Aftermath: Burning Desires

At first glance, I wondered if it was just an enormous burn pile.

My first memories place me under the tree in the yard of my early childhood home on Varano Drive in St. Louis, where I spent so many hours picking at the grass and digging in the dirt. I longed to go with my big sister as she boarded the bus to school. When she returned from kindergarten, we would wait together for the ice cream truck. She would always be first to proclaim that she could hear the magical music…probably, I figured, because she was the big sister. I wanted to do “big girl” things, just like she did.

I started to wonder if it was more than just burning leaves.

At four years old, I clearly remember sitting between my preschool peers at Virginia James Dance Academy. It was snack time. I wanted the ice milk that Vicky, who had some kind of food sensitivity, had gotten, instead of the paperboard cup of ice cream before me. As I scraped a tiny vanilla mound onto my little wooden stick-spoon, I secretly wished that I, too, had been special enough for ice milk.

The cloud of smoke rose and widened.

At six, I wanted so badly to swing high enough to wrap the chains around the support bars, even while I held fast to my seat.

We stepped outside. The fire was audible from our front porch.

As a third-grader, I really admired Mary Ellen’s new shoes. They were shiny black patent-looking vinyl with a grosgrain ribbon glued across the top. I asked her where she had gotten them. My mom took me to Kmart after my successful pleading, and soon I had my very own pair. I felt fancy, indeed! By the time my toes crowded against the front of the shoes, I was ready to trade the once highly-coveted ribbon shoes for a pair of canvas Keds which seemed better suited, anyway, for making potions in the backyard from baby powder and food coloring.

Under the rolling smoke, we could see flames coming toward us.

In sixth grade, my dad took me to a Cubs game. I got my first baseball mitt, and, at the end of that season when my love of the great game began, I learned of the dreaded baseball depression that begins with the last out of the World Series and, thankfully, lifts as the first pitch is tossed in the springtime.

Just in case, I called for help even as the sirens could be heard in the distance.

I wanted to ride the highest roller coasters and the fastest spinning rides with my friend, Sheila, because she was really funny and good, and I knew she wouldn’t throw up on me.

The flames, topped with billowing smoke, continued to roll furiously toward the farm.

I wanted to know what those girls who sat along the wall were laughing about in my eighth grade classroom. I hoped very hard that it wasn’t me.

We could see flashes through the smoky clouds, far across the burning field.

In high school, I wanted to belong. I could never, though, really find my way in a crowd. My message was awkward and quiet, though my inner voice roared. I joined service clubs that worked to clean the convent adjacent to our school, packed harvest boxes for the holidays, and volunteered at a summer camp for preschoolers with autism. I wanted to “help people” because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, perhaps because I though it would somehow make me a better person.

Fear was rising.

At twenty, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of friends, I walked along Clark and Belmont, hunting for vintage treasures at Flashy Trash and scouring the record bins at Second Hand Tunes. I waited long hours for entry to concert venues, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of friends. I studied hard. I wanted to travel, listen to music, and, perhaps one day, still, have a little part in saving the world…or, at least, the children.

Fire trucks and rescue vehicles arrived with flashing lights, strength, and fire hoses. The helpers had come.

The days turned quickly to years, love, babies, home keeping, and gardening. I wanted to stay right where I was, alongside my dear friends as we pushed strollers to the coffee shop or sat on the bench outside the conservatory. The simple days were numbered, though, as the children grew.

The sky had transitioned to an eerie, unsettling yellow. The air swirled with remnants of harvest, brittle and broken.

Time presented years of fostering and subsequent adoptions, years so different from my early days of parenting. I wanted to fix what I never quite could. The words just never seemed right. I hoped to be the one that could make a difference…but I wasn’t enough. The strength…even wisdom…that I had once felt gave way to the anger, the trauma, and the tragedy of what we had signed up for. What I wanted, upon this slow realization that I would never be enough, was uncertain.

It was so hot. The smoke had fallen heavy, permeating our beings. The wind shifted, and with it came new fears of the flames reaching the forest or the chicken coop.

Soon it will be sunset, a mystery of nature’s paint box; one day’s stunning show that leads to an unimpressive tomorrow. Maybe that’s enough.

A tractor circled the fiery field, turning up the soil to aid in combating the flames.

What I want now is to sit next to my aging parents, to hear my mother’s voice of reassurance, quelling my uncertainties about whether the turkey is done or if I should use bleach in the laundry; and to catch a Cubs game on TV with my dad, always faithful as my biggest fan.

