place of contentment, not striving. I have found that contentment in my heavenly Father.

“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted…provide for those who grieve…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”  Isaiah 61:1-3

 

I was amazed to find this piece written a year ago sounding so at home now in this series. Christina shared her story originally as a contribution to a book in keeping with her passion to serve as a voice for the voiceless, the overlooked and vulnerable. Her husband is an esteemed professor and physician of gastroenterology in Southern California who made his recent second appearance on the TV show The Doctors. Christina is, among other things, quite a brave heart. She enrolled her two bright daughters in the Mafia Academy of Arts with Yours Truly for instruction in writing and piano which the girls endured six long years.

I’m Not Ready to Die

Dear God,

You caught that I’m not feeling too great but please don’t seize the occasion to take me home. At least let me get my Valentine’s series out. It’s not like you need me. Far better writers over there. And once I’ve arrived, I won’t be going anywhere, right? No hurry, no hurry.

——————

Dear Reader,

I think I’ve bought some time. Please be patient. If it’s been a while, you know I’ll visit back. Comments closed so I don’t fall behind even more on those.

Love,
HW