The billowy smoke began to give way to sun. The worst, for certain, was behind us.

Sitting under a tree, picking at the grass and digging in the dirt seems nearly enough for me, now, and certainly more desirable and manageable than trying to save the world.

I checked the freezer, but there wasn’t enough chocolate chip banana bread to offer to all those helpers. I called to them, but the noise echoed so loudly in my head that nobody heard me.

I hope that my daughter might stop by on her lunch hour to pick up her mail, or that my son will take a little break from his work day to eat a piece of bread while it is still warm enough for the butter to melt. I think of the faraway boys…now men…and hope that their days find them happy.

The last fire truck was pulling away as I returned from the chicken coop, where a few hens perched inside, seemingly doing their regular chicken things. I waved to the driver and he, to me, as we both went about the rest of our days.

I wish they could all be home, taking their places around the table as the day fades to dusk. They are what I have always wanted, and now, with my grown children in their various stages of adventure, after the smoke has mostly lifted, it has finally come clear.

The November sun was particularly bright in the aftermath, reflecting hope and relief. Though I could not discern the colors, I know they were there.

As the fire, we ignite, rage, succumb to help from others, and fade to quiet.

“And at once I knew, I was not magnificent.”

–from Holocene, Bon Iver

Dearth

“Mom, why is your garden really empty right now?”

The words of my five-year-old came from a place of curiosity. The corn stalks that had poked skyward for many months had been cut. Lemon cucumbers no longer hung along the fence posts like bright lamps strung for a party. He had noticed. He wondered: why?

Some might suggest that it would be my chickens, but it is my garden that is closest to my soul. Why, he might have asked, is your soul empty right now?

I can see where this is going. I can feel the thoughts. They come from so many: many who have not gone before. Without words, I know how they perceive me. They don’t hear what I say. They can’t. It doesn’t matter that the story ends…or almost…the same way, every time. Once again we pry it open…stitches for a paper cut from pages that we have known for a million days. We have to begin again, because we still don’t understand the words.

The moon was a giant orange ball, a jeering jack-o-lantern to guide me along the darkening road across, once again, the endless miles. Hope was a tiny space, fading to nothing, gone like the color of the moon by the time another could see.

The judgment reaches through the slammed doors. The noise of misconception, fabrication, and blame drown out the quiet truth which no one seems to hear. Who are we anyway, to step forward with our intentions? The fingers point at every turn; invisible laughter and thoughtess remarks grind into my hollow, guarded heart.

Beneath the balloons and party horns, the colors are faded, unnamed, indiscernible. A lifetime of celebrations is written in invitations lost along the way.

It’s not your fault. It’s not her fault. Really, it’s nobody’s fault.

I might know parts of the story, but only what I was not supposed to be told, that which poured from a young child’s glassy memory, like a kaleidoscope, twisting and fleeting at every turn. These patterns pervade, engraved in the stones of loss.

I lay awake as the voices rejoice. The circle is complete, but I find myself outside, cast out, perhaps. A questionable purpose known only to our Maker. So in the end, it’s just me, back where I began, gutted empty. The starry eyes have faded in favor of those gaunt and knowing, circled dark…a wisdom desired by no one.

How can this be God’s work?

When the day comes at last, when I am called home, will I look back and understand the work of His hand? Will we stand together, welcomed back into the circle?

It’s so dark, and we are far away from even the light of the moon. We know, though, that the winter sleep will yield its cold blanket of snow, and the magical asparagus will once again poke through the soil. The brittle grape vines will bring renewal with fresh green shoots to remind us of the promise of late summer fruit.

One season turns to the next, and our circle opens once again. Heaven’s garden knows no dearth; bountiful harvests flow like honey.

My little son marveled at the harvest moon’s surreal presence…a perfect circle, the color of the sun. Together we stood, watching as it faded to ordinary before our eyes. We knew, though, just how magnificent it once had been.

Strip Me Bare

Last year, they were probably heard screaming through to the second floor of the clinic, and there were fights…battles…battles that they did not win. No one did.

A friend shared a link on social media yesterday, and I read every word, as often I do when this particular friend posts things. If she finds something worthy of her time, I know it will be worthy of mine. What I read was a post on the toll taken by the coronavirus from the perspective of writer and blogger, Helene Wingens; I have shared the link below. The words which spoke great truth to me were these: “Being the keeper of everyone else’s sadness and hurt (even if I am self-appointed) is heavy. So heavy.

Heavy, indeed. These resolute words were a painfully accurate summary of how I, and certainly many others have felt about what is going on around us these days.

As I read, my feelings took me elsewhere, to a place inside of me that evoked a similar level of exhaustion and fear, but for very different reasons. As with any art form, the viewer, the listener, or the reader will find meaning in its interpretation. We will make sense of what is before us from our own experiences.

I never liked getting shots, but what seems far worse is watching my children endure a similar fate. As a two-year-old, Elliott had to have a lead screening for preschool class. I was the anxious and fearful one: a young mother more than half my lifetime ago. I remember taking the stoic boy to Burger King after the appointment. My sense of relief must have been palpable as we ordered our Whoppers and as Elliott donned his cardboard crown.

For these years sprawling into decades of throwing my best effort into parenting children with trauma and mental illness, I have certainly tried to hold the sadness, hurt, fear, grief, and anger of my children. Often, though, it cannot be contained. It flows from me, as from my child, and we drift from one another through trials and misunderstandings, displaced anger and defeat, perhaps even to be washed away entirely, back to nothingness, where we are stripped bare of all that we have.

I took the three little boys for flu vaccines yesterday with the promise of not Burger King but Nerf guns from Target after the battle, which somehow was not even a battle. They knew. The magic of one child’s medical cannabis regimen along with new psychiatric protocols for the others might have a bit to do with how things went this year, but we made it through. Somehow, we have arrived at today. It wasn’t easy.

It’s just a short time here, really, to be full of so much that cannot be understood. Just maybe, we are not fit to try to understand.

Maybe there really isn’t going to be a watershed or a life-altering turn of events. Perhaps things will really begin to get easier. Perhaps we will get used to how things are, and for this they will seem easier. Maybe the hard things that I hold so tightly will not seem quite so hard anymore.

The littlest boy, equally brave yesterday as was his big brother Elliott some twenty-seven years ago, kept his bandaid carefully in place “in case his arm might hurt.” At some point this evening, he was ready to take it off. He asked for my help, because he was worried that it might hurt. As I stripped the superhero bandage from his tiny arm, I knew that then that the true healing could begin.

For my big kids, most of whom have historically cooperated with their vaccines, thanks for seeing me as more than I am, and for believing that I am worthy of your company. I will be ready when you find your way home.

Here is the link to Helene’s writing which inspired my blog post:

https://grownandflown.com/exhausted-moms-these-days/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow&fbclid=IwAR2wA_N9PJrFQlWZ56xBkvb4ahgk3KBBQziGbtsP16UYmF-_I6E3xZ4gUcE

re: Peaches

As we pulled up the long drive to my friend’s house, we were greeted enthusiastically by a little girl, the picture of sunshine, wielding a squirt gun and pulling the trigger as she announced that she was giving our car a wash which, indeed she was. We had come to buy a few jars of honey. The elderberries had been harvested for the season, and I needed local honey to make this year’s supply of syrup. We left, escorted out by the sunshine girl, with our honey, and also with a gift of a jar of peaches that had been canned in honey. I loved the way the fruit reflected the amber and yellow hues of the honey inside the Mason jar. I could almost hear the pop of the jar’s unsealing as I imagined how liberating it would be to eat the jar’s contents entirely by myself.

We drove around the back of my friend’s house on the way home, peeking at some of the many, many hives that the family tends. I, too, aspire to be a beekeeper; I hope to harvest my own honey to use for elderberry syrup. For me, the learning curve is great, and so is the accompanying anxiety and self-doubt. I know, though, that’s just how I am.

As I have already spent hours worrying about my future bees, I worry, too, and incessantly, about my children. For those who have come to us through foster care, having already experienced loss, trauma, and a perhaps higher level of chaos than even we have going here, their burdens are great…so heavy for such small shoulders.

Our youngest boy, as with some others who have come before, saves his most challenging behaviors for home. Lately, we have been home a whole lot. The day’s circus act begins long before the time that he has to sign in to his chromebook for school. His teachers and classmates have seen him playing with blocks, doing flips, swinging, and leaving the scene. They have also seen some moments of clarity, when he has retrieved a “brown bear” during the treasured read-aloud, or when he has proudly shown his brother’s lizard for sharing time. When he decides he has had enough for the day, he is done. There is no going back to the screen; at least, I cannot get him there.

Everything that happens is from now on.

I was feeling defeated, sad for a boy who had been through a lot in his small life, and frustrated at the circumstances which are far beyond anyone’s control. When I shared these sentiments with a compassionate teacher, she assured me that we would be okay. I shouldn’t push him to participate, nor should I struggle with this. I should, she said, give myself some grace…which I did.

That made me think about the canned peaches. Once, I did eat an entire Mason jar of peaches, only they were canned in sugar syrup, not honey. They were a gift from a dear seventy-something-year-old coworker at the department store where I worked through high school and when I was home for college breaks. I worked in the “candy and stationery” department; she worked on the other side of the escalator in “china and silver.” When I had no customers, I would sometimes visit Eloise as she rearranged her place settings or unpacked fragile china cups. We shared stories and conversations; she blushed as she offered marital advice (way before that was a thing for me), and I told her of my plans to travel to England (where, she pointed out, many of the china patterns in her department had originated). When I actually did spend a college semester in London, Eloise presented me with a parting gift of garden peaches that she had canned herself. I knew I couldn’t take them on the airplane, though I did consider it, so I ate every last peach before I left.

The other students were settled in with their internships weeks before my position at a children’s hospital had begun. I was agitated, even surrounded by flea markets, eclectic restaurants, and expansive rose gardens, as I longed for my shifts to begin. Looking back, I wish I had been able to enjoy the freedom of idle hours rather than to carry the restless burden of something over which I had no control. Perhaps, too, I could have saved the peaches for when I returned home. But, I didn’t.

I want to be a helper. I want to mend things, to fix what doesn’t seem right. I want to get the jar open. I stood in front of the class of twenty starry-eyed prospective foster parents, designated as “teacher,” when I had so much to learn.

“It’s not about you,” I heard myself say, as I told stories of damaged rose bushes and overturned tables. I wanted to believe that. I still want to.

All your love was down in the frozen ground.

Recently, a therapist gave me permission. She gave me permission, and actually recommended, that I try to release myself from the situation; that I let my child own her own grief, and that I trust that she will work things out on her own when she is ready. So, I didn’t fix it. I had been trying for a few too many years. I would have continued, too, to try, likely to no avail. Rather, this therapist helped me find my place, which is merely walking alongside…not unlocking, but merely supporting as my child uses the key.

Maybe I will know when the time is right to indulge in the honey peaches. For now, I am just going to enjoy thinking about how it will sound when I open the jar.

It’s the sound of the unlocking and lift away. All your love will be safe with me.

*Song lyrics from re: Stacks by Bon Iver

Thank you, my friend, for the honey peaches.

Let Me Be Your Lesson

“Everything is either a blessing or a lesson.”

Who was it that said that, anyway? Maybe, some things can be both of those at the same time.

Perched on top of the hill at the edge of my grandparents’ property, my brother, my sister, and I spent strings of days looking out onto the St. Louis traffic, wondering who inhabited the curious round apartment tower building, talking about where we could hide Grandpa Gene’s cigarettes, and dreaming of getting a can of Faygo Redpop from the grocery store across the highway. I think my body still hurts from rolling down that grassy slope so often during my childhood. I wonder how many times I narrowly avoided my demise by slowing just before I rolled a little too far.

Grandpa Gene would offer me a dime to pick apples from the tree that stood perfectly in the middle of his backyard. He would sit on the glider swing, eyeing the birds splashing in their pristine concrete bath as he coached me.

“You missed one,” he would laugh, but he was not joking. The shiny-skinned, gold- green apples were plentiful, with leaves rhythmically fertilized and untainted. Grandpa would send me inside to collect my dime after his carefully-directed harvest was complete. The apples, though, didn’t taste very sweet. At least, I didn’t think so at the time.

Every so often, competing for space with the swirl of “to-do’s” and “how-can-I-possibly’s” in my brain, a thought presents itself. This time, it was “blueberry Toasties.” When we were lucky, our grandparents would take us to the Howard Johnson hotel diner. There, I would have a special breakfast of two little square corn cakes, stuffed with blueberries and slathered in butter. I would cut the bites as tiny as possible, so the Toasties, which somehow were crunchy but melted in my mouth at the same time, would last as long as possible. Toasties may have come in other flavors, but I had never wanted to even explore that possibility. At some point, Grandma Evie found blueberry Toasties in a box at the grocery store, so we didn’t even have to wait to go to the diner. Maybe that was when they stopped tasting so good. Then, I forgot about blueberry Toasties for nearly fifty years.

Our end-of-the line child, our runaway caboose, starts kindergarten this fall. Thirty years of catch-up projects and neglected home keeping chores will have to wait just a little bit longer, as this boy and his brothers will be home at the farm this fall. We never expected this. Nobody did. His voice might plead, “Let me be your lesson, Mama.”

Sometimes, I do hear voices. It is no secret that we are bound here by mental illness along with the foreboding threat of our world, but these voices come from within with an unmistakable fury. Maybe no one else hears them at first, but as with the insistent cry of a child in the dark of night, I must listen.

Some years ago, my brother and I were traveling by airplane. From somewhere in the air above the seats in the cabin, a gravelly voice simply stated, “p”. This was particularly curious, as sometimes I was called “P” by my brother or sister when they may have felt that two syllables were too much. More letters came from the elusive voice. The mystery was solved when we realized that the man in the seat ahead of us was playing “Scrabble” with his seat mate.

Through the years, voices have called us to adopt, to foster, to move to the country, to campaign to legalize medical cannabis for autism, to raise chickens, to start beehives, and, most recently, to make blueberry Toasties. The “goat” voice, I hope, will come soon. Sometimes, the message has been in the form of one of my children, a friend, a flower, a newspaper, a tree, or a bird. And sometimes, for certain, it has been that of God.

Our little orchard at the farm has grown. I believe we have seven apple trees now. Two years ago, we were delighted to spy the first apple on one of those trees, our Colonnade Flamenco. We watched it grow, all alone, and we shared its sweet goodness on harvest day. That was the one and only apple in the orchard, until this year. Dismayed by rust on the apple trees and determined to use natural methods to care for our homestead, I have not held much hope in filling my apple basket anytime soon. There are, though, three perfect baby apples growing on one of the young Golden Delicious trees now. The voice of the young apple, looking very much like those that grew on Grandpa Gene’s tree so many years ago, pleads: “Be patient. Don’t doubt yourself. Keep going. It’s going to be worth it.”

I wondered if somewhere in the world of Pinterest or Google, someone else had remembered Blueberry Toasties. Indeed, with a little pinch of this or that, the memory of my best childhood diner breakfast became a reality.

Here’s how I made them, if anyone wants to experience the nostalgia first hand:

Blueberry Toasties, adapted from “Nancy’s A Recipe A Day” blog

This time, the lesson was easy. Crisped to perfection, dripping with the combined intoxication of blueberries and butter, my breakfast advised, in a voice that was nearly audible, “Don’t forget. Don’t forget the little things that you once loved.”

Would Faygo Redpop be bad for my kids? We could always have it along with the apples once they ripen, to balance things out a bit. That would definitely be a blessing.

A Chicken Gets Her Wings

Love, young love,

I hope you are well.

At least we now both

Have a story to tell.

—Keaton Henson, “Sarah Minor”

I should have known by the way she spun in a circle as she moved among the pine shavings, even somersaulting as she crashed into the other chicks. Sometimes, she kept one eye closed.

Soon, she couldn’t stand up without tipping over. It turns out she was “stargazing”, looking skyward, for she had wry neck, a neurological condition perhaps due to a vitamin deficiency or an injury sustained during her travels to the farm.

If she had a fighting chance, we were going to give it to her. We held her tiny yellow body. We fed her electrolytes with a dropper. We positioned her in a little cup filled with soft pine shavings. We kept her warm.

Still, Sarah Minor made weak little peeps as she continued to look to the sky. She didn’t seem to be getting better.

Chickens already have wings, so getting to heaven would be easy. She wouldn’t need angel wings.

All of the little boy’s sadness came through the five-day old chicken whose stay here was short. His own life’s loss and grief came as tears for a lost soft feathered friend. There were other chickens in the flock, but none was Sarah Minor.

“I think I just felt her going to heaven,” said the boy.

Sarah Minor died.

We wrapped her lifeless body in a soft white cotton cloth embroidered with tiny white flowers.

We set her into the farm’s earth, tied up with all her little chicken hopes and chicken dreams. Sarah, we were so glad that you came. Even though your time here was short, we know you visited for a reason.

Sarah, I love you.

A Piece of Crap

I had a dream that I lost little Gabriel, only he was somehow also Moses. We were at a medical appointment at a hospital. He was with me in the lobby, and then he wasn’t. I heard his little voice cry out, “Mama”, but just once. I looked and looked, but I had lost him. At some point, I had left the hospital, without my little boy. I was the very apologetic backseat passenger in the vehicle of an athletic coach of some sort and his child. My eyes would not open, though I was awake. I knew I had to get back to the hospital; that was the only chance I had to find Gabriel. I thought of his sunny curls and of how frightened he must be. Why had no one called me? Who was taking care of him?

I have been dreaming hard lately, waking to remember only what I hope were the most unsettling parts of the midsummer nights’ reveries. If we dream our fears, I should be scared.

At two or three in the morning, when my mind’s chaos had quieted, I woke to a small, gravelly voice. “Piece of crap. You’re a piece of crap…” I waited, having learned through vast experience that little beings might return to sleep if the house remains otherwise quiet in the dark of night. Sometimes, though, they speak again.

“Chocolate milk…” came the same voice, an hour later, a bit more intentional this time, and coming from the mouth of a tiny boy standing one inch away from my head. I had two choices at that point: I could creak down the stairs on tired legs to pour a cup of chocolate milk, or I could forget about anyone in the house getting any rest at all until sunrise. He’s persistent, that little one.

“I hate you, Mom,” he said as he reached for the cup through the shadows of the bottom bunk. After a few swallows he handed me the cup and, thankfully, returned to sleep, or at least to quiet.

Two nights in a row, I had served chocolate milk when they should have been sleeping.

Two days in a row, I had been called “stupid” by two different children, both mine. I could have retorted that I graduated fourth in my high school class of three hundred nineteen, but they would have leveled me with some sort of remark that, indeed, proved their points, and that I also knew had absolutely nothing to do with me.

I wear a mask to keep others from catching the bad things that may come from within. I can’t keep the anger from coming from the mouths of my hurt children, nor would I want to do this. Curiously, though, the youngest here wear their virus masks like champs.

We painted at the kitchen table as we often do during these long days at home. Moses called his artwork “a piece of crap.” Perhaps he didn’t think it measured up to that of his older siblings. He didn’t seem comforted when I told him how beautiful I thought it was, nor does he seem comforted when I tell him how beautiful I think he is when he has declared himself a “stupid piece of crap.”

Sometimes I feel like I am losing little Moses, to the depths of chaos here at home, to the familiar yet unslayable beast of mental illness as his childhood spins out of control. We can’t cover it up with a mask or otherwise. We have good people, and we hope that we are doing the right thing.

I don’t know if I ever found little Gabriel in my dream; I am not sure if he was really lost or if he was just away for a time when I had no control, no way to know. And I have no idea who that athletic coach was or how I got in his van, by the way.

In the end, I believe Moses will be okay, too. I believe that we all will be. We have our masks to wear and our collective wrath to unleash. The uncertainty of the darkness through the long wakeful nights always yields to the sunrise, which reminds us of the greater rhythm. And for those up before the sun, there’s always chocolate milk to make it better. I can hear your voice.

I have been dreaming hard lately, waking to remember only what I hope were the most unsettling parts of the midsummer nights’ reveries. If we dream our fears, I should be scared.

Reflections from Ihm Home Farm

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” —Matthew 11:28

Many of you probably do not know that Dan Ihm, one of Hillcrest’s faithful musicians, even has a wife, as I have made it to church about five times in as many years…

Five years ago, Dan and I moved our family from a bungalow on a small lot in town to a farmette between DeKalb and Malta, where our roosters crow as they please and the chickens…and children…can range free. It has been a while now since an angry neighbor has come to our door with a bucket of balls that landed on his side of the fence at the hands of my boys.

The stories of the saints and angels of my Catholic childhood offered, for me, a way to see God at work through others. As I grew, the challenges of being among people often overwhelmed me, and, though I am a helper at heart, I chose small circles for interaction and found the greatest comfort in nature.

As a child who preferred holding the jump rope’s end while others took their turns at “Mary Mack”, I began finding contentment in solitude. I learned that God is in the garden. He’s in every nondescript sunrise, in the tiniest bud on the lowest branch of the wild rose bush, in the weakest pine seedling that stretches for its spot of afternoon sun. He is in the mountains, the streams and the skies. He’s also in the glorious hundred-year-old maple that provides us with an abundance of sap for maple syrup, in the robust clusters of grapes that delight all the farm inhabitants, and, for certain, in the cotton-candy-pink and creamsicle orange stripes of the most magical sunset.

Three or four years into our fostering journey, we committed to permanency for a little boy. At the time, we had no way to know the depths of the challenges that our family would face due to overwhelming chaos and fallout of mental illness and trauma, where a day’s end becomes a crossed finish line in a race where survival mode is constant.

God is with us as we watch our near-teenage son dissolve in his own emotions because he cannot understand why he has to do school work at home. He is with us as we intervene to hold him through his violent rage, which cannot be tempered through reason, which is understood only by God.

Continuing along a journey that has led to countless consults, therapies, medications, and physical and emotional struggles is exhausting. The farm, though, has offered the best medicine for the anger, the grief, and the unrest…in the form of water fights, dirt bike racing, cap gun battles with brothers…discovering the season’s first blueberry, and in peeking at a newborn chick that has just hatched under the warmth of a mother hen.

It was a rare occasion that I actually made it to church on a Sunday morning even before the virus ordered us home. In this time, the needs and overwhelming behaviors of our children have caused me to look more deeply at my place on this earth, and to experience God through the life around me, in the faces of grief and hope. I truly see God in my children.

Is this really God’s will? This has been an arduous journey. This isn’t what I expected. But, I remember God’s messengers that I learned about as a little girl. I remind myself that this is the hand of God, who is with us in our celebration, who is with us in our despair.

He is with us as the church benches are full on a Sunday morning, and He is with us in the darkness of our solitude, when we are alone, by shelter-at-home orders or by our own choosing.

In perfect honesty, I must say that “having” to stay home has been a bit of a relief for me. I know others may not see it as that, but in a way, it normalizes my isolation. Declined invitations from friends, fast food drive-thru or carry out dinners only, and staying home from church on Sunday; I no longer have reason for excuses.

The days are often hard. Looking back, though, I know that they are not as hard as they once were. Perhaps this is a time where it is clear that our constants are God and nature. We have been given rest, rest that we didn’t even know we needed.

“I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit.” —Leviticus 26:4

The sun is out now after a hard spring rain. The blooms here at the farm are ready to burst, and one of the hens is expecting two eggs to hatch in the upcoming days. Soon, my dear Dan will be playing live music at church once again. And one day, I hope to be able to join him.

—Written for Hillcrest Covenant Church, DeKalb, IL

Eyes

If our eyes are windows to our souls, the other features certainly help with interpretation.

The thoughts are higher, bigger, and more pervasive. There are questions in everything. Our world is different.

For some, it’s really the only world they know. A quandary in the world of child welfare is the often dumbfounding loyalty from a child to a parent who has hurt them, from a child who has suffered terrible things at the hands of those that they love best. This is not something that I could begin to understand until, through life experience, I could see it with my own eyes.

They loved, quite simply, because along with the hurt, there was also a lot of good. And that love, that good, carried them through the unthinkable. This life of hurt…and also of love…was what they knew.

I took my teenage daughter to the doctor for a routine physical last week. I was conscious of each door handle I touched, however hesitantly, and grateful that I hadn’t been asked to sign anything. Many times I reached for my hand sanitizer which I now carry in my purse.

Wearing twin masks that covered our noses and mouths, we walked the length of the clinic to the office of our longtime pediatrician, whose services we value even more in these days of uncertainty. A profound thought registered inside of me as I smiled at a young mother, also masked. I was unsure if she knew I smiled, though I am certain that the age lines at the corners of my eyes must have deepened. I really had no way of knowing if she returned my smile. Her glorious baby girl, perhaps six months old and the picture of happiness and joy, wearing a soft cotton floral dress and a matching headband, stood in her mother’s lap. The baby wore no mask, as they are not recommended for the youngest population. Her face was pure. There was no question that the baby was smiling, squealing, and showing the waiting patients her sparkly new teeth. Her bright eyes took in all there was to see. She looked to those around her, making eye contact and blowing raspberries.

No one, though, blew raspberries back to her. Not then.

The world outside that baby girl’s home is suddenly different from how her mother likely envisioned it would be. For me, and for my teenage daughter, it was a curious thing to see people out in public begin wearing masks. For this baby, for now, it will be what she knows, and how she sees most people.

She won’t see the facial expressions or smiles of passing strangers. Her interpretation of body language and communication in society will be different than mine. But it will be what she knows.

All my life, I have marveled at how those with sensory impairments navigate the world. My longtime friend works with children with visual impairments. She often shares stories of her small clients and the victories that they achieve and the ways that she supports them as they learn to grow within the world as they know and experience it. I have sat in homes of children and families that have learned to speak with their hands and to listen with their eyes. I am brought to my knees at the wonders of humankind.

Maybe I wear a mask when I am afraid to speak. Now, the mask may cover what I need to hear. The beautiful baby will learn to talk, communicate, and interpret language as she grows. There may, though be some differences from how babies learned before the world changed before us, and before we put on our masks.

I have lived through many hopeful experiences in the child welfare system, where things changed for a while. Hard things happened, and children were separated from their families. There was a period of time when things were different…confusing…sad…and where we all sometimes felt like covering our faces so that nobody would know that we were crying. Changes had to happen, and when they did, families were reunited. They were, though, forever changed by what they had been through.

To us, this time is unsettling. It seems we are missing out. That little baby, though, reminded me of all that we do have, even as we are forced to wear masks, masks which protect us from the unknown, masks which can keep all of us safe during this time of great uncertainty.

If I can’t see your smile, I hope to hear your laughter, and perhaps to feel your energy from six feet away.

“Without a noise, without my pride, I reach out from the inside.”

—Peter Gabriel, In Your Eyes

I Wish I Could Tell You

As a little girl, on my sick days from school, the best part of the day was the half hour when I could sit in my dad’s recliner in my pajamas and watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I found great comfort in staring at the trolley while it circled the neighborhood, where I could pass some of my time with this great man who had so much to show me. He always knew the right thing to say to make me feel better.

After nearly thirteen years of fostering, we surrendered our license, which was somehow at once sad and celebratory. During that tenure, one of the greatest challenges lay in trying to answer questions which were essentially unanswerable.

“When am I going home?”

“When can I see my mom?”

“Will I be staying here forever?”

As I, too, longed for answers to these questions, I knew it was my job to reassure, to be honest, to share what I knew could be understood, and, often impossibly, to comfort, even when the words I could provide were not what the children longed to hear.

When our license capacity had been and would be at the maximum for many years, when our final adoption was made official, and when the many needs of our family made the decision clear (well, maybe not to me…), it was time to close our doors to fostering.

It seemed, then, that the questions might stop.

They didn’t.

I know that the hard questions came from the birth families, too, who had loved and lost so much. At the judge’s decision, the life long grief is hardly an answer.

My children still wonder when they will see their birth parents, why they cannot be with their first families, if they had always been loved, and whether they will really be staying with us forever…because the formality of adoption, for many, is not enough to answer those questions.

The state of our recent days reminds me of the challenges of unanswerable questions.

“When is this dumb virus going to be over?”

“When can I see my friends? When can I ride dirt bikes with Ray (our revered family friend)?”

“When is baseball going to start?” (I am in on this one, too, for sure).

“When can we see the big kids? When can we go on an airplane to California?”

“Are we all going to die?”

Am I actually going to be able to help them through this? Because, really, I have no idea. No one does.

I guess I can try to apply the fostering philosophy for handling these questions, too, and I will likely wind up feeling just as bewildered in my inability to really give them what they need.

The truth is that we don’t know what we need. No one does. I wonder if we ever will again, or if we ever even did. If only Mr. Rogers was still here…

As my children are tucked safely in their beds each night, the stars shining high over the forest, in this home where they will be welcomed forever, I can’t help but think of those who, even in this period of great uncertainty, have even bigger questions. Those youth in care and those who have just aged out of the system have the same unanswerable questions that I have heard many times, only now there are harder and more uncertain, even more foreboding questions. An uncertain future in an uncertain world is just too much to bear…and far too much to bear alone, wondering.

In the night, the claps of thunder shook me awake, but then I heard the rumble of the train in the distance, in quiet competition with a soft, steady rain that carried on through most of today.

The wisdom of Mr. Rogers advises us to “look for the helpers”. These days, certainly, they are not hard to find.

I wonder, really, how best to be a helper in these overwhelming, often lonely times. Maybe just doing our best to listen to those questions and worries, maybe just being there, is being a helper. After all, we can’t really go anywhere…

Once the rain had passed, it really was a beautiful day in the neighborhood